Thursday, November 24, 2005


Guatemala has been getting quite a mixed bag of coverage for the past couple of months. It attracted a lot of sympathy as a victim of Hurrican Stan and aid agencies have warned that some rural communities lost all their crops and are in danger of starvation this winter. (And Amnesty continues to bang on about the femicides.)

On the other hand the presence in the Petén of yanqui television in the form of Survivor has been used as a platform for a PR story by INGUAT (the local tourism authority) that advises potential (and gullible) visitors that "Guatemala has shed its bloodstained reputation."

But this week the term "mini-Colombia" has cropped up, referring to the Castillo arrest and the belief amongst DEA officials that Guatemala lacks the necessary legal framework for combatting the country's drugs syndicates that collectively handle 75% of the cocaine that ends up in the United States.

V once told me how the manager of el Sindal, the Nestlé plant we pass driving into Antigua, was caught trying to smuggle Bolivian marching powder in the baby milk formula! But the unique challenge for the DEA in this country is the role of the military. Whereas in other Latin American states their role as a supporter of the traffickers is well-established, in Guatemala army officers and former army officers actually appear to be running the show themselves.

It's hard to feel that sorry for the gringos because to a great extent they engineered this long-term problem for themselves from the moment they sponsored the coup that brought down the legitimate government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in June 1954. When the thirty-year civil war this sparked finally burned itself out, many of the generals associated with genocide were pensioned off in a bid to make the military look a bit cleaner.

Two of these, Manuel Antonio Callejas y Callejas and Francisco Ortega Menaldo, are former intelligence chiefs with very bloody hands that once out in civvy street set up "la cofradía" ("the brotherhood") an elite club that manages the interface between organised crime and the serving military. This might explain why 30 or so of the massacre-prone paratroopers known as the Kaibiles recently headed pa'l norte in order to link up with Mexico's renegade commandos the Zetas.

The connections of these entrepreneurial soldiers are not limited to Central American political institutions. Jerry Weller III, current vice-chairman of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee (Rep, Illinois) is married to Zury Ríos Sosa, daughter of one time coup-leader General Efrain Ríos Montt. He was the power behind the regime of fugitive former President Alfonso Portillo, which introduced legislation removing civilian oversight of the military in matters of criminal justice. The Portillo government was struck off the list of US anti-narcotics allies. (Oscar Berger has since managed to get them reinstated.)

For some time the DEA has shown signs that it has largely given up hope of fighting the traffickers in situ. The Adan Castillo arrest was achieved only after he was lured to the US on for a DEA training exercise. In other cases containment has been the rule - a former air force commander, Gen. Carlos Pozuelos Villavicencio had his US visa revoked by the Clinton adminstration.

When a huge stash of incriminating police records covering a diverse range of matters from parking violations to spy logs and interrogation records turned up in a munitions depot last summer, ten years after the end of the civil war, there was widespread surprise that nobody had bothered to destroy them. Heriberto Cifuentes, a Guatemalan historian explained the oversight: "Whether there are documents or not, people responsible for crimes do not expect to pay for them."

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