New Guatemala leader orders military to join drug war

January 16, 2012

GUATEMALA CITY – President Otto Pérez Molina on Sunday ordered Guatemala’s army to join the fight against drug cartels and organized crime, a day after taking office with a promise to restore order in the violence-wracked country. Pérez, a retired general, instructed the army to “collaborate, coordinate, cooperate with the other institutions responsible for security in the country, to interdict foreign threats and help neutralize illegal armed groups.”

In a speech to the armed forces, he said military power should be used “to recover and maintain control over air, sea and land, conducting inter-institutional support operations.”

Pérez, 61, is the first military man to assume Guatemala’s presidency in 25 years when the armed forces turned over power to civilians after a long and brutal civil war.

The political violence common during the civil war has given way in recent years to a wave of drug-related violence, as cartels have turned vast areas of the country into fiefdoms for their cocaine smuggling operations.

According to official statistics, there are an average 16 assassinations a day in Guatemala, which has one of the highest murder rates in the world at 38 per 100,000.

Los Zetas, a Mexican drug gang notorious for its violence, is believed to be particularly active here, with officials blaming it for 40 percent of the killings in the country.

Pérez campaigned on a promise to confront the cartels head on, deploying the Guatemalan military against them, much as Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon has in his country, with mixed success.

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