Thursday, January 08, 2009

Drugs vs. Democracy in Guatemala

Drugs vs. Democracy in Guatemala

By Michael Deibert

World Policy Journal
Winter 2008/09, Vol. 25, No. 4, Pages 167-175

MORALES, GUATEMALA—With shops selling expensive leather saddles and men in cowboy hats strutting through its lanes, this town of 50,000 in Guatemala's eastern department of Izabal has long been the heartland of the country's cattle-raising and farming industries. Situated on a flat plain emptying out into the Caribbean Sea and crisscrossed by the meandering Rio Dulce, Morales has in recent years been the epicenter of a far more lethal trade. It has become ground zero for the country's increasingly violent role as a way station for cocaine bound from South America to feed ravenous appetites in the United States.

There are hints of this in aspects of daily life in Morales—from the visible Glock pistols and Uzi submachine guns sported by men descending from pick-up trucks and sport-utility vehicles with blacked-out windows, to the sprawling and curiously empty new luxury hotels, as well as a body count that usually numbers well over a dozen in the course of a single week.

"There has been a great increase in violence in the area in the last several months, which would suggest that a turf war was going on," says a priest who has been working in the region since the late 1980s but declined to be named for this article out of fear for his safety. "Weekends here are dangerous."

In March, Juan "Juancho" José León Ardón, a local man said to be a drug lord, was killed along with ten other men in a wild shootout in neighboring Zacapa state, where Guatemalan police later recovered 16 semi-automatic AR-15 assault rifles and an M-16. Along with the body of Juancho— who'd fled a Mexican prison in 2001—and several of his bodyguards, were found the bodies of two Mexican nationals, believed to member of Los Zetas, the brutal rogue soldiers who act as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel, the Mexican crime syndicate. ("Zeta" comes from the Mexican federal police radio code for high-ranking officers.) Jauncho was believed by local law enforcement officials to have been working as a middle man, helping to bring cocaine from Colombia to Mexico in the service of the Gulf Cartel's arch-rivals, the Sinaloa Cartel of Joaquín "El Chapo" (Shorty) Guzmán. Fighting between the two groups has killed hundreds of people in Mexico in recent years.

The level of insecurity in Guatemala has reached such a level that, in impoverished neighborhoods such as the capital's gritty Villa Nueva slum, often the scene of inter-gang warfare, heavily-armed masked men (thought to be off-duty police officers) scoop suspected gang members from the streets, never to be seen again except in city morgues or dumped by the side of the road. For those of more substantial means, there is the world of gates, guards, and highly disciplined movements, an existence that condemns those who live it to dwelling in their own kind of ghetto, and brings no great peace of mind. The links between private security contractors and organized crime are substantial and continuing.

The gun battle that killed Juancho, his men, and the Mexicans was not an isolated incident, nor was it by any stretch the most shocking crime to take place in Guatemala in recent years. According to figures released by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), from 1999 to 2006, Guatemala's homicide rate increased more than 120 percent, from 2,655 homicides in 1999 to 6,033 in 2006, a national homicide rate of 47 per 100,000 inhabitants—though still trailing the murder rates of its neighbors to the south, El Salvador and Honduras. Even given these grim statistics, the UNDP numbers noted that only a fraction of all victims of violence were taken into account by Guatemalan police and justice statistics.

The Zacapa massacre, however, was indicative of a larger pattern. The ability of the Mexican gunmen—who witnesses said numbered at least 30—to pass fully-armed and unhindered across the length of Guatemala, engage in a prolonged and fatal firefight and then simply vanish into thin air made perfectly clear one other central fact of Guatemala's current agony. Official complicity has abetted at every turn the wave of drug-related violence that has cleaved Guatemalan society like a bloody scythe in recent years—ensnaring in the drug war vast numbers of public officials, drug traffickers, gang members, and ordinary civilians. The next casualty, many fear, will be Guatemala's nascent democracy itself.

Roots of War

The roots of the country's current crisis lay in Guatemala's three decade-long civil war, which lasted from 1960 until 1996. Successive Guatemalan governments—often with the complicity of the United States—battled to defeat a leftist insurgency centered in the country's mountainous and jungle-covered recesses. As a series of military dictators built up a sophisticated intelligence-gathering and surveillance capability in the late 1970s and 1980s, members of Guatemala's armed forces, with little regard for human rights, were given free rein to battle rebels in a conflict that eventually claimed an estimated 200,000 lives.

During the regimes of dictators General Romeo Lucas García (1978–82) and his successor General Efraín Ríos Montt (1982–83), in particular, elements of Guatemala's military intelligence services were able to create complex criminal networks that exist more or less intact to this day. Lucas García fled to exile in Venezuela, where he died in 2006. Ríos Montt went on to found the Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (Guatemalan Republican Front, or FRG), one of Guatemala's main political parties. In 2003, he even ran, though unsuccessfully, for the country's presidency. He currently serves as the FRG's secretary general and as a deputy in Guatemala's congress.

Often referred to as the grupos clandestinos, or hidden powers, these criminal-military groups represent perhaps the biggest challenge to the government of Álvaro Colom, Guatemala's current president, who also serves as the head of the left-wing Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE) party. The activities of the hidden powers are varied and include skimming customs duties, illicitly acquiring government contracts, human trafficking, and increasingly, drug trafficking. A weak Guatemalan state together with broad, and largely unpatrolled, Pacific and Caribbean coastlines combine to provide an alluring middle passage for drugs flowing to North America from points south. A 2003 study by the Washington Office on Latin America titled "Hidden Powers in Post-Conflict Guatemala," asserted that the groups "do not act on their own, but at the behest of members of an interconnected set of powerful Guatemalans...[who] oversee and profit from a variety of illegal activities that they carry out with little fear of arrest or prosecution."

Once used as a tool by Guatemala's tiny economic and political elite to bludgeon leftist opposition in the country, the grupos clandestinos have now taken on a nefarious and powerful life of their own.

"When the oligarchy made the military such a crucial factor during the internal armed conflict, the only presence of the state nationwide was the military," says Frank LaRue, a veteran human rights advocate who currently heads the Instituto Demos, a Guatemala civil society organization.

"The military gained a lot of political power and began making their own economic base, and, obviously, those who were leaving the military, or some of them, began getting connected with drugs, exactly as is happening in Mexico," says LaRue, who served as head of the Presidential Commission on Human Rights in the government of Colom's predecessor, Óscar Berger.

The Brotherhood

Perhaps the best-known and most-feared criminal syndicates in the country are La Cofradía (The Brotherhood) and El Sindicato (The Syndicate), both made up of current and former military officers, according to Guatemalan and U.S. government officials.

La Cofradía is believed to have its roots in the military intelligence wing of the government of former dictator Lucas García, and to be comprised chiefly of those who advocated a scorched-earth, take-no-prisoners approach to prosecuting Guatemala's civil war, making little distinction between military and civilian targets. Known at the time as los estratégicos (the strategic ones), the group is said to be chiefly directed by two former generals, Manuel Callejas y Callejas and Luis Francisco Ortega Menaldo.

During Ortega Menaldo's time in the armed forces, he served as head of army intelligence when the Guatemalan army was coordinating interdiction efforts with the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and so became privy to the organization's methods and modus operandi. At the same time, the American government was financing complex surveillance equipment which enabled Guatemalan military intelligence—not to mention whoever else might be working in the sector—to engage in sophisticated intelligence gathering in the name of combating the country's leftist guerillas and nascent drug traffickers.

Previously a military intelligence official in various capacities during the Lucas García administration and in the 1991–93 civilian government of President Jorge Serrano Elías, Ortega Menaldo became head of the Estado Mayor Presidencial (EMP), a controversial military unit disbanded in 2003 which had been tied to appalling human rights abuses both before and after the 1996 peace accords brought an end to Guatemala's internal armed conflict. The EMP has been linked to a series of high-profile assassinations over the years, including the 1990 murder of anthropologist Myrna Mack, the 1994 killing of Constitutional Court President Eduardo Epaminondas González Dubón and the 1998 beating death of Guatemalan Bishop Juan Gerardi.

In his position with the EMP, Ortega Menaldo continued to work closely with military intelligence until Elías attempted to seize dictatorial powers in May 1993. Though this auto-golpe (self-coup), as it became known, was quickly defeated, Ortega Menaldo was among the military officers supportive of Elías' move, and was heavily marginalized in the government of Ramiro de León Carpio that came after. Ortega Menaldo was dismissed from active duty for corruption in 1996 under the government of President Álvaro Arzú. In March 2002, the government of the United States revoked Ortega Menaldo's travel visa under a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act authorizing such action against people who have allowed or conspired in drug trafficking.

According to a report by the Recuperación de Memoria Histórica (Recovery of Historical Memory) project—an undertaking that Bishop Gerardi oversaw shortly before his murder—the members of La Cofradía are linked by human rights abuses committed during the civil war and the "competition and loyalty between men from the same graduating class intermingled and changed according to opportunities of the moment." Similar to the Italian mafia, La Cofradía is said to have an elaborate initiation ritual, which includes placing a medallion engraved with the inductee's name, class promotion, and a magic lamp— the organization's symbol—at the bottom of a glass of whiskey, which the new member must then drink in order to claim.

The Rise of Pérez Molina

The soldiers who graduated from Guatemala's military academy in 1969— "Promotion 73," as the group became known—were thrown into a world of bloody conflict throughout the Americas, but especially in their native country. As happens sometimes among military officers of the same graduating class, loyalties among these men continued throughout their careers. Advocating a strategy of pacification and stabilization during the war, which preferred combining development projects and military objectives as opposed to all-out warfare against the rebels, this group as such often found itself at odds with los estratégicos.

The group's most visible member, Otto Pérez Molina, led the group of military officers that opposed Elías' 1993 self-coup, a position that created a climate of lasting enmity between himself and Ortega Menaldo, who had supported the move. While Ortega Menaldo was sent into the wilderness after the failed 1993 coup, Pérez Molina saw his own star rise with his appointment as inspector general of the army in 1996, a high-profile role as the Guatemalan military's representative at negotiations with rebel forces that eventually led to peace accords and, in 1998, his appointment as head the of the Guatemalan delegation before the Inter-American Defense Board in Washington, DC. But with the rise to prominence of Rios Montt's FRG and the presidency of Alfonso Portillo—an Ortega Menaldo confidant—Pérez Molina retired from military service.

In February 2001, Pérez Molina formed the Partido Patriota (Patriot Party, or PP). Briefly, and perhaps a touch ironically given subsequent events, he also found common cause with Colom's UNE as they jointly denounced Portillo's alleged abuse of power. Later, however, the PP was incorporated into the Gran Alianza Nacional (Great National Alliance, or GANA) coalition of the eventual winner (and Colom opponent) in the 2003 presidential elections, Óscar Berger. In those same elections, Pérez Molina was elected as a deputy to Guatemala's congress for the coalition.

In the 2007 general elections, one of the bloodiest ballots in Guatemala's history with over 50 candidates and activists slain, Pérez Molina ran against Álvaro Colom for the presidency, a ballot that he lost despite his advocacy of a mano dura (strong hand) policy against the country's criminals. During the trajectory of Pérez Molina's political life, both his son and daughter have been the victims of non-fatal attacks by gunmen, and at least eight members of the PP have been slain.

Over the years, however, security analysts and Guatemalan government officials say that Promotion 73 took on another, shadowy, but far more violent, role—that of El Sindicato. The syndicate immediately took its place as one of Guatemala's most powerful clandestine groups, and one whose struggle against La Cofradía must be understood in order to grasp the nature of the country's current demons.

Politics by Other Means

One of the most destructive influences on Guatemala's fragile state appears to have been the rise of the FRG party throughout the 1990s. Founded by former dictator Efraín Rios Montt in 1989, the FRG melded a virulent hatred of Guatemala's traditional economic elite with populist economic and social rhetoric that attempted to cast it as the voice of Guatemala's disenfranchised. This stance was especially ironic given the ghastly human rights abuses against Guatemala's indigenous population that were the hallmark of Rios Montt's tenure as president and the strong element of current and former military officials in the party's ranks.

In 1999, Alfonso Portillo, a former university professor who had killed two men during an altercation in Mexico while teaching there in 1982 (a fact he has never disputed), ran for the presidency under the FRG banner and won, ascending to the office the following year. Though Portillo's rhetoric adhered to progressive social-democratic goals, his tenure was marked by a high degree of corruption and political violence.

In 1996, shortly before Portillo attained the presidency, both he and Ortega Menaldo were implicated in a corruption scandal centering around Salvadoran-born Alfredo Moreno Molina. Originally working on counter-insurgency efforts within the Guatemalan military, Molina later was prosecuted for having set up a sophisticated corruption ring known as the Grupo Salvavidas or Lifesaver Group. Ortega Menaldo was subsequently dismissed from the military for his involvement in the affair, and Portillo admitted taking campaign contributions from Moreno. During Portillo's subsequent tenure as president, Ortega Menaldo served as one of his closest advisors. The power of Guatemala's already weak state, which has only 26,000 national police to control a country of some 13 million, eroded still further as the private security sector swelled to 120,000 individuals. A substantial number maintained links to organized crime.

"Before Portillo, these bodies were just giving security to some organized crime groups, but during Portillo they became contractors of the state," says José Carlos Marroquín, who served as chief strategist for Álvaro Colom during his presidential campaign. Eventually, Marroquín resigned, following threats from organized crime. For his efforts at cleaning up Guatemala's political system, Marroquín's Guatemala City home, where he lives with his wife and children, was raked with automatic weapons fire and set ablaze during a 10-minute assault last year.

"I don't measure the state by its size, I measure the state by its strength," continues Marroquín, who also says that clandestine armed groups have an interest in undermining the state. Waves of what would appear to be carefully organized violence would seem to support this. In February 2008, a dozen bus drivers in the capital were slain, while in November of the same year 15 people on a charter bus from Nicaragua were killed execution-style and their bodies set alight after passing into Guatemala.

Only days after turning over power to his elected successor, Óscar Berger, in 2004, Portillo fled to Mexico, where he remained until October 2008 despite a Mexican government order to extradite him back to Guatemala to face corruption charges. That month, Portillo announced that he would no longer fight extradition as he "trusted" the Guatemalan courts under Colom more than he did under Berger. Though rumors swirled that Portillo had helped fund part of Colom's election campaign from exile, none of these charges have been proven.

Though the FRG suffered badly in the 2007 elections, and its influence in Guatemala's congress has significantly diminished, its activities while controlling the presidency and the congress included extending state largess to former members of civil defense patrols formed as a counter-insurgency tool by Rios Montt a quarter century ago. These patrols have been implicated in gross human rights abuses. In today's Guatemala, some of the same regions where those patrols were the strongest, such as the jungle-covered department of El Petén, have now also become centers of illegal drug activity, with some of the same campesinos who once worked for the civil patrols now seizing land and clearing clandestine runways where drug planes can land. On one government map seen by this reporter, there were 31 such runways listed as existing in El Petén alone.

Add to this mix Central America's indigenous street gangs—particularly the MS-18 and MS-13 in Guatemala—and the terrible strains placed on Guatemala's fragile justice system become quite clear. This toxic brew of politicians, organized crime syndicates, street gangs, and foreign cartels, and the seeming inability of the justice system in Guatemala to address it, has led some observers to point to the Guatemalan state itself as part of the problem.

"There have been a number of cases where [the hidden powers] use the gangs as muscle," says a U.S. law enforcement official who has worked on drug trafficking and organized crime in Guatemala for over a decade, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "[But] there is a lack of in-depth investigations by the judicial sector....The Guatemalans have been slow in reacting to the real threat that exists."

Death in the Afternoon

One midday in June 2008, Vinicio Gomez, Álvaro Colom's Minister of Interior and widely regarded as an honest public official, boarded a helicopter piloted by a veteran of DEA missions in Colombia and Panama. Flying through a light rain over the department of Alta Verapaz, Gomez' helicopter crashed, killing him, the pilot, deputy minister Edgar Hernandez, and one other person. Though there was no major storm in the area, the official cause of the crash was attributed to bad weather.

According to a high-ranking official in the Colom government, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, in the months before the crash, Gomez had quarreled violently with Carlos Quintanilla, an associate of Ortega Menaldo who was at the time the head of the Secretaría de Asuntos Administrativos y de Seguridad (Secretariat for Administrative Matters and Security, or SAAS), the successor to the EMP responsible for the president's personal security. Those familiar with the conversation say that Quintanilla was vexed at Gomez's plan to deploy hundreds of troops and anti-drug agents along Guatemala's long border with Mexico, where cartel boss Juan Alberto "Chamalé" Ortiz López is thought to have been the first to use the Mexican Zetas in and around the city of Huehuetenango.

With the death of Gomez—a death that not a single government or civilian official I spoke with in Guatemala believes was an accident—an administration already handicapped in asserting its authority was further weakened. Subsequently, an arrest warrant was issued for Quintanilla, after Colom concluded that the security chief had planted surveillance devices in his home and offices at the behest of organized criminal gangs. Quintanilla has since gone to ground.

"Colom's guys are Ortega Menaldo's guys," says one Guatemalan government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, attempting to explain the Faustian bargain that Colom is said to have made for his own security. "He needed them as protection against Pérez Molina."

Such are the implications of political activity in Guatemala—that a long-time social democrat such as Colom might be forced to form an alliance, however temporary, with figures long rumored to be deeply enmeshed in organized crime. As if the suspicious death of Gomez was not enough, barely two months earlier, Victor Rivera, a Venezuelan citizen who had served as a long-time security advisor to several Guatemalan governments, was slain in a shooting in the capital. Dismissed by Colom only a week before for being "too independent," Rivera, though he denied any wrongdoing, was thought also to have been behind summary executions of suspected gang members throughout his tenure, a reputation that gained him as many admirers as critics in crime-weary Guatemala. This past August, the killing continued with the murder of Rigoberto Cucul, the former FRG-affiliated mayor of El Estor, a city near Morales, who perished in a hail of automatic weapons fire. Police had previously raided his home in search of narcotics but said they found only ammunition.

But perhaps no crime has shaken the foundations of Guatemala and its neighbors in recent years as much as the slaying of three Salvadoran representatives to the Central American Parliament, kidnapped and killed along with their driver, while traveling to Guatemala for a parliamentary meeting in February 2007. The victims included Eduardo Jose d'Aubuisson, the 32-year-old son of Roberto d'Aubuisson, an extreme rightist and founder of El Salvador's ruling ARENA party who died of cancer in 1991. The four bodies were found burned almost beyond recognition on a rural roadside after becoming separated from a larger convoy. It appears that the killings were linked to a power struggle for drug trafficking inside ARENA, though the motive is still murky.

The same month, four policemen being held in connection with the slayings were also murdered when gunmen entered the prison east of Guatemala City, where they were being held. The assassins were able somehow to reach their victims despite having to pass through eight sets of locked doors to get to their cells. And this past July, the judge in charge of investigating the murders was also slain. In September 2008, Guatemalan security forces arrested a former congressman and mayor, Manuel de Jesus Castillo, who is suspected of being one of the masterminds of the crime. Castillo had apparently been hiding in plain sight, living for months in his hometown of Jutiapa despite a January 2008 warrant for his arrest.

Added to the mix has been the curious behavior of the Salvadoran government itself. Despite strong statements from El Salvador's President Tony Saca and his public security minister, Rene Figueroa, that the culprits of the slayings of the parliamentarians must be found and punished, as of yet no investigation into the crime has been opened in El Salvador itself
Steps Toward Reform?

One hopeful development in Guatemala's struggle against organized crime has been the creation of the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG), a United Nations-affiliated body charged with investigating organized crime's links to the state. Operational since the beginning of 2008, under its current mandate, the CICIG has the power to investigate a wide array of violent and organized crime and submit the evidence to Guatemala officials, but not the power to subpoena or indict. Carlos Castresana Fernández, a Spanish magistrate who previously worked for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in the drug-ravaged Mexican state of Nuevo León, and who has a long history of anti-corruption prosecutions in his native country, was appointed to head the body.

"A great problem of impunity exists in this country," Castresana told me in an interview in Guatemala City. "One of the biggest justifications for the creation of this commission is the existence of clandestine security apparatuses [in Guatemala] that have inserted themselves within the state institutions."

While policy makers and law enforcement officials in the United States are largely concentrating their energies on the war going on between narco-traffickers and the government of Mexican President Felipe Calderón, or lauding Colombian President Álvaro Uribe's strides against that country's 40-year-old, drug-financed insurgency, democracy in Guatemala—the most populous country in Central America—is fighting for its life against a rising tide of drug-related violence that has become inextricably linked with the country's political landscape.

The Merida Initiative, a multi-year U.S. proposal aiming to provide equipment, training, reform, and oversight to law enforcement agencies in the region, last year requested an initial $500 million for Mexico and $50 million for all of Central America. During fiscal year 2009, the U.S. government's budget proposal includes $450 million for Mexico and $100 million for Central America.

It is a paltry sum, many Guatemalans feel, given the challenges their nation will confront as it faces down the hidden powers.

"Guatemala is already a weak, almost non-existent, state that does not guarantee security or justice or health or education," says the human rights advocate Frank LaRue. "If the cartels from Mexico begin to move down and Guatemala completely collapses into their hands, then you will have a real problem."

Michael Deibert is the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press). He last reported for World Policy Journal from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

1 comment:

Jason said...

Thank you for this account, you've demonstrated the best grasp of the politics here I've found during my online research, and though I have been reading about and living in Guate for a number of years, there are many many extra details gathered here.