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Cocaine central

"Cocaine central" Continued...

Issue: "When the base cracks," July 21, 2007

Recently, traffickers have found easy, profitable routes by land through Guatemala to Mexico, then to the United States. In theory, they risk apprehension at as many as five borders if they're moving along the Pan-American Highway, but in reality the risk is slim. The State Department says heroin and cocaine usually leave Colombia for Panama or Nicaragua by boat or plane: Nicaragua's hidden bays have become hotspots for boats because the country's undersized navy can only patrol its coastline for 12 days each month. The drugs then enter Guatemala by bus or truck on the Pan-American Highway bound for Mexico and, ultimately, the United States.

Guatemalan President Óscar Berger, by and large a Bush administration ally, took office three years ago promising to replace his predecessor Alfonso Portillo's policies. (Portillo's lackadaisical approach to drug trafficking prompted Washington to drop Guatemala from its list of anti-narcotics allies.) Still there has been some deliberation about whether Berger, who railed against Portillo's inaction, can make good on his promises: Confiscations of cocaine have fallen sharply since Berger's inauguration-from 9 tons in 2003 and 4 in 2004 to a meager 620 pounds this past year.

Berger contends, plainly, that seizures aren't a good measure of Guatemala's anti-drug efforts because traffickers notoriously and successfully bribe authorities with money and drugs. In March he pleaded with President George W. Bush, in Guatemala on his Latin American tour, for more planes and radar equipment to locate secret drug shipments. Berger says there are too few Guatemalan planes and helicopters to do much good in physically chasing down traffickers.

The Bush administration blames Venezuela and Bolivia "for lacking the political will to combat drug traffickers," Frank Smyth recently wrote in The Nation, but "has said little or nothing about the lack of political will to combat drug traffickers on the rightist side of the political spectrum in Colombia and, especially, Guatemala." Which disheartens people like DEA chief of operations Michael Braun, who predicts that Guatemalan drug traffickers will remain the middlemen, providing fixes to Americans "for the foreseeable future," as the booming industry seeps into new parts of Central America.

Bush officials don't deny the accuracy of Braun's assessment, but they do dispute Smyth's claim. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack says the administration is applying pressure to the Berger regime and other right-leaning governments in the drug war; it continues to push Guatemala on the International Committee against Impunity in Guatemala, a program to purge the government of its entrenched organized crime, thereby diminishing the cartels' power.

The Bush administration needs Central American cooperation. Meanwhile, nothing is slowing the cartels' bombardment. U.S. officials have grown flummoxed trying to figure out where to bring down the axe on this Hydra-the porous border, the nexus of growers, somewhere in between? Guatemalans like Héctor Casasola are cynical about the prospect of real progress: "I'm not saving my breath." Neither, it appears, are the cartels. c

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