GUATEMALA CITY-In February the head of Guatemala's elite anti-crime unit and three of his officers seized three Salvadoran legislators who were in Guatemala as delegates to the Central American Parliament. They drove the legislators to a country road. Using assault rifles, they shot and killed them.
The four Guatemalans, arrested, claimed unconvincingly that they thought the Salvadorans were drug dealers. Then, three days after the arrest, someone slit the throats of the four in their jail cells. Guatemalan drug dealers, authorities now maintain, masterminded the whole affair.
This murder-a grisly display of drug cartelism's power in a land where government officials are for hire-has become a national scandal, yet Guatemalans admit it's more out of revulsion than surprise. "We were shocked by the brutality of the killings," said Guatemala's vice president, Eduard Stein, "but it was really no surprise to us that organized crime has infiltrated the government."
Mystery and intrigue still cloud the incident. One of the three Salvadorans was the son of well-known right-wing leader Roberto D'Aubuisson, who long had a price on his head for purportedly running Salvadoran death squads in the 1980s. Rumors have spread that the three men had ducked away to pay debts owed to the drug cartel. Others allege Mafia involvement.
But it is certain that this reminder of Guatemala's saleable allegiances distresses its citizenry and rankles anti-drug officials in the United States. According to U.S. government estimates, Guatemala-a small country that shares Mexico's southern border-is the country of origin for up to 75 percent of all cocaine that enters the United States, a total of nearly 800 tons.
Guatemalans have had to come to grips with another worrisome fact: No one is immune from being swept up in drug trade, whether as a trafficker or an unfortunate victim. Among those involved: poor farmers, fishermen, and a small-town mayor who exported more than a ton of cocaine to New York City each day. Then up the chain of command: the former chief of Guatemala's anti-drug police force, Adán Castillo, and his deputy, sentenced to 10 years in a U.S. prison for conspiring to distribute cocaine after the Drug Enforcement Administration managed to lure them into the United States in 2005.
As part of the crackdown that ensued, Castillo's agents-all 400 of them-took drug and lie detector tests. Only 50 members of this elite anti-drug force, formed in 2003, passed. Its precursor, which the U.S. government helped establish, called the Department of Anti-Narcotics Operations, disbanded in 2002 after revelations that three of its four chief officers had trafficked in or stolen cocaine as well as shot civilians.
Until this March, Guatemala for over a decade hadn't allowed the extradition of anyone wanted in the United States on drug-trafficking charges unless wanted for an even worse crime, such as murder. The no-extradition tradition began in 1994 when Epaminondas González Dubón, a chief justice who had allowed an extradition to the United States for drug-trafficking charges, was assassinated in front of his family.
Washington has long grumbled about Guatemalan indifference; Otto Reich, assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere at the time, testified at a congressional hearing in 2002 that "large amounts of cocaine are being transshipped through Guatemala with almost complete impunity. Few high-level figures are ever charged or even formally investigated for corruption, and fewer go to trial."
The Bush administration has revoked the visas of Guatemalan politicians suspected of illicit activity, lured into the United States drug lords, and denied federal aid and military training-all in hopes of persuading Guatemala to enforce its drug laws and police its own. But lax drug enforcement continues, even though it makes the country dangerous and hurts the economy. "What makes Guatemala an appealing route for drug trafficking is simple. It is easy to corrupt our local officials," says José Cofiño, an economics professor at the University of Francisco Marroquín in Guatemala City. Jorge Cisneros, 42, a Guatemala City businessman, adds, "The traffickers, the government-there is no difference anymore."
In the 1990s, Héctor Casasola lived and worked, like many Guatemalan campesinos, on a sprawling cotton farm in the south. The land, thick with growth if left wild, was a panorama of rolling hamlets and palatial ranch houses, each signaling the start of a new finca, or farm-"cotton and coffee as far as you could see." These were the weekend getaways and side investments of the rich. Most had airstrips installed so they could fly in and out at their leisure.
Then, as Casasola remembers, a recurrent noise began late at night: the sound of low-flying planes. It soon became common knowledge that the drug cartels paid the finca owners to use their runways clandestinely, allowing them to evade suspicion as well as detection by radar from La Aurora International Airport. He says the planes would touch down and crews would offload bags of cocaine, taking them to safe houses. (In 2005 U.S. intelligence uncovered via satellite an "airplane graveyard" in the Petén jungle where traffickers dumped small aircraft after using them to bring cocaine up from South America.)
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