US Drug War Aims Its Sights At the Guatemala Connection

MAKESHIFT JUNGLE AIR STRIPS

Once, when the emphasis was on stopping the heroin trade, the United States focus fell on the "French Connection."

Then, as cocaine eclipsed heroin in the US drug market, attention shifted to the Caribbean routes, the Colombian cartels, and most recently, to Mexican drug lords.

Now, it's time for the Guatemalans.

The Central American country is receiving fresh attention from drug-enforcement officials largely because of a well-established and apparently flourishing drug cartel in the country's inaccessible and sparsely-populated north.

Named after the vast jungle region it occupies, the El Peten cartel is made up of at least five powerful families, Guatemalan officials say. The families receive large quantities of Colombian cocaine for warehousing and subsequent shipment to the US. But increasingly, the cartel is also undertaking its own drug production and processing, officials say, with plantations of marijuana and amapola, the poppy that produces heroin.

As drug trafficking through Central America in general increases, the US says its interest in Guatemala's drug trade is growing. According to the State Department's recently published International Narcotics Control Strategic Report, drug-trafficking through Central America increased in 1996 as traffickers took advantage of the poor region's limited budgets for combating drug activity.

Guatemala is an example of both limited success in drug interdiction and drug traffickers' ability to adapt their trade to roadblocks put up in their path.

The State Department report cites Guatemala's success in curtailing the clandestine flights that were landing on what by 1995 became more than 1,000 makeshift airfields spread out over the country. But destruction of a substantial number of clandestine airfields doesn't mean the problem has been solved - especially when Colombian drug lords routinely offer Guatemalan landowners $50,000 to use their land as an air strip, Guatemalan officials say.

Guatemala's role in the shipment of Colombian cocaine was spelled out last month in a 17-page document Colombian authorities seized in the Bogota prison where the principal drug lords of the Cali cartel are incarcerated. The document singled out Guatemala as a principal alternative landing and stocking site to Mexico.

Its description of Guatemala's place in the drug trade coincides with Guatemalan officials' characterization. "Guatemala has been transformed into an important bridge for them [Colombian traffickers], and is now a big [drug] warehouse," says one official in the Guardia de Hacienda, Guatemala's national police force.

With the destruction of airfields, pilots have taken to simply dropping bales of cocaine at designated sites either on land or at sea, the official said during a recent phone interview. The retrieved cargo is then stored in warehouses, often located underground, to await either a flight to Mexico or shipment over land to the US.

Guatemalan antidrug agents were able to deliver "heavy blows" to the traffickers' transportation habits, the Guatemalan official says, especially after the US loaned four helicopters for use in airstrip and plantation detection. A sizable number of airplanes and boats were seized with the help of the US equipment, he adds.

But the same source says the American-provided helicopters have not been at the Guardia's disposal since the end of last year. Overflights by crafts carrying heavy artillery, he says, are now outlawed under peace accords signed by the government and guerrillas in December.

"Without the helicopters, there's less surveillance, and of course the drug traffickers know this," the official says.

Still, an increased presence of antidrug agents in the Peten region is forcing drug traffickers to adapt and innovate. Specially trained police corps with names like "jaguars" and "pumas" are setting up in the Peten jungle and challenging the traffickers' reign there. But "they are terribly out-gunned" the official says, noting that agents typically carrying only sidearms face assault weapons and grenade launchers. Two Guatemalan officers have already been killed this year in the antidrug fight.

Guatemalan officials are also arresting more individuals, primarily Colombians, trying to enter the country with large numbers - in some cases more than 100 - of capsules of cocaine or heroin in their intestines. Known as "mules," the individuals are trained for their task by swallowing large numbers of whole grapes, the Guatemalan official says. Doctors in Colombia administer a drug that suppresses hunger, then once in Guatemala, another doctor removes the capsules. The drugs are then collected and other individuals continue the transport north.

"It's like a relay race," the official says, "but it's one we are happy to see. If the traffickers have adopted this strategy, it must be because they're having trouble with the easier and more profitable air routes."

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