Guatemala: A Good Place for Murder

(International Relations and Security Network, 25/06/2007)


When Colombian police arrested Guatemalan drug trafficker Otto Roberto Herrera Garcia on 22 June, he offered each arresting officer US$700,000, according to the Associated Press. Similar bribes freed him from a southern Mexican prison in 2005, where he had languished for 13 months after landing in Mexico on a flight from Guatemala to visit his girlfriend.


At the time of his arrest in Mexico, Garcia was considered one of Guatemala's top drug smugglers. Using a transport company as a front for his business, Garcia ran an organization that specialized in linking Colombian drugs and Mexican smugglers.


Enterprising criminals like Garcia have profited hugely from Guatemala's geographical position, and it is their organizations and criminal activity that threaten the small Central American nation where a crime-free future is more of a political slogan than a reality.


Over 6,000 people were murdered in Guatemala in 2006. According to some reports, the country suffers from the presence of some 200,000 street gang members who work with organized crime as thugs for hire. The 22,000 member national police force is overwhelmed.


One in 10 Guatemalans have left the country, choosing to risk their lives on the immigrant trail to the US. Some of these immigrants are from the southern city of Cuidad de Sol, where on 15 June the interior minister led 500 soldiers to recapture the town from organized criminals. At least 80 abandoned houses were returned to families who had been forced to flee, according to local reports.


In a long-running operation, large cattle ranchers in the Peten area, in the northern part of the country, aid organized crime by building landing strips for clandestine flights from Colombia. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has known about these flights, which have been fundamental for smuggling Colombian cocaine into Mexico, for years. Yet the flights have not slowed largely due to the close cooperation between drug smugglers and the cattle ranchers, and the remoteness of the expansive rain forest in the Peten region.


The US Embassy in Guatemala recently stated that some 75 percent of all drugs that enter the US pass through the Central American country. Years of illicit wealth, corruption and impunity have helped transform the situation into one of uncontrollable crime and violence.


Frank LaRue, a UN official sent to Guatemala to help organize an international team to research impunity in the country, told the UK daily Financial Times in an 19 April article that organized crime "is taking over the country."


Crime and violence headline the national debate surrounding the upcoming presidential elections. Most agree that President Oscar Berger has had little success reigning in street gangs, specifically the Mara Salvatrucha and the Mara 18, but what's more worrying is the status of a largely dysfunctional justice system and clear cut connections between organized crime and the police.


When four policemen were arrested and imprisoned for their role in the 20 February assassination of three El Salvadorian politicians, the hit men admitted it was a job ordered by organized criminal bosses who run smuggling operations in both Guatemala and El Salvador. All four policemen were killed in their prison cells on 25 February before they could be called for more questioning.


The political fallout from the murders swept across many high-ranking officials. The interior minister and national police chief were both forced to resign. The director of Guatemala's prison system also resigned, and two members of Guatemala's Criminal Investigation Division have been tied to the crime.


Berger has appealed to Washington for help. In the past, special planes equipped with powerful radars were able to track flights of drug shipments. But these resources have been redirected to either Afghanistan or Iraq. Now, when Guatemalan authorities receive a lead on a drug shipment, they are powerless to intercept it. There are simply no resources to do so.


Not surprisingly, interdictions have fallen off sharply since 2004, according to the Associated Press. The death of the three El Salvadorian politicians and the subsequent political fallout revealed just how deep and wide corruption stretches in Guatemala. Impunity is the norm.


Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, perhaps explained the situation best in a report this year when he simply stated: "It's sad to say, [but] Guatemala is a good place in which to commit murder."


Guatemalans who choose to remain in their country will likely place renewed hope in the country's next president, but the chances he has of securing Guatemala are not promising.