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Guatemala, drugs, and corruption

Last week, the official drug czar of Guatemala as well as the chief of national police were arrested for allegedly leading a police ring that stole cocaine from drug traffickers. Now that is deep-rooted corruption.

Guatemala is caught in a vicious cycle. On one side, the police and security forces have become involved in organized crime and other corrupt activities. On the other, such activities are not stopped because law enforcement itself is involved. Thus corrupt acts occur with impunity, leading to further acts, and the cycle continues. Moreover, in a poor country, many may feel that corruption is their best option.

And if there is failure of the rule of law near a major consumer market, there are likely to be drugs. Crackdowns in neighboring Mexico have pushed activity south, and Guatemala has become a major transit country between producers like Colombia and users in the United States. One Guatemalan once told me of traffickers paying poor farmers to allow planes to land in their fields. The farmer is given a package, and then hands it off to another plane later on. Such simple work can earn the farmer tens of thousands of dollars or more. Alternative sources of income seem laughable in comparison.

In addition to the officials just arrested, Guatemala has seen a string of high-level arrests, including the drug czar in 2005 caught on tape bribing a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency official in exchange for protecting U.S.-bound drug shipments. Thus, it appears that Guatemalan officials are using their positions to protect the drug trade in exchange for presumably generous personal benefit.

Feasible solutions are scarce. As one Guatemalan editorial pointed out, purged security forces merely find work in other dishonorable activities: kidnapping, extortion, assault. The author argues that the police are seriously undermined by the penchant in Guatemala to create parallel security bodies who act with impunity in face of the country’s rampant crime. Thus the cycle is fed further: corrupt police lead to more crime which leads to the hiring of private security organizations who commit still greater offenses.

Given the United States’s long-standing interest in reducing the flow of drugs to this country, Secretary of State Clinton has naturally given her attention to Guatemala. She visited last week, admitting that the United States demand is part of the problem and promising help in the form that Central American leaders themselves favor.

As long as drugs remain as profitable as they are, the drug supply chain will always find a place to operate. But Guatemala has become an especially hospitable environment. Cleaning up this struggling country will require simultaneous efforts to change the culture, the practice, and the incentives. Secretary Clinton should be prepared – as should her successors, in what will likely be a long battle. But if a multi-pronged attack is successful, the stability and security it could create for the Guatemalan people will be priceless.



FPB Contributor

Great Decisions Discussion group