Is Guatemala becoming a narco-state?

With the recent massacre of 27 laborers in the department of Peten, groups are urging Guatemala to purge its institutions of organized crime. Throughout the region, drug money wields significant influence among politicians, police, and communities at large.

Moises Castillo/AP
Soldier walk past a message written in blood at the site of a massacre in northern Guatemala earlier this month in which 27 were killed. Guatemalan authorities on Monday blamed the massacre on the Mexican drug cartel the Zetas.

In a recent press release, the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comision Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala - CICIG) called upon the Guatemalan public to rally together to prevent the Central American country being overrun by organized crime.

“Other Latin American nations have already experienced the savagery generated by organized criminal groups,” read the CICIG statement. “Guatemala cannot replicate this story of terror, anguish, and injustice. The entire population must step up against those who wish to turn Guatemala into a narco-state.”

There is no set definition of what constitutes a narco-state, but the term is generally used to describe countries where law enforcement is effectively nonexistent, and where the government has been completely infiltrated or supplanted by drug cartels.

Probably the best example is Colombia in the 1990s, when guerrillas, paramilitaries, and government security forces all waged war for control of large swaths of the country, particularly where drug crops proliferated. During this period politicians and other public officials were frequently involved in drug trafficking, and bribery was a standard feature of the political process.

A lesser-known, but even more clear-cut case of state-sponsored drug trafficking took place in Suriname. The country’s current president, Desi Bouterse, is a convicted cocaine trafficker. He also ruled the country from 1980 to 1987 as head of a corrupt and repressive police state, and is credited with having established Suriname as a major transit point for drugs destined for Europe.

In July 1999, a Dutch court found Mr. Bouterse guilty in absentia of trafficking drugs, but a Surinamese law against extraditing citizens helped him avoid the 11-year jail term. Since the former dictator returned to power in 2010, he has claimed to be combating corruption and organized crime, but as InSight has reported, many still harbor doubts about his administration.

While total criminal infiltration of the state is rare these days, there are plenty of modern-day cases of regions in the Americas where drug traffickers wield significant political power. In Peru, the cocaine trade has markedly influenced the election process in the country, with nearly every major political party in the April first round of presidential elections accused of at least distant links to drug trafficking groups.

Though the era of Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) guerrillas controlling large portions of the rural highlands are over, the group still enjoys some support in small isolated hamlets, where it appears to be building itself up with drug money. A similar phenomenon is underway in pockets of Paraguay, where cocaine profits are funding a tiny but determined Marxist insurgency.

Still, the amount of influence that these groups have pales in comparison to the political capital of Guatemala’s criminal organizations. Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom touched on this recently during an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais. In it, he said that drug trafficking has historically been run by powerful families, who were widely known to be in the business but considered “untouchable.” Although the situation has changed somewhat in recent years, this closely resembles the kind of power that drug cartels enjoy in Mexico, where groups like the Sinaloa Cartel and the Familia Michoacana have become major players in domestic politics.

The factor that sets Guatemala apart from these contemporary examples is the alarming level of criminal infiltration in its institutions. The country’s armed forces have admitted that some of their members have trained and armed the Zetas. The Guatemalan court system is infamously defective, giving rise to the need for the CICIG's presence to try to ensure that there is at least a chance of organized crime being punished.

In the wake of the recent massacre of 27 laborers in the department of Peten, Colom has been attempting to raise support in both the nation and the region as a whole for a massive anti-narcotics effort. If he does not succeed, the CICIG’s warning may come true.

--- Geoffrey Ramsey is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region.

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