Governance in Guatemala Increasingly Threatened by Organized Crime

(Power and Interest News Report, 19/10/2007)


Many Guatemalans hoped that general elections in early September would replace the current president, Oscar Berger, with a reformist leader, but a string of murders quickly doused any reason to believe that a new leader would bring peace to Guatemala. Now, just weeks ahead of a run-off election on November 4, it has become clear that no matter who wins, Guatemala will likely descend deeper into the reality of drug trafficking, organized crime, corruption, and extra-judicial killing that has led observers to consider this Central American country the region's next Colombia.


Jose Davila, director of the non-partisan group Election Watch, told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that in Guatemala "what's in question is whether democracy is going to work or not." His group listed 49 politically motivated killings during campaigning, with another 58 wounded, threatened, or kidnapped.


One candidate, Otto Perez Molina, is a former military intelligence officer. His politics reflect the desire of a large number of middle and upper class Guatemalans who believe the country can only be saved with tighter security. Tighter security under his leadership and his political party, Partido Patriota (P.P.), will likely lead to direct confrontation between the government and street gangs, allowing organized crime to move unobstructed, or at least divide the government between fighting two formidable groups.


Perez's opponent, Alvaro Colom, is head of the Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (U.N.E.) and believes that Guatemala needs progressive reform to stimulate economic growth, thereby reducing poverty and thus violence. Colom constantly travels with a heavily armed escort. His party's close ties to organized criminals and his recent move to expel many of these criminals from his party has made him a target for numerous death threats made to remind him of promises he made in the past that are expected to be kept if he wins the presidency.


According to a poll released on October 12, Colom trails Perez by eight points. With the November 4 elections just weeks away, it remains unclear which man will win but Perez does seem to have the momentum.


Both men have distinctly different political platforms, yet it has become clear that organized criminal elements in Guatemala are well placed to place political pressure on Colom or take advantage of Perez's potential focus on street gangs. Any top-down change the new president tries to install in his best effort to free the Central American country from the grip of violence may or may not lead to more violence, but it is likely that organized crime will thrive either way making Guatemala an increasingly difficult country to run vis-à-vis the strength of democratic institutions and the rule of law.


Geography works against them. Squeezed between two oceans and Central and North America, Guatemala is the perfect transit zone for the hundreds of tons of cocaine that annually pass through Mexico into the United States. History works against them. After years of civil war, Guatemala is littered with guns that feed into a culture of violence. Corruption works against them. Transparency International rated Guatemala 111 out of 179 countries with a score of 2.8 out of 10, signaling perceptions of deeply rooted corruption. Yet, more than geography, history, or corruption, recent assassinations are proof enough that both men will be able to do little to stop the organized criminals that continues to hold the country hostage.


On October 8, the secretary for the Partido Patriota, Aura Salazar, was killed along with a bodyguard in the center of Guatemala City. Perez quickly blamed his rival, saying that it was yet more proof that Colom is closely associated with organized crime. It is not likely that Colom himself has made a deal with criminal elements, but members of his U.N.E. party certainly have. The resulting lack of party discipline has allowed political space for legislators and mayors associated with organized crime to thrive.


Considered a center-left party, the U.N.E. stood against a free trade agreement with the United States, but when it came time to vote, many party members voted in favor of the agreement. In August, when the Guatemalan Congress voted on the creation of the International Commission Against Impunity (C.I.C.I.G.), Colom's party was largely in favor of the measure, yet at least two party members broke rank and voted against the popular measure. The first event was a sign of poor organization, but the defection again raised old suspicions that at least some members of the U.N.E. maintain close ties with organized crime.


Such ties were fastened in 2003 during Colom's last bid for president against Oscar Berger. Desperate for funds to maintain a strong campaign across the country, the U.N.E. opened its doors to questionable sources of funding. Such links across U.N.E.'s broad network surfaced again in the run-up to the September 9 general elections. Colom's party suffered the most direct attacks from May to September, losing at least 18 candidates and party activists. Observers suggested that some of the U.N.E.'s 2003 financial backers organized the murders to remind Colom that he has promises to keep. Days after the secretary of Perez's political party was killed, the secretary of Colom's party resigned due to numerous death threats.


Jose Carlos Marroquin, director of strategy for U.N.E., told the U.K. daily The Sunday Telegraph in August that his own life was threatened by organized crime after he forced out a senior member of the U.N.E. in an attempt to clear members of organized crime from the party's ranks. "I can tell you that at the presidential level we are clean," he told the Telegraph , adding, "But can I assure you that everyone running for mayor for the U.N.E. is clean? No, I cannot." Mayors, Marroquin said, are coveted positions for organized criminals because at that level individuals control the local police and any local official in a position to report illegal activity to the state or federal level.


One such mayor, Manuel de Jesus Castillo Medrano, exemplifies how organized crime has taken over a city and the surrounding area. His expulsion from Colom's U.N.E. party signaled close association with Guatemala's criminal underworld, but it apparently had little effect on his campaign. Castillo was elected mayor of Jutiapa, a small town located near the border with El Salvador and the Pacific coast, an ideal geographic location for organized crime.


Castillo's criminal enterprise extends from stolen cars and human smuggling to drug trafficking, extortion, and fraud. He is wanted for murder in Los Angeles, California. In 2000, Castillo was tied to the delivery of a shipment of Colombian cocaine that when it landed was received by Castillo, his brother Carlos Enrique, and a group of men armed with AR-15 assault rifles. At that time, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (D.E.A.) along with its Guatemalan counterpart, the Department of Anti-Narcotics Operations (D.O.A.N.), began tracking his movements.


The D.O.A.N. warned in 2002 that Castillo was gaining ground in Guatemalan drug trafficking, likely the reason why he ran and won a congressional seat with the U.N.E. in 2003, gaining immunity. Finally, in early 2007, the Guatemalan national police tied Castillo to the assassination of three El Salvadorian politicians, organized by corrupt policemen who were killed only hours after they were incarcerated. The D.O.A.N. has listed 307 phone calls made between Castillo and the assassins before the attack on the El Salvadorian politicians. This event alone has led to a watershed investigation of corruption in the Guatemalan National Police. Dozens of officers have been fired, and two National Police chiefs have resigned since March 2007.


There are currently investigations into Castillo's various businesses, and his political rivals seek to have his immunity as mayor revoked. One rival, Bacilio Cordero, who ran against Castillo for the mayor position in Jutiapa, has already received numerous death threats. Cordero travels everywhere with at least 15 armed men and claims that Castillo himself has called with threats. As Castillo is known to maintain close contact with a number of National Police officers who moonlight as members of death squads, his threats are not taken lightly.


Castillo represents just one of likely dozens of mayors and low-level political leaders throughout Guatemala that have direct ties to Drug Trafficking Organizations (D.T.O.s) in both Colombia and Mexico, and handle a cadre of men who are happy to work as off-duty assassins.


During an interview before the September 9 elections, presidential hopeful Otto Perez Molina told Guatemalan press that "if we don't have a strong state, if we don't have a government that is willing to confront these problems, Guatemala is at risk of becoming a failed state or converting into a narco-state." He added that pre-election violence has only further proven his point that the next government must have a strong hand and impose security. His campaign slogan, not surprisingly, is "mano dura," loosely translated as "iron fist."


Yet, many blame mano dura policies for increased violence in Guatemala and other Central American countries, such as Honduras and El Salvador, where the same politics have preceded spikes in violence, especially between street gangs and the national police. Corruption and impunity within the national police ranks led to a rise in extra judicial killings, which in turn led to more violent attacks from street gangs. Guatemala, with thousands of street gang members, particularly the infamous Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Mara Diesiocho (M-18) gangs, is likely to fall into the same pattern of violence as her neighbors, with one significant difference.


By taking the fight to the day to day problems with insecurity in Guatemala, Perez Molina would effectively begin a low intensity war with street gangs, focusing his efforts on controlling this rowdy bunch. Yet this focus indirectly favors organized crime. Perez Molina claims he will work to fight organized crime, but the reality is Guatemala's street gangs, a very small slice of the drug trafficking networks in the country, would bog him down. It is also possible that having to choose between organized crime and street gangs, Perez would pick the easier target. He knows well the power and reach of organized crime in Guatemala.


Perez does maintain close contacts with his old colleagues in military intelligence and was even part of a group known as "los lobos," or "the wolves," credited with the first capture of "El Chapo" Guzman, currently considered the leader of the Mexican D.T.O. known as the Sinaloa Federation. Yet, it remains unclear if he and the Guatemalan state are able to combat such a formidable force, one that has given Mexican President Felipe Calderon cause for worry. Already, one of Perez's close associates, a man considered Guatemala's top intelligence officer, has been assassinated. Lt. Coronel Giovanni Pacay was shot in the gut and bled to a painful death on September 28. Pacay's association with Perez had led some in the Guatemala military to consider that those who killed Pacay did so to send Perez a message.


One former candidate, Hector Montenegro, saw his campaign crumble after his teenage daughter was killed. "This country needs a social and political cleansing," he told reporters before the election, adding, "Hopefully we can stop this endless violence." Hope, it seems, has been split between two men who offer little promise for the cleansing necessary to stop the violence.


Organized crime seems to be the only real winner of the upcoming Guatemalan presidential run-off elections. Reminiscent of the 2002 congressional elections in Colombia, a significant percentage of this year's incoming legislators in Guatemala are likely tied to organized crime, if not directly involved. Like the paramilitaries in Colombia, organized crime in Guatemala has used a combination of deft political maneuvering and brisk assassinations to assure it controls the richest real estate in Central America. Growing in strength, criminal factions in Guatemala may soon move on to consolidate their power and challenge the Colombians and Mexicans for a greater share of the drug trade profits.


It is a future that does not bode well for the next president or the men and women living under his leadership. When drug traffickers transformed Colombia into a violent country, driven by the sale of cocaine to external markets, the South American country became an infamous model for how the drug trade can destroy democracy and the rule of law. With this most recent round of elections, the "Colombianization" of Guatemala looks to be set, and it is likely that many years will pass before the country can pull itself out of a tailspin of random violence and economic malaise.