Guatemala: The Next Mexico

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There is wide speculation that Mexican drug traffickers may be setting up shop in Guatemala in light of President Calderon’s war against organized crime. A recent article in the LA Times, “Drug Violence Spilling Into Guatemala,” highlighted the increasing presence that the Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel are having with the crime-ridden Central American country. The transfer, however, may be more indicative of the adaptable nature of drug trafficking than of any real success of Calderon.

Since 2008, there have been at least 30 members of the Zetas arrested in Guatemala. The Zetas, former Mexican special forces turned drug traffickers, have been working with members of Guatemala’s special forces, the Kaibiles. In a recent raid that left five anti-drug agents dead, Guatemalan forces retrieved eight anti-personnel mines, 11 M60 machine guns, bullet proof vests and two armored cars that investigators say belong to the Zetas. There were 3,800 bullets and 563 grenades recovered that defense officials say once belonged to the Guatemalan military.

Guatemala seems like a logical choice for drug traffickers wanting to escape the heat of President Calderon’s war. It has all the characteristics of a country where drug lords can hide with impunity. High corruption and weak institutions have ravaged Guatemala since it ended a 36-year civil war in 1996 between the military and leftist political groups. Poverty is rampant; less than 10 percent of the population owns 70 percent of the land. This means that rich drug lords will find no shortage of peasants (and government officials) willing to help out for a few extra bucks.

Criminals and gangs already operate within Guatemala with impunity. Most Guatemalans have no faith in the police to end crime. According to the UN, fewer than 5 percent of all crimes even go to trial. Guatemala has a paltry police force of only 20,000 officers. In last year alone, there were over 6,000 homicides in Guatemala which experts say were mostly drug-related.

Furthermore, Guatemala is going through a political crisis right now that could possibly end in an all-too-familiar military coup. On May 10th, Rodrigo Rosenburg, a Harvard-educated lawyer, was gunned down while bicycling on a busy avenue. Fours days before his murder he made a video in which he began by saying, “If you are watching this message it is probably because I have been murdered by President Álvaro Colom…” Rosenburg claims that the Guatemalan president has been funneling drug money through some of the social organizations that his wife runs. President Colom, who in 2007 became the first leftist to win the Guatemalan presidency since the CIA ousted Jacobo Árbenz in 1954, must defend himself against these charges as well as involvement in the murder if he wishes to stay in power. Guatemala is already approaching failed statehood. Any political crisis may only hasten its decline.

The United States government has apportioned $10.6 million of the multiyear $1.4 billion Merida Initiative to go to Central American countries. Guatemala has already received its first installment of $10.6 million. However, some of the same arguments that were made against sending money to Mexico can be more accurately made against Guatemala. First, with so much corruption, how can the United States be sure that the money is being used properly? Second, will a militarized approach that has been the focus of Plan Colombia and the Merida Initiative be successful in ending drug trafficking in Guatemala?

Calderon’s crackdown in Mexico has no doubt led traffickers to find different routes to the United States. However, the United States and Latin American countries have been successful in shutting routes before (the Caribbean route through Miami in the 1980s). With so much money to be made, traffickers have shown the ingenuity to simply find different ways to get to the United States. The latest interest in Guatemala among drug lords is only in keeping with the adaptable nature of the business.

Meanwhile, Guatemala teeters towards becoming the next Mexico.

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