San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

For Guatemalan officials, a new menace: meth

GUATEMALA CITY – On the morning of April 17, four men – three Mexicans and a Guatemalan who were riding in a dump truck – pulled over for a roadside police check. Stashed below the truck’s haul of garbage, officers found a large metal vat, gas burners, propane tanks, aluminum foil and five-gallon jugs filled with chemicals.

The arrest of the four men on charges of possessing a mobile methamphetamines lab points to a new challenge for Guatemalan authorities: the rise of local methamphetamine production.

For years, Guatemala has been considered a transit country for drugs trafficked north to the United States. But the country’s porous borders and a weak police force have made Guatemala an increasingly attractive site for production of synthetic drugs, including meth.

Seizures of precursor chemicals in the last two years indicate the problem is immense. Already in 2012, Guatemalan police have confiscated more than 150 tons of restricted chemicals that could be used in methamphetamine production, and tons of chemicals wait in ports to be processed by government forensic scientists. 

Last year, authorities seized 1,600 tons of chemical precursors, more than their Mexican counterparts, the Associated Press reported. 

While control at Guatemalan ports is improving, investigators suspect that an alarming amount of chemicals has already been shipped to the country’s interior.

Guatemalan law makes it difficult to import precursor chemicals for meth, including methylamine and phenylacetic acid, which require Health Ministry permits and have a limit of 80 barrels per year. Only four companies in Guatemala have the permits.

A prosecutor from the Attorney General’s Office, who asked The Tico Times not to publish her name because of the sensitivity of ongoing investigations, said that chemicals used in meth production pass through ports undetected because traffickers use fictitious bills of lading and phony company documents.

The prosecutor also blamed corruption among local port and customs authorities, and a lack of transparency in China, where many of the chemical shipments originate. 

On April 1, authorities discovered 320 barrels of monomethylamine at Santo Tomás Castilla Port, a Caribbean port city in the eastern department of Izabal, aboard a ship arriving from Shenzhen via Shanghai. The ship’s destination was Honduras, which has weaker chemical restrictions than Guatemala. 

But authorities have had little success investigating the chemicals’ origins, as Guatemala has no diplomatic ties with China.

It has become clear that some tax and port officials are complicit in the illegal shipments, according to the prosecutor. 

Sergio Carbrera, captain of the National Police’s Anti-Narcotics Division, said he is more concerned with the country’s porous borders than its ports. “[Traffickers] ship chemicals into Honduras, then across the border into Guatemala,” he said. 

Meanwhile, determining the size and scope of Guatemala’s meth production is difficult. Suppliers, producers and traffickers are largely unknown, and authorities have dismantled only two labs so far this year. 

Arrests in 2012 suggest an involvement of Mexican drug cartels in the trade, but prosecutors lack evidence to make a direct link.

Public security analyst Edgar Gutiérrez said Guatemala’s meth operations might be managed by local organizations, given the ability to produce the illicit drug with limited technology. It also adds another problem for law enforcement as they battle the growth of drug traffickers in the country. 

“[Methamphetamine] production complicates the problem [of fighting drug traffickers] and strengthens ties with Asian mafias, who increasingly are becoming part of the local landscape,” Gutiérrez said.

Destroying the $15 million worth of seized chemicals is also difficult for authorities, who lack the resources to dispose of them. At two ports, police and security cameras monitor more than 100 containers filled with barrels of chemicals. At an army base, 1,116 additional barrels await destruction. Officials fear that criminals will try to steal them.

A team tasked with investigating cases of meth precursor chemicals consists of only six prosecutors and was formed last January. Additionally, Guatemala only has 500 anti-narcotics officers, who are paid $600 a month. Cabrera said they need training to deal with dangerous chemicals. Their low monthly salaries also make them vulnerable to bribes from drug traffickers, who have significant financial resources at their disposal.

In response, the Guatemalan government is appealing to the U.S. for more funding, assistance and training.

The Guatemalan Army also will aid police in patrolling the border, to curb the flow of illegal chemicals and drugs. A new army task force is schedule to hit the ground in July.

While it is clear from statements by government officials that Guatemala hopes to avoid the type of militarization implemented in Mexico since 2006 by Felipe Calderón’s administration, Guatemalan Col. Rony Urízar acknowledged that, “until there is reform and expansion of the National Police, army participation is necessary.” 

The task force will deploy 200 soldiers to strategic outposts along the border, many of which were abandoned years ago.

But some countries in the region are calling for a discussion of “drug war” alternatives, including decriminalization of illicit drugs – a major policy shift promoted in recent months by President Otto Pérez Molina and rejected by the U.S. (TT, April 20, March 30, March 23, March 16, March 9, March 2).

Although the U.S. announced $130 million in security aid for the region at the recent Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, Guatemalan officials admit they face a daunting task in dismantling the spider web of local meth production and drug trafficking networks.

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