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Guatemala elections and drug cartels – also a risk for America

Drug cartels have a grip on Guatemala, harming that country and posing a risk to the US. September elections – and the government that emerges – need transparency and reform to free officials from the influence of cartels.

By Mark Schneider and Javier Ciurlizza / August 11, 2011

Washington and Bogota

Guatemalans go to the polls next month to elect a new government, but many fear the elections will be tainted by drug cartels and organized crime.The spike in political killings and drug-related bloodshed is so alarming that when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled to Guatemala in June, she upped by a third America’s pledge to help Central American leaders combat organized crime – promising a total of $300 million.

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As the world’s largest consumer of illegal drugs, the United States has a huge stake in preventing drug cartels from further infiltrating and destabilizing the already fragile Central American countries. Drug-related violence in Guatemala is at an all-time high; in 2009 the World Bank reported the death rate there was equal to that in Iraq, and it continues to rise.

This is due in large part to the influential Zeta drug cartel. It infiltrated Guatemala after the anti-drug war unleashed by President Felipe Calderón in Mexico – with US support – forced the cartel to expand operations outside of Mexico. The drug kings have used violence to permeate Guatemalan politics. That’s a worrying development for the September elections, when a president, congress, and local officials will be selected.

It will take a strong and transparent government to put an end to the drug cartels’ reign. Without campaign finance reforms and a stronger political system, elected officials will remain under the influence of those whose goal is to keep the government weak.

Weak government unable to confront cartels

In May, 27 farm workers and their families were murdered at the hands of the Zetas, and in June, authorities found the decapitated body of the prosecutor handling the case. These are just two of many incidents that prompted the Guatemalan government to declare a state of siege allowing it to arrest and imprison without a warrant anyone it suspects of being involved in a cartel.

The Zetas and other drug cartels do not discriminate between candidates, their families, and party activists in their fight to control areas vital to their transit routes. The previous polls in 2007 were the bloodiest in decades, with over 60 attacks, including at least 40 assassinations. None of these crimes has been prosecuted.

Compounding this, campaign spending in large cities has skyrocketed in the absence of enforced finance laws. Politicians often wind up indebted to shady business interests and criminals.


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