Gangs and common criminals flourish under the same conditions that allow drug traffickers to operate with brazen impunity: demoralised police forces, an often intimidated or corrupted judicial system and a population so distrustful of law enforcement that the rich depend on private security forces while the poor arm themselves in local vigilante squads. Over the past decade, the homicide rate has doubled, from twenty to more than 40 per 100,000 inhabitants. While traffickers contribute to the crime wave in border regions and along drug corridors, youth gangs terrorise neighbourhoods in Guatemala City.
The outrages perpetrated by the most violent Mexican gang, the Zetas – who decapitate and dismember their victims for maximum impact – generate the most headlines. Violent drug cartels, however, are only one manifestation of the gangs and clandestine associations that have long dominated Guatemalan society and crippled its institutions. How to change this dynamic will be one of the most difficult challenges facing the winner of November’s presidential election. Both Otto Pérez Molina and Manuel Baldizón have promised to get tough on criminals, but a hardline approach that fails to include a strategy to foster rule of law is unlikely to yield anything more than sporadic, short-term gains.
For decades, the state itself was the most prolific violator of human rights. During the 36-year conflict that ended with the peace accords of 1996, the armed forces murdered dissidents in urban areas and razed villages suspected of harbouring guerrilla forces. Just as Guatemala was recovering from years of political violence, control of the South American drug trade was shifting from Colombia to Mexico. Increased interdiction in the Caribbean, plus the arrest of Colombian cartel leaders, allowed Mexican traffickers to begin taking over drug distribution in the late 1990s. Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s crackdown after 2006 forced traffickers to import increasing amounts of contraband into Central America and then move it north over land.
The shipment of more drugs through Central America has had a multiplier effect on illegal activities. Violence is especially intense in coastal and border departments, where traffickers and gangs have diversified into other activities, such as local drug dealing, prostitution, extortion and kidnapping.
In some regions, narcotics traffickers have become prominent entrepreneurs, with both licit and illicit businesses. They participate in community events, distribute gifts to the needy and finance political campaigns. Their well-armed henchmen offer protection from other gangs and common criminals. Those who finance opium poppy cultivation provide impoverished indigenous communities with greater monetary income than they have ever known. But these domestic trafficking groups also operate with impunity to seize land and intimidate or eliminate competitors. Local police and judicial authorities, under-resourced and widely mistrusted, offer little opposition.
There are signs of progress. The attorney general is reviving long-stalled investigations into past human rights abuses while aggressively pursuing the current threat posed by organised crime. A veteran human rights activist was tapped by the outgoing government to reform the police. The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a UN-Guatemalan initiative, is pursuing high-profile criminal cases. Donors are financing vetted units, providing new investigative tools and building new judicial facilities. Moreover, over the past year, Central American authorities, with international help, have arrested half a dozen high-level Guatemalan traffickers who are awaiting extradition to the U.S.
But ending the impunity that has allowed trafficking networks and other illegal organisations to flourish will require a long-term, multi-dimensional effort. To shore up recent gains and lay the ground work for sustainable reform it is urgent that:
- the new president allow Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz to complete her four-year term, fully support Police Reform Commissioner Helen Mack and encourage CICIG’s efforts to pursue high profile cases and build prosecutorial capacity;
- political and business leaders work together both to increase government revenues for crime-fighting and social programs and to devise anti-corruption initiatives that will hold officials responsible for their use of public funds;
- regional leaders increase cooperation to interdict illegal narcotics shipments and to break up transnational criminal groups through entities such as the Central American Integration System (SICA);
- the U.S. and other consuming countries provide financial aid commensurate with their national interest in stopping the drug trade and aimed not just at arresting traffickers but also at building strong, democratically accountable institutions; and
- international leaders open a serious debate on counter-narcotics policies, including strategies designed to curtail both production and consumption; it is past time to re-evaluate policies that have failed either to alleviate the suffering caused by drug addiction or to reduce the corruption and violence associated with drug production and trafficking.
Guatemala City/Bogotá/Brussels, 11 October 2011