The "Drugocracy" of Guatemala

The Reemergence of Death Squads and the Drug Trade Boom in Today’s Guatemala:


Colin Powell is ducking his responsibility by waiving the de-certification of Guatemala by making Central America’s free trade agreement more important than upholding a coherent anti-drug policy, exposing the U.S. regional anti-drug policy as a sham.  At the same time, there has been a meteoric rise in rights violations in Guatemala as death squads have reemerged to protect an expanding illicit drug trade through acts of intimidation and murder against prominent political figures, judges, and human rights activists. President Alfonso Portillo’s government is not a democracy, but a “drug-ocracy”.  His weak administration is hopelessly corrupt, linked to organized crime and military-based death squads, and is complicit with, or benefits from the perpetuation of the drug trade. By de-certifying Guatemala but not suspending its $53 million in U.S. aid, the Bush administration essentially debauched its alleged war on drugs and utterly failed to address the serious issue of corruption bedevilling that country. By misusing its already flawed drug certification program, it is able to maintain ties to one of the most venal and violent nations in the Americas.  Guatemala’s instability threatens the White House plan for the formation of a free trade pact with Central America, against which many members of Congress are expected to speak out, based on human rights grounds.


During a visit to Washington in the early 1980s, Efrain Rios Montt, a notorious former Guatemalan military dictator who offered the Mayan-speaking majority of his population a choice between “beans and bullets” before beginning a campaign of “scorched earth” against the country’s indigenous population in which thousands lost their lives, commented in a controversial meeting with soon-to-be inaugurated U.S. President Ronald Reagan, “We have no scorched earth, just scorched Communists.” Montt’s remarks were not just meant to titillate the conservative Reagan and bolster his soon-to-be witnessed crusade against the perceived threat of Communist movements in third world nations, but were, more importantly, a commentary on Guatemala’s history of self-mutilation.


Reagan proved to be far more pre-occupied with stopping the spread of communism during his presidency than opening his ears to the widely reported brutality of the Guatemalan army and associated death squads against their own fellow citizens. It was no secret that the U.S. was responsible for initiating the right-wing military’s almost four-decade reign; a CIA covert operation in 1954 ousted Guatemala’s legitimately elected but leftist president, Jacobo Arbenz, by a series of U.S.-financed military dictators who vowed to combat the alleged communist threat by any means. The country’s brutal civil war, which began in 1960 and ended with the 1996 peace accords, pitted leftist guerrillas against the military and the extremist death squads, with the latter groups being responsible for most of the 200,000 deaths that occurred during the conflict.


More of the Same

In the past year, Guatemala predictably has begun to relapse into the same anarchic behaviour it demonstrated during its earlier, near 40-year civil war. There is an ominous escalation not only in its general level of violence, which in part is due to a rise in the activity of reconstituted death squads (covert, right-wing paramilitary groups linked to the military). Political mob vigilantism, rights abuses, and assassination plots have become increasingly frequent as murky terror groups have reemerged, some with a new motivation: to protect a now booming drug trade. By deferring to the military and the nation’s other extremist power brokers, a weak government led by President Alfonso Portillo is either unwilling or unable to halt a spate of human rights violations or stymie the long existing, but now rapidly growing, narcotics trade. The Bush administration is using the now discredited drug certification process as a weapon in its foreign policy making to signal its political disapproval, rather than use it as a program to combat the proliferation of drugs in the hemisphere by denouncing the authorities who abet it. By taking this approach, it revealed itself as morally indecisive and its anti-drug policy as a sham.

The White House has ostensibly decertified Guatemala for its lack of effort in the anti-drug war, but then issued a waiver based on the need to uphold U.S. national interests, allowing for the continuation of its $53 million in aid to that country. This action relieved Guatemala of all negative consequences of de-certification. Washington did not alter the reality that today, Portillo’s government more closely resembles a “drugocracy” than a democracy – because it is corrupt, implicated in the drug trade, and linked to atrocious rights violations.


De-certification is a Sham


The Bush administration is egregiously misusing the de-certification process. Decertifying Guatemala has little to do with the actual war on drugs, but serves more as a U.S. forum to perfunctorily express its points of view, while still preserving its main objective: to form a free trade association with the Central American nations. De-certification is one more part of the administration’s inept war on drugs – an ineffective and misguided approach that believes eliminating the source of drugs abroad will reduce drug use within the U.S, which fails to provide sufficient internal programs to combat domestic drug abuse. Drug certification only engenders friction between the U.S. and the nation it is intending to reward or punish because it is a unilateral declaration of Washington’s political favouritism, not an effective, co-operative program to combat drug abuse.


Portillo has done little to discourage the expansion of the illicit drug trade. Even the conservative Otto Reich, the former Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, who now has been shifted to the National Security Council (NSC), testified before a House subcommittee in October 2002 that since Portillo has taken office, “narcotics trafficking and alien smuggling are on the rise. Some of the leaders of these activities have very close ties to the highest levels of government and regularly influence decisions, especially with respect to personnel nominations in the military and the ministry of government.”


Since Portillo took office, drug seizures have decreased dramatically. According to a 2001 United Nations Office of Drug and Crime (UNODC) study, Guatemala’s reported seizure of cocaine steadily increased from 956 kg in 1995 to 9,959 kg in 1999. In 2000, however, the year after Portillo took office, this trend reversed and the number plunged to 1,517 kg of cocaine. No one opted to suggest that this was due to a lower volume of drugs being trafficked through Guatemala.


A corrupt anti-narcotics police force is partly to blame. The scope of the problem, however, extends beyond a venal and unprofessional police force and reaches to the upper tier of the Portillo administration. Gabriel Aguilera, Guatemala’s vice minister of foreign relations acknowledged on January 30 that his own government “hasn’t yet achieved a control of the criminal organizations that are behind these illegal activities.” Many speculate, including some senior U.S. officials, that Portillo’s acknowledged failure to curb the drug trade is no accident and is due to his links to the very criminal organizations which he attacks. In fact, some senior U.S. officials believe that he is perhaps more unwilling than unable to slow the drug trade within his borders. In 2002, Amnesty International observed Guatemala to be a “corporate mafia state.”

A Nation of Violence


Vigilante violence has become more common in Guatemala as the long dysfunctional judicial system remains unreformed. Numerous rights violations have even occurred since last month. An unidentified assailant hurled a grenade into a home in Villanueva on January 19, killing a family of 4. On January 18, in the remote village El Arenal, a mob beat two men to death after they had attempted to murder another resident of the village. Earlier in the same month, a mob of over 100 people beat an individual to death in the northern province of Coban. Although local police officials did not specifically link these incidents to the military or government, the cases reflect not only an increase in mob violence, but at the very least indicate a reckless judicial system and an incompetent police force. Today, vigilante groups assert their own form of street justice with minimal fear of repercussions from the nation’s system of law and order. According to a recent United Nations Mission to Guatemala (MINUGUA) report, 57 Guatemalan mobs tried to kill 129 people over the past two years, resulting in 21 deaths.


The Return of Death Squads


Violence, however, is not limited to vigilante mobs. Long existing rightist death squads have relied on an arsenal of tactics ranging from death threats, to the intimidation of prominent political figures, judges, and human rights activists, as well as resorting to murder. On January 9, 2003 unidentified gunmen assassinated the former congressional leader and head of the Christian Democrats, José Lubon Dubon. A few weeks later, on January 27, death squads attacked the leaders of the opposition National Unity for Hope (UNE) party, resulting in 5 injuries. Supreme Court Justice Jackeline Espa survived an assassination attempt earlier this month when assailants fired at her car. Furthermore, the Supreme Court of Guatemala recently revealed that more than 130 judges received death threats since 2001. The majority of international and local observers, according to a joint statement by the Lawyers Committee on Human Rights and other groups, attribute such activities to illegal armed groups.


High profile assassinations are not a new phenomenon in Guatemala – they occurred in the tens of thousands during the 1980s. Former foreign Minister Alberto Fuertes Mohr, anthropologist Myrna Mack, who investigated displaced indigenous populations during the civil war, and Bishop Juan Gerardi, the head of the Guatemala’s Archdiocesan human rights office, who published a major Truth Commission study implicating the military in the vast majority of the rights-related deaths during the war, were all murdered by clandestine groups for what they stood for.


Preliminary statistics recorded this year demonstrate an ominous increase in murder rates compared to already substantial levels over the past two years. HIJOS, a humanitarian organization based in Guatemala, released a study on January 29 which reported that 61 young people have been murdered in Guatemala City during just the first 3 weeks of the new year. The evidence shows that many of the victims were executed, suggesting links to gang activity. The report explains that “50 percent of the victims showed a bullet wound to the head.” The shocking number of killings and the nature in which these murders were carried out indicate that many were premeditated acts designed by organized groups.

A New Motivation


Why have the death squads reemerged? The escalation of violence and the reintroduction of death squads have accompanied an enormous expansion of the drug trade under President Portillo’s administration. While the government and the military can no longer legitimately argue that they are attempting to suppress a perceived Communist threat which no longer exists, both are complicit in protecting and expanding the highly lucrative drug trade in Guatemala, from which they benefit.


The current illegal armed groups are in fact remnants of the anti-Communist military and civil institutions that existed during the civil strife of the 1980s. According to a 2002 Canadian Disarmament Information Service (CANDIS) report, retired military officers often transformed their entire units into criminal enterprises involved in drug trafficking, protection and political violence. These former soldiers possess intimate knowledge of the nation’s facilities that in the past were used in covert operations, such as secluded landing strips, and control mechanisms for monitoring local populations. This knowledge, along with an easy access to illegal weapons, has facilitated the expansion of the drug trade and curbed the ability to resist incidents of political intimidation or attempts to restrain drug trafficking.


While Guatemala does not produce much of its own cocaine, these tainted officials are capitalizing on its strategic geographic location to advance their roles in the drug trade. Occupying the southern border of Mexico, Guatemala holds a key location in trafficking drugs from South America to the United States. According to Rogelio E. Guevara, the head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Guatemala is becoming an important intermediary point for the storage and shipment of cocaine moving from Colombia to the United States.

Portillo’s Complicity


The increase in death squad activities and other instances of violence in the nation has coincided with President Portillo’s tenure, beginning in December 1999. The current government is hopelessly mired in corruption and intertwined with illicit activity on the part of the military. Many of the same personnel are involved in supervising both military and civilian agencies, and have a long past of human rights abuses. MINIGUA observed that “the army and former military officials are all too often appointed to carry out and supervise strictly civilian duties.”

Portillo is a protégé of Rios Montt, the above mentioned former military dictator who ruled the nation from 1982 to1983. The ex-general, who now presides over the nation’s congress, conducted brutal genocide campaigns during the civil war and many believe he still exerts enormous influence over Portillo. Rios Montt’s brother, Bishop Mario Rios Montt, became the new head of the Catholic Church’s human rights office after the murder of Bishop Gerardi. His appointment created an inherent situation of a radical conflict of interests, for his job is to investigate the same rights violations for which his own brother was allegedly responsible during the civil war.


De-certifying Guatemala


On January 31, President Bush decertified Guatemala, declaring it, along with Haiti and Burma, to be “demonstrably failing” in the past 12 months in their anti-drug efforts. Paul Simons, the acting Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, cited Guatemala’s corrupt anti-narcotics police force as the central reason for the country’s de-certification.


Established in 1986 by Congress, drug certification is a flawed, unilateral U.S. approach to the drug dilemma in the hemisphere. The program is supposed to annually evaluate whether a foreign nation is co-operating with Washington in its international war on drugs. If decertified, the U.S., according to the program, should have suspended the $3.5 million it contributes to Guatemala’s anti-narcotics unit and close to $50 million in general assistance it sends to the nation.


The suspensions of Guatemala, Haiti, and Burma, however, were empty, symbolic steps rather than meaningful policy formulations. President Bush and Secretary of State Powell granted Guatemala and Haiti vital national interest waivers, which allows for, despite de-certification, the continuation of U.S. aid to each country. Simons stated on January 31 that suspending aid to Guatemala would only lead to the further deterioration of their vital national institutions, only exacerbating corruption, organized crime, and the drug trade. The U.S. is continuing aid to Haiti on humanitarian grounds, citing Haiti’s struggles with AIDS, hunger, and access to education. Decertifying Burma is an emblematic political statement because the U.S. has not sent aid to Burma in years.


While arguably a case can be made for Haiti’s waiver, no such case can be made for Guatemala. Unlike the latter, Haiti does not have death squads, a president who is indifferent to drug trafficking, or a military which is the prime factor in both rights violations and the drug trade. Decertifying Guatemala without denying their funding essentially accomplishes nothing and is an irresolute act of faulty logic and moral indecisiveness. The Bush administration candidly identifies the corrupt activity of the Guatemalan government, military, and police force, yet continues to offer it funding and no other alternatives to combat the drug trade. When asked in a press conference on January 31 if the State Department had any plans to bring active and retired military officials with suspected ties to the drug trade to justice, Simon responded that he did not have any information regarding such a plan.


Furthermore, the drug traffickers and the political figures that sanction the drug trade give minimal credence to the de-certification branding, as long as U.S. aid continues. Directly following the announcement, congressional leader Rios Montt declared the U.S.’ negative assessment as an “eminently political” manoeuvre that “seeks to affect the government but will not have, from any point of view, any social, economic, or financial repercussions.” Montt correctly, if insolently, affirms that there is essentially no U.S. policy change towards Guatemala. As a result, government activity, including its corruption and complicit actions with organized crime, will continue unimpeded.


The Bush administration should have not only decertified Guatemala, but should have undoubtedly suspended its aid to that country as well. Portillo’s suspected connections, or at least tolerance of the military-based death squads and the drug trade, his seemingly abundant ties to organized crime, and the explosion of rights violations under his government offer an immutable justification for the U.S. to have applied maximum pressure on the Guatemalan government. Portillo’s administration is so hopelessly corrupt and embroiled in the drug trade, there is no absolute guarantee that the aid being extended is even addressing the appropriate problems. There is too great a distance between the rhetoric of U.S. officials condemning the corruption of Guatemala and the actions they are willing to take to reduce it. The U.S., by continuing to financially assist Guatemala while it possesses knowledge of Portillo’s ties to organized crime, is essentially funding the death squads, subsidizing the drug trade, and perpetuating rights abuses. These factors reveal administration policy as a sham.


By only slapping Guatemala’s wrists by waiving the consequences of de-certification, Washington had other considerations in mind – namely trade. Guatemala’s difficulties with drugs, corruption, and rights abuses are germane because they jeopardize the White House’s plans for the development of a U.S. free-trade agreement with five Central American nations: El Salvador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala. Similar to how a teacher may punish her entire class if one student is misbehaving, the White House could have decided to exercise its maximum leverage by axing plans for the treaty based solely on the actions, or lack of them, by Guatemalan authorities. But, the U.S. would be hard put go ahead and exclude Guatemala from the potential arrangement because it is Central America’s most populated nation and is critical to make any free-trade pact a success. When it came to the issue of augmented trade, the Bush administration was prepared to sacrifice its war against drugs.

What to do


At the signing of the 1996 peace accords, Guatemala pledged to separate the military’s involvement from any civilian rule by placing the police force under civilian authorities. Under the plan, the military would concentrate only on external defence, and to incorporate inter-American institutions in its reform process. Up to this point, minimal progress has been made to achieve these goals. Through their complicity, Guatemalan authorities routinely offer impunity to rights violators and drug traffickers.


On January 16, the Guatemalan human rights prosecutor, Sergio Morales, initiated talks to establish a committee to investigate the existence and operation of clandestine militias in the nation. The government accepted his proposal and a week later named the director of the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, Miguel Vivanco, to oversee the creation of the committee, and planed to incorporate the Organization of American States (OAS) into the initiative. Portillo’s ostensible concession could represent a significant measure towards eradicating death squads. Additionally, the government has pledged to reduce the elite Presidential Guard (EMP), by 25 percent, to 486 members. That body has consistently been tied to an abundance of human rights violations during the civil war. Despite these efforts, few in Guatemala are optimistic that these reforms will come to pass.


Cleaning up Guatemala demands not only the assistance of the international community, but requires the accountability of the Guatemalan government as well as the moral fortitude of U.S. authorities to suspend all aid to that country. Plans to establish a committee to investigate the operations of death squads are also urgently needed. The U.S. cannot continue supporting Portillo’s government with knowledge of its corruption, rights abuses, and links to organized crime and the drug trade. The U.S. cannot establish a free trade pact with Central America until Guatemala reforms and becomes a sound investment, both morally as well as financially. The death squads must be exposed to the Guatemalan public and their funding must be exhausted to achieve stability.


The U.S. has a vested interest to strengthen the Guatemalan government’s fumbling commitment to democracy. Failed nations are more likely to be dependent on illicit activities such as the narcotics trade and are more likely to harbour terrorist groups. If internal reforms are not instituted and government activity does not become more transparent, Guatemala is in danger of becoming Latin America’s next Colombia, a violent nation plagued by ongoing guerrilla warfare, and whose government is hopelessly corrupt and irreversibly intertwined in the drug trade. Guatemala should serve as a warning to Washington and the rest of Latin America of the increasing power and influence of the drug trade as well as a demonstrative model of what could happen to other vulnerable governments throughout the region.


This analysis was prepared by Jason Ballet, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Issued Monday, February 3, 2003 The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. Go to to find out more.