Thursday, December 25, 2008

What holds Guatemala back: 3 - The Narcos

In the first 11 months of this year 5400 people died violently here, compared to 4600 in the same period of 2007 - not all narcotics related for sure - but the traffickers have to shoulder most of the blame for the breaking wave of murders which has swept over Guatemala since 'Peace' was formally established a decade ago. (Alternatively, you might want to point the finger at the cocaine snorters themselves.)

So here in this comparatively small nation, more people are dying as a result of organised criminality serving a largely external demand for narcotic stimulation than as a consequence of the actions of Islamist terrorists the world over (...or indeed, as a result of misguided 'War on Terror' policies designed to dispatch said Islamists to paradise.)

Before the 'War on Terror' we had the 'War on Drugs'. Such is the resillience of demand for blow in the West that repressive policies in Colombia simply helped shift the cartel distribution structures further north. And whenever local police and armed forces are co-opted into this battle they become corrupted, along with a host of other key institutions through which piping hot money continually flows.

70% of the cocaine bound for the USA - where 40% of the global production of that drug is consumed - passes through Guatemala. You can imagine the effect this is having on its already endemic problems of impunity and the practice of shadow economics.

Even if the Guatemalan state wanted to fight the narcos the way they have been fought in Colombia, it doesn't have the capacity. (The limited amount of technology which exists here for telephone interception seems to have been wasted on bugging the Presidential Palace!)

When the Peace Accords were signed a good part of the officer corps of the Guatemalan army was pensioned off, so it can come as no surprise that, compared to say Mexico where active colonels are in the pay of the narcos, here in Guatemala it is retired colonels who are the narcos.

And then we have the maras, street-gangs like the Salvatrucha and the Mara 18, which evolved in LA during the Cold War and were recklessly re-exported back to Central America by the gringos when it ended. For the past couple of decades these cholos have been the nihilistic footsoldiers of the bigger players at state and transnational level.

But the sense of surging crisis in 2008 is being driven by the invasive activities of the Mexican cartels. Guatemala has an underpopulated 950km border with Mexico packed with large estates, many of which have informal airfields. The owners of these estates are occasionally reporting - though more often not - some serious intimidation by the narcos from over the border, which in many cases forces them to sell up.

Last week President Colom sent the army to investigate a number of frontier fincas and has called for a pan-regional military response, a call which President Calderón in Mexico has rejected. (Guatemala is apparently a carpet under which he can sweep his own quite serious problems in this respect.)

During the course of 2008 there have been three high profile shoot-outs between Mexican and Guatemalan narcos which together resulted in 44 fatalities.

Prime suspect in the instigation of such massacres is an armed battalion called Los Zetas which works for the Gulf Cartel. Led by Heriberto 'The Executioner' Lazano, Los Zetas are said to have evolved out of GAFE, Mexico's elite airborne special forces unit. Some of them are also believed to have belonged to Guatemala's similarly Israeli/American-trained Kaibiles, and according to the Fiscal General de Guatemala 80 of the 300 known Zetas are based on this side of the border right now.

This unit is quite possibly better equipped than British forces in Afghanistan, with kevlar vests and ballistic helmets, 50 cal. and MP5 machine guns, grenade launchers, AR-15 and AK-47 assault rifles, helicopters and ground-to-air missiles.

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