Guatemala: Possible "Colombianization"

(International Relations and Security Network, 13/10/2006)


Editor's note: This is the fourth in a series of in-depth stories on drug smuggling in the Americas. Each piece will focus on a specific city and the surrounding region, beginning with Buenaventura, Colombia and moving north through Central America and Mexico, to conclude with Washington, DC.


Lush green mountains and volcanoes decorate the western Guatemalan province of San Marcos. The slopes of the mountains are remote and difficult to access. The terrain is perfect for drug smugglers seeking to shorten supply chains from the farm gate to the street. Over the past few years, they have planted some 1,800 hectares of poppy flowers to harvest the black opium tar used to produce heroine. The mountains of San Marcos, compared to the high slopes where poppies are grown in Colombia, are much closer to Mexico.


Guatemala ranks number six among the world’s countries that cultivate poppy flowers for the heroine trade, according to the US Embassy in Guatemala. Farmers in the San Marcos providence normally earn some US$350 a month. Once they begin to grow poppies, this number grows exponentially to some US$6,000 a month, according to Guatemalan anti-narcotics officials.


On 29 August, Guatemalan President Oscar Berger announced a 15-day state of emergency in five municipalities surrounding the city of San Marcos. During this period, US authorities accompanied Guatemalan anti-narcotic authorities in a hunt for poppy flowers. Five days later, on 2 September, the Chief of Guatemala’s National Police, Henry Lopez, told reporters they had eradicated 15 million poppy plants and confiscated two kilos of cocaine, three kilos of marijuana and a cache of high-powered weapons. He expected their efforts would eventually net as much as 25 million poppy plants.


This operation is a resounding success in Guatemala. But growing numbers of interdictions, evidence of clandestine landing strips, cases involving corruption in the national police and former military soldiers finding work with Mexican organized crime, have led many observers to look upon narco-trafficking in Guatemala as a process of “Colombianization.”


San Marcos is at the center of what many consider a slow but steady transformation of a beautiful country into another battle field in the region’s so-called war on drugs.


A worrisome case of corruption


Within the San Marcos province, 61 percent of the 880,000 inhabitants live in extreme poverty. Limited economic options in Guatemala, as in other Central American countries, entice poor farmers to look elsewhere for work.


Every link downstream of the farm gate adds a multiplier to potential earnings. Invariably, cops and soldiers seize the opportunity for easy money earned by protecting shipments of cocaine and heroine through Guatemala to Mexico.


Adan Castillo and Jorge Aguilar met with undercover Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents in late 2005 and agreed to provide protection for cocaine shipments from Guatemala to the US in exchange for a down payment of US$25,000.


At the time, Castillo was the chief of the Guatemalan anti-narcotics section of the National Police. Aguilar was the second in command.


So it was reasonable for Castillo and Aguilar to accept an official invitation from the DEA to attend an anti-narcotics training program in the US. Once the two arrived in the US on 15 November, they were immediately taken into custody. On 8 September of this year, both men pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges. They will be sentenced on 17 November.


Retired soldiers find new work


In an unrelated event, the Guatemalan army announced on 13 September that two of the three Guatemalans arrested earlier that month on suspicion of links to the drug trade were former members of the country's armed forces. Mexican authorities arrested the men along with two Mexicans in Apatzingan, some 350 kilometers west of Mexico City. A large cache of weapons was found in their possession.


The Guatemalans confessed that they had been hired by a group to conduct “training” in Apatzingan and other areas of western Mexico.


According to Mexico’s attorney general, Mexican drug trafficking organizations offer to pay trained men between US$500 and US$1,000 a month, depending on their skill levels, to kill members of rival organizations.


Guatemalan Defense Minister General Francisco Bermudez confirmed that the two former soldiers had been released in 1999, but said they had never been members of the Guatemalan elite special forces group, Kaibiles.


His mention of the Kaibiles was carefully placed. Mexican authorities have made public on various occasions their belief that former members of the Guatemalan special forces have joined with Los Zetas - a group of assassins and former Mexican elite soldiers that now form a controlling faction within Mexico’s Gulf Cartel.


“The Zetas are recruiting former Kaibiles, and other Guatemalans who were in the military,” a former Mexican security official told ISN Security Watch on condition of anonymity.


He also noted observations of a rise in Central American gang activity in Mexican organized crime. Many of the gang members working in Mexico come from Guatemala.


“Information from intelligence and law enforcement sources indicates an upward trend of gang involvement with Mexican drug trafficking organizations,” Jose Ruiz, spokesman for US Southern Command, told ISN Security Watch. “The services they provide for these organizations include money laundering, security, drug running and contract killings.”


But the links between Kaibiles and Los Zetas appear to be stronger.


Some reports claim that former members of the Kaibiles have links with members of Los Zetas because years ago these men trained together, when they were members of the armed forces in Mexico and Guatemala.


Battles over turf and control of the drug trade in Mexico have created a demand for military skills, including surveillance, counter-surveillance, weapons expertise, marksmanship and tactical know-how. Former members of the Guatemalan armed forces enter a civilian life where options for employment are limited. Like the farmers in San Marcos, they are economic actors seeking the highest pay for their skill set. So they become part of the procurement chain that moves drugs north from Colombia.


In the case of the two cops who will face sentencing later this year, greed is a clear motive. In the case of the farmers and soldiers, the reality is likely something much closer to making a decision to survive in a country plagued by deeply rooted poverty.


The graveyard


Northeast of San Marcos the mountains give way to tropical jungle low lands in the province of Peten. This section of Guatemala borders Belize on the east and the Mexican state of Chiapas on the west. It is sparsely populated and, at one time, was full of landing options for pilots interested in staying off the radar.


In and around the Laguna de Tigre national park, some 15 kilometers from the Mexican border, Guatemalan and US units destroyed 80 clandestine landing strips and found a graveyard of small airplanes, destroyed and burned. The operation lasted for 142 days, ending on 27 April.


Mexican and Guatemalan drug traffickers paid locals to clear cut the forest and build the landing strips. The Guatemalan commander on the scene noted that for the duration of their time there, they did not spot a single plane.


The absence of clandestine air traffic in the region indicates that drug smugglers operate high-levels of intelligence gathering. It is not a stretch to consider they keep locals on the payroll as informants. The burned planes, each one costing tens of thousands of dollars, is an indication of how much traffickers in Guatemala are willing to absorb financially to ensure the delivery of one plane-load of cocaine.



The presence of poppy cultivation in Guatemala is most alarming, and perhaps the best evidence that supports arguments about the “Colombianization” of Guatemala.


Guatemala is the only Central American nation that can claim it is both a transit point and point of origin for regional drug trafficking.


“Guatemala is a complete mess when it comes to institutional issues, organized crime, and its influence on the state and state structure,” Joy Olson, executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America, told ISN Security Watch in a recent interview.


Not wanting to draw too many parallels between Colombia and Guatemala when talking about the “Colombianization” of Guatemala, Olson admitted she “wouldn’t want to minimalize the degree to which illegal activity is having a phenomenally negative effect on Guatemala.”


She is quick to point out that there are many differences between the two countries. Perhaps the term “Colombianization” is not fair. Guatemala does not have the added burden of a strong insurgency, nor does it benefit from billions of US tax payer dollars in military and economic aid.


The last stop before Mexico


Two of the region’s largest cocaine seizures happened in the first two weeks of October. One, in Nicaragua, registered 3.1 tons. The other, made by Costa Rican officials, registered 3.5 tons. Nearly 7 tons of cocaine interdicted in two weeks is a great victory for the region’s anti-drug warriors, but it underlines the fact that large shipments manage to make it through.


Peten represents the last Central American stop drugs make before entering Mexico. San Marcos is Central America’s only source of illicit crops. In both cases, proximity to a porous border facilitates smuggling.


The Mexican-Guatemalan border receives little media coverage, relative to the US-Mexico border, yet it sees a significant amount of clandestine drug, human and gun traffic. While Panamanians, Nicaraguans or Hondurans assist with the logistics of refueling go-fast boats, Guatemalans appear to be more involved.


Farmers in San Marcos grow poppies and sell the black opium tar directly into the black market. Guatemalan criminals receive cocaine and pass it along to the Mexicans in Peten, where others construct clandestine landing strips. Members of the national police accept dirty money to protect drug shipments, and former soldiers train Mexican killers.


Guatemala is the acute point where Central America makes the bridge between South American supply and North American demand for illegal drugs. Guatemalans complete the link essential to the drug trade that connects Colombia’s cocaine with Mexican buyers.


Guatemala may not be the next Colombia, but a review of the country’s involvement with regional drug trade should plant it squarely in any regional effort to stop narco-trafficking. Any seasoned drug war warrior would agree.