Guatemala Surrenders in the War on Drugs

by Rick Rockwell

Guatemala ran up the white flag of surrender in the Drug War this week.

Before a standing-room-only crowd in a hearing room of the U.S. House of Representatives on June 26, Jose Guillermo Castillo, Guatemala’s Ambassador to the U.S. admitted his government has little control over the growing influence of organized crime. Castillo noted narcotics gangs operate with impunity in Guatemala because the criminal justice system is compromised and broken. He also noted that drug mafias have infiltrated most major government institutions in his country.

To those who follow Guatemala, this is not new. Castillo noted this sorry state of affairs began during the long civil war (which ended in 1996) as some parts of the counter-insurgency apparatus spiraled out of control and became involved in smuggling and other corrupt activities. Some might even argue Guatemala’s instability began with the CIA-sponsored coup in 1954, which destabilized the country, an event that remains controversial.

What is new about Castillo’s words is that a representative of the Guatemalan government comes before the U.S. Congress and freely admits such weakness. Diplomats usually attempt to put a brave face on the poor conditions in Central America. Not this time.

Indeed, the last two Guatemalan presidents have noted that so-called “clandestine groups” may at times wield more power than the government in Guatemala City. However, the ambassador’s report was all the more disheartening because if this is what he is willing to admit in public, one might ask how much more is going wrong? Plus Castillo had to deal with the ignominy of hearing members of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere refer in an offhand manner to the arrest of the head of Guatemala's anti-drug agency last year on smuggling charges, among other incidents that reflect the grip drug cartels hold on his country.

Castillo did hold out a faint ray of hope that his country could establish a joint commission with the United Nations to investigate clandestine groups and their links to human rights abuses during and after the war. However, the administration of President Oscar Berger has grasped at that solution almost since Berger came to office in 2004. Although Berger and the U.N. signed documents to establish the commission last year, the legislation to approve that agreement has been stalled in Guatemala’s Congress. Congressman Bill Delahunt (D-MA) pressed Castillo about the prospects for such a commission. Ever the diplomat, Castillo said he still has hopes but he admitted he would have to give Delahunt an off-the-record answer later about the hold up.

Testifying at a hearing on this topic later, Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America* predicted the U.N. commission idea would face significant resistance in Guatemala’s Congress. “We hope this hearing will send a strong message to Guatemala’s Congress for approval,” Thale said.

Castillo said his country needs a commission with judicial powers to take on the cartels because such a commission will be “like the Untouchables” and it would be “beyond reproach.”

But the problem such a commission must confront is huge. The Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that 70 percent of all cocaine bound for the U.S. is shipped via Guatemala. Rogue elements of the military have been caught up in the drug trade for a generation and their links to Colombian suppliers are strong. The record of the U.S. in trying to help post-war Guatemala is poor. For those who take the War on Drugs seriously, the report from the Guatemalan front shows the situation is dire.

And it will take a lot more than the U.N. and Eliot Ness to clean it all up.

For related posts, please see:

*The author served as a consultant to the Washington Office on Latin America in 2002 and 2003 on the War on Drugs in Central America.

(Photo of Ambassador Jose Guillermo Castillo by Roberto Ribeiro for the Organization of American States at the signing of side deals for the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2005; the photo is in the public domain.)

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