Opinion

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

September’s elections are the fourth since peace accords in 1996 formally ended the country’s 36-year civil war. While these polls have been credible and free from major fraud, the years since the accords have seen a weak and ineffective government unable to address the country’s issues.

Inequality in Guatemala is among the world’s worst. Malnutrition is rampant in both the indigenous highlands and urban slums. The public does not trust the police and judiciary, both of which are easily corrupted by business elites, drug traffickers, and clandestine groups linked to ex-military and intelligence officials.

Impunity is pervasive, with only a tiny fraction of homicides prosecuted and an even lower percentage of trials for outdated crimes. Guatemala’s electoral campaign is one of the most expensive of the hemisphere, in per capita terms – an insult to an impoverished country.

Strengthen government through reform

In order to form a government strong enough to tackle these issues, the Tribunal Supremo Electoral, the country’s highest electoral authority, must publicize and crack down on campaign finance law violations. Major donor nations and other international actors should demand spending transparency from political leaders and organizations.

In addition to initiating and facilitating June’s direct regional talks between Central America’s presidents, the US should support other international missions. Those include helping the Organization of American States beef up its upcoming electoral observation mission and encouraging politicians to focus on their policies, rather than simply attack their opponents.

But it doesn’t end with elections. After the votes are tallied, the electoral commission should press for complete political reform. It should increase its power to include the ability to sanction noncompliant political parties. TV and radio time should be limited to rein in spending. Public funding for political parties should be increased to create less need for private spending from illegitimate sources.

The United States has recognized the problem – enough so to send the secretary of state and the president to the region. But until Guatemala’s dirty politics are cleaned up, their efforts will be for naught, and the people of Guatemala will be beholden to drug lords who have the worst interests of their country – and those of the US – at heart.

Mark Schneider is senior vice president at the International Crisis Group. Javier Ciurlizza is Latin America program director.

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