Arrest of Guatemala's No. 1 drug-trafficking suspect shows growing US role in region

US and Guatemalan forces Wednesday arrested Juan Ortiz Lopez, known as "Chamale,” a week after President Obama pledged $200 million to combat drug trafficking in the region.

Paolo Raquec/Guatemala Presidency/Reuters
Suspect Juan Ortiz Lopez (c.), known as 'Chamale,' is escorted in Guatemala City on March 30. Ortiz, a suspected drug trafficker, was captured by US and Guatemalan agents in Quetzaltenango and is wanted by a District Court in the United States, for drug trafficking through international borders.

The arrest of Juan Ortiz Lopez, an alleged drug kingpin in Guatemala, may mark the beginning of increased cooperation between the US and Central American nations dogged by increasing drug-related violence.

A joint team of American and Guatemalan forces arrested Mr. Lopez, known as "Chamale,” at his home in Quetzaltenango, in western Guatemala Wednesday. The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) considers him the nation’s top drug smuggler.

“This is the capture of a big fish,” Guatemala's Interior Minister Carlos Menocal said at a news conference.

But he is only one player in a nation – and region – increasingly overwhelmed by violence, in part as Mexican drug traffickers reach ever deeper into Central America.

On his recent tour of Latin America, President Obama announced $200 million in funding to combat drug trafficking and insecurity in the region. And for those in Guatemala, the arrest of Mr. Ortiz could signal increased, and more efficient, collaboration, with the US in combating organized crime.

“The operation on Wednesday indicates that cooperation between the two nations is improving,” says Sandino Asturias, the director of the Center for Guatemalan Studies, in a telephone interview. He adds that some government institutions are strengthening and showing improved law enforcement capabilities.

Drug violence has worsened in Central America as authorities have clamped down on networks in Colombia and Mexico and drug-smuggling routes in the Caribbean. Adam Isacson, senior associate for regional security policy at the Washington Office on Latin America, says that in recent years the number of boats shipping illegal drugs along the coasts of Central America, from where it moves overland toward Mexico and into the US, has skyrocketed.

Many have claimed the US has overlooked Central America as it focuses heavily on Mexico, where nearly 36,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence since 2006. Murder rates are worse in many parts of Central America, where nations such as Guatemala and Honduras lack the capacity to issue justice, because of both weak institutional capacity and corruption.

That is one of the reasons that aid to Central America has been so tricky. Mr. Isacson notes that three antidrug police units in Guatemala, for example, have been closed due to collusion with drug traffickers in an eight-year span from 2002 to 2010. He says that funding to Central America is critical to the outcome of the US strategy. But, he notes, “There is a concern that they do not know who to work with."

The UN Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) congratulated the Guatemalan government for its work arresting Ortiz. “These types of blows against organized crime show that the Guatemalan institutions that safeguard justice and order are moving in the right direction,” the organization said in a statement.

Robert O'Neill, the US attorney for the Middle District of Florida, said in a statement that Ortiz is considered the highest-ranking drug trafficker operating in Guatemala, and has been smuggling tons of cocaine from Guatemala, through Mexico and to the US, for more than a decade. He was wanted on a federal arrest warrant issued in Tampa, Fla.

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