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When Looking at Mexico’s Drug Violence, Don’t Forget Guatemala’s Silent Mafia

ASK THIS | May 19, 2010

As part of a new study by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on “Speech, Power, Violence,” Frank Smyth documents the Guatemalan military’s use of doctrine and speech in committing genocidal acts more than a quarter century ago. The same military intelligence officers who engineered the worst massacres back then are among the nation’s suspected drug lords today. On May 5, the FBI and DEA together told Congress that more cocaine is being shipped through Guatemala than ever before.

By Frank Smyth
(301) 270-2672

Q. What effects are Mexican anti-drug efforts having in the region?

Q. Is Guatemala moving nearly as much cocaine as Mexico is toward the United States?
Q. How do Guatemalan traffickers manage to operate without the same level of internecine violence as in Mexico?
President Felipe Calderón’s two-day visit to Washington this week has again drawn needed focus on Mexico’s unchecked drug violence. At least 20,000 Mexicans have died over the past four years since President Calderón declared war on the nation’s drug cartels and deployed the nation’s military to police the streets. U.S. taxpayers have spent no less than $1.3 billion through “Plan Merida” to provide arms and other support to Mexico, with another $300 million earmarked for next year.
The U.S.-backed efforts have failed to curb Mexico’s drug violence. Observers say that the traffickers continue to fight over territory including international drug routes as well as local drug profits. But the efforts have recently squeezed more of the drug trade across Mexico’s southern border into Guatemala, according to U.S. agencies.
“This trend suggests that the Calderón Administration’s initiatives, particularly those related to port security and the tracking of suspicious aircraft, are having an impact on how the cartels do business, requiring them to take the extra—and ostensibly more costly and vulnerable—step of arranging multi-stage transportation systems,” testified FBI Assistant Director for the Criminal Investigative Division Kevin L. Perkins, and DEA Assistant Administrator for Intelligence Anthony P. Placido, in a joint statement before the U.S. Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control on May 5, 2010.
The FBI and DEA intelligence directors also told Congress that “approximately 93 percent of the cocaine leaving South America for the United States moves through Mexico.” But they went on to say: “In just the past year, however, more cocaine—about 60 percent of the 90 percent, according to inter-agency estimates—stops first in a Central American country, before onward shipment to Mexico, than at any time since the inter-agency began tracking cocaine movement.”
The Central American country is Guatemala. But Guatemala’s role in the drug trade is different from Mexico’s. In recent years, Mexican trafficking organizations have taken over vast distribution networks across the United States that were once largely controlled by Colombian syndicates. Guatemalan trafficking organizations --unlike their Mexican counterparts -- operate almost exclusively within what for them are the truly safe borders of their own nation. For years now Guatemala has been Central America’s main “Transit Zone,” to use the terminology preferred by the DEA, as “host-country transportation organizations” buy cocaine from Colombian cartels ferrying it north from South America, and then resell it to Mexican syndicates moving it further north to U.S. markets.
Of course, many other nearby nations also transport illegal drugs. But Guatemala stands out in the region for having the worst record for either prosecuting or extraditing its own major suspects. Guatemala’s record was so abysmal, in fact, that even the Bush administration supported U.N. intervention. The U.N. International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala helped federal prosecutors in the U.S. Southern District of New York this year indict former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo on money-laundering charges stemming from his time in office.
Journalists should watch to see whether Guatemala extradites Ex-President Portillo, who is in custody in Guatemala and who also denies the charges.
Colombia and Mexico have each extradited record numbers of drug trafficking suspects including dozens of alleged kingpins in recent years, but not Guatemala. In 2007 Guatemala finally extradited a few drug traffickers for the first time in over a decade. Both were mid-level suspects accused of smuggling heroin in the car batteries of vehicles driven one at a time to the Bronx in New York City. But Guatemala, when it comes to multi-ton level cocaine trafficking, has not extradited even one suspect since the 1995 assassination of the nation's chief justice; the murder stopped the extradition of a Guatemalan Army lieutenant colonel who remains wanted in Tampa over a half-ton of cocaine. Since then, U.S. agencies have been limited to only prosecuting Guatemalan cocaine suspects who have been apprehended in other nations.
Does Guatemala’s lack of prosecution help explain how the nation has somehow sidestepped the trauma of internecine drug violence –the kind that wracked Colombia decades ago and that is ravaging Mexico today? It does in part. Another factor may be that Guatemala’s “host-country” trafficking organizations are suspected of each being tied to one or more of the nation’s retired Army intelligence commanders who have a long history of collaboration. One of them, ret. Gen. Francisco Ortega Menaldo, had his U.S. entry visa revoked in 2002 by the Bush administration over his alleged drug trafficking activities. He denied the accusation. This year in January the Guatemalan daily El Periodico named Ortega Menaldo as a co-conspirator in money-laundering with then-President Portillo. The retired general again denied any wrongdoing.
Journalists should not forget, either, Guatemala’s literally tortured history. Ortega Menaldo along with other retired Guatemalan Army intelligence commanders have also been named in both a contemporaneous U.S. intelligence document  and a Guatemalan Catholic Church report as being among the architects of what a U.N. Truth Commission later concluded were “acts of genocide.” Guatemala was recently compelled (after a decision by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights) to exhume the 28-year-old remains of up to 162 men, women and children at Las Dos Erres, as was documented by Global Post.com in the northern, Peten region of the nation.
The same area is better known today for its drug trafficking. The press has largely reported Guatemala's role in trafficking as a spillover effect from Mexico. But as early as 1998 the State Department told Congress that Guatemala was already moving "approximately 200 to 300 metric tons of cocaine" annually, or between about 50 and 75 percent of all the cocaine reaching the United States. There is no doubt that Mexican trafficking organizations like the notorious "Zetas" and others have been moving lately into Guatemala as Mexican groups continue to fight each other for control over the region's lucrative drug trade. But the evidence suggests that they are still buying the drugs from "host country" Guatemalan trafficking organizations.  
Stability is what traffickers need to arrange, as the FBI and DEA put it, “multi-stage transportation systems.” Guatemalan traffickers, even suspected kingpins, still seem safe not only from each other but also from law enforcement as long as they remain in Guatemala.

AP: US only spent a fraction of Mexico aid
Posted by Frank
05/21/2010, 06:24 PM

Per my line above that the U.S. has provided Mexico with $1.3 billion in aid, I stand corrected. AP reports this afternoon in story now up on The Washington Post website:

MEXICO CITY -- The United
States has spent a fraction of the $1.1 billion it promised Mexico between 2008 and 2010 to make "an immediate and important impact" on surging drug cartel violence, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/artic ...

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