San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Colom: Guatemala hits cartels where ‘it hurts the most’

GUATEMALA CITY – Guatemala is now hitting drug traffickers “there where it hurts the most, in the wallet,” President Álvaro
Colom told AFP in an exclusive interview Wednesday.

Five weeks before presidential elections – and after Colom’s wife filed for divorce in order to stand – Colom lauded his own record in clamping down on drug gangs in the Central American nation.

“In the eight years before I took power, authorities seized around 1.1 billion dollars (from drug traffickers). In the three and a half years (of my mandate), we seized almost 12 billion dollars in goods, drugs and cash,” Colom said.

Guatemala stepped up a military clampdown on drug traffickers after 27 farm workers were found decapitated in its northern Petén department last May in a crime blamed on Mexico’s Zetas drug gang.

But the government has also sought to weaken the structures of the powerful multi-national drug cartels operating on its territory.

The slim, bespectacled president pointed out the unequal nature of the battle – 12 billion dollars represents almost two years of the state budget, he said.

Colom aims to counter their power with a new law that allows for the confiscation of goods bought by traffickers with drug money.

Guatemalan legislation is now “more severe than that of Colombia or Mexico. We have copied them and we’ve improved what had to be improved,” Colom said.

The law “will have a double function: to hit there where it hurts the most, in the wallet, and to finance security and justice.”

Colom blamed drug trafficking for 42 percent of crimes committed in the notoriously poor and violent Central American nation where around 6,000 murders were recorded in 2010.

The nation is still overcoming devastation from a 36-year-long civil war, which ended in 1996 and pitted leftist insurgents against the U.S.-backed army.

Colom underlined the responsibility of others in the rising drug violence: from multi-national pharmaceutical companies, which sell chemical products to traffickers to the United States, the origin of most of the guns used by drug traffickers.

“When I hear (Mexican) President (Felipe) Calderon say that they seized 125,000 weapons and that 85 percent come from weapons shops on the (U.S.) border, I think that there’s a lot of work to do on the U.S. side,” Colom said.

Colom is unable to stand for a second term in general elections on September 11 under Guatemalan law.

His wife, Sandra Torres, filed for divorce to overcome a constitutional ban on close relatives of the president running for the job. But her candidacy has been challenged for breaking the law and is currently under appeal.

Torres faces retired right-wing general Otto Perez, who has a significant lead in opinion polls.

During a visit to Mexico at the end of July, Colom warned drug traffickers were a serious threat to the elections.

Drug gangs “will try to recover their influence at a local level, in parliament, in the presidency, at all levels,” Colom told Mexico’s La Jornada daily.

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