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Guatemala’s Cycles of Crime
By Frank Smyth, January 13, 2012, World Policy Journal

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Guatemala’s Cycles of Crime

January 13, 2012 - 6:06pm | World Policy Journal

By Frank Smyth

For Guatemala and its majority Mayan population time is repeating itself. A former military commander and intelligence chief with a bloody past promises to bring law and order to the Central American nation. Worried about rising crime and the increasingly violent penetration by Mexican drug cartels, voters elected Otto Pérez Molina as president.

The president-elect’s loyalties may be divided, however, between his promise to fight organized crime and the U.S.-backed institution to which he owes his career. His dilemma is rooted in the anti-communism shared by the two nations during the Cold War. Only by strengthening Guatemala’s long struggling civilian law enforcement and judicial institutions will the nation achieve stability. Unfortunately, Pérez Molina has already indicated his preference to rely instead on military force.

On January 14, Pérez Molina will become the first ex-military officer to assume Guatemala’s presidency since the end of military rule in 1986. But every elected government since has been marked by two trends. First, there’s the ongoing influence exercised by different and sometimes rival cliques of military intelligence officers. Second, there’s the endemic lawlessness that has given rise to violence and Guatemala’s increasing role as a transshipment and now also a production point for U.S.-bound illegal drugs.

With names like the “Brotherhood” (Cofradía) and the “Operators,” the intelligence cliques “developed their own vertical leader-subordinate network of recognition, relationships, and loyalties,” noted the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency in a 1991 cable. The cable identified Pérez Molina as one of the “Operators,” and it credited the intelligence cliques for dramatic military successes during the Guatemalan Civil War in the 1980's.

A U.N. truth commission later found the same military operations included “acts of genocide.” Concentrated in the Mayan highlands, these included targeting entire village populations suspected of supporting leftist guerrillas for annihilation. Internal Guatemalan Army documents show that Pérez Molina was an infantry commander in the Ixil triangle in 1982 during some of the most severe abuses. U.S. military documents from the mid-1990s, albeit with contradictory accounts, show him either disappearing or ordering the disappearance of Efraín Bámaca, the leftist guerrilla leader married to the Harvard-trained, U.S. lawyer Jennifer Harbury.  President-elect Molina, while declining to address specific allegations, denies any role in abuses.

The president-elect deserves some credit. He plans to keep, even if it is due to international pressure, the country’s current Attorney General, Claudia Paz y Paz. Unprecedentedly, and often working with international officials, she has arrested both military personnel for prior human rights crimes and suspected international drug bosses, including one alleged kingpin indicted in Tampa. She continues to investigate other abuses, too, including Bámaca’s disappearance after being captured. But more must be done to establish accountability and the rule of law.

Human rights groups fear the new government will usher in a new era of state-sponsored violence. The president-elect has named former Kaibil military commanders to lead the police and military. Kaibiles are elite military forces, who have been linked to some of the nation’s grisliest massacre, including the slaughter of over 200 civilians at Dos Erres in the remote, northern region of Petén in 1982. More recently ex-Kaibil soldiers have been linked to drug trafficking in collaboration with Mexico’s feared Zeta cartel, who themselves are former Mexican special forces soldiers turned drug lords. Leading Mexican analysts maintain it was the Guatemalan ex-Kabiles who taught the Zetas the use of decapitation as a terror tactic.

President-elect Molina and his cabinet say they will expand police and Kaibil operations in Guatemala, and lead a regional effort to share intelligence about organized crime. They might start with their own peers. Dozens of Guatemalan officers of all ranks have been formally accused of drug trafficking, according to U.S. government documents, dating back to before the end of Guatemala's armed conflict.

Guatemala’s record of prosecuting its own drug kingpins lags far behind Mexico and Colombia. Not one Guatemalan was extradited on drug charges for well over a decade after the 1994 murder of Epaminondas González Dubón, the nation’s chief justice. The Clinton administration covered up the extradition case surrounding his murder.

His murder reveals the power of the intelligence cliques linked to the drug trade in Guatemala. Chief Justice Dubón led the nation’s Constitutional Court in a four-to-three vote in favor of extraditing Lt. Col. Carlos Ochoa Ruiz, according to court documents later cited by the Costa Rican daily La Nación. Nine days later, on April 1, as the family was returning from observing a Good Friday pageant, gunmen shot and killed Dubón near his home in his car in front of his wife and youngest son. On April 12, the same top court with a new chief justice quietly ruled not to extradite Ochoa. The State Department took four years before finally admitting in a few lines buried in a thick report to Congress that the chief justice’s assassination stopped the extradition of the Army lieutenant colonel over multi-ton level cocaine charges.

Since then, the nation’s importance to drug traffickers has only climbed.  The State Department reports that Guatemala is a midpoint for over 60 percent of all the South American cocaine reaching the United States, most of which then passes through Mexico. Guatemala is a transshipment point for heroin too. Recently, Mexican traffickers have started producing methamphetamine in Guatemala.

The Mexican cartels first moved into Guatemala to fight each other over who would emerge with the largest share of Guatemala’s huge cocaine export market. But Guatemala’s own cartels—who still primarily receive drugs from South America—have long been quieter than their Mexican counterparts. Classified U.S. cables obtained by WikiLeaks identify five major Guatemalan cartels that, for some reason, have rarely fought each other over territory or profits.

The U.S. has taken some action. The Bush Administration revoked the U.S. entry visas of two former Guatemalan intelligence chiefs over suspected drug trafficking. One, Francisco Ortega Menaldo, who publicly denied the accusation, is a longtime rival of Molina. But a decade ago, he was a frequent companion of then-President Alfonso Portillo, who is now facing extradition to New York to face money laundering charges.

However, the military intelligence cliques have hardly gone away. On 2010, a U.S. State Department cable obtained by WikiLeaks read “A powerful group of former senior military officers known collectively as “The Brotherhood” (“La Cofradía,” suspected of narcotrafficking and other crimes), who colluded with then-President Portillo to embezzle millions from the state, might seek to murder him in order to ensure he does not collaborate with Guatemalan or U.S. authorities.”

Molina’s iron fist will no doubt drive out some Mexican traffickers. But only independent law enforcement will rescue Guatemala from its own powerful crime lords linked to the military intelligence cliques who have long enjoyed immunity from prosecution. Only by supporting civilian over military institutions could Molina move Guatemala forward. But, like many other retired intelligence officers, he has an interest in not exhuming the past.

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Frank Smyth began his career reporting from El Salvador in the 1980s. He has covered Guatemala, Rwanda, Colombia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia.  He has written for The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

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