The Coke Report Guatemala:
The Coke Report Guatemala: The Crown Prince of Central America’s Drug Trafficking
• By land, sea and air, Guatemala funnels drugs into the U.S.
• Today, Central America is the key link to the Colombian drug nexus.
• The region’s economy would dry up if the drug trafficking ban were upheld.
• According to State Department and DEA officials in off-the record conversations, Guatemala is seen as being the “kingpin” in Central America’s drug operations, the single most important component in the area’s drug trade.
• U.S. anti-drug specialists grumble while Washington pretends to see no evil.
• CAFTA is the basis of this puzzle in policymaking.
• These were some of the findings of COHA’s Central American drug researcher, Christina McIntosh.
A Drug Smuggler’s Paradise
Over the past 10 years, Central America has become a major transshipment corridor for cocaine smuggled out of Colombia and into the United States. An estimated 80 percent of the illegal cargo is transported by drug conveyances to Mexico; U.S. officials estimate that up to three-quarters of all cocaine entering through America’s southern border passes through Central America. The corridor has become a smuggler’s paradise because of the under-funded and chronically corrupt local security forces already bedeviled by limited U.S. counter-drug assets and operations, vast stretches of lawless jungle and shoreline, and a compliant population.
Countries once known as banana republics are quickly becoming cocaine republics. When it comes to Guatemala, perhaps the most altogether debilitating factor is that Washington has placed higher priorities on other regional issues than those dealing with the cocaine republics’ drug record. Such priorities can be seen in a number of Washington’s actions, such as its intentional avoidance to act on findings made by its very own anti-drug agencies. As a result, Guatemala typifies the deplorable scenario of a drug trafficking and money laundering nation that would otherwise be chastised. In effect, Washington is sitting on explosive information, refusing to act on it because of the key role Guatemala, Central America’s largest and most populated nation, is scheduled to play in CAFTA (the Central American Free Trade Agreement). Moreover, Washington fears that if the Bush administration displeases Guatemala, it will no longer provide nascent cooperation in the fight against would-be migrants who eventually illegally cross the U.S. border. When it comes to U.S. policy towards Guatemala, one can expect the reprehensible.
America’s Ungoverned Spaces
In a recent interview with National Public Radio, U.S. Army Colonel Mark Wilkins, chief of the military group at the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City, says increased enforcement elsewhere in the Americas over the past decade has corralled the traffickers into Central America. “There are three ways into the U.S. market: one is directly through the Caribbean, one is through the Central American corridor and adjacent waters, and the third route goes deep into the Pacific.” The trend has been for smugglers to use the path running along the Central American corridor, since it is the one of least resistance.
The Colombian traffickers operating in the area serve as a model for their resourcefulness; they crash-land old DC-3s into Guatemala’s wilderness and truck cocaine across isolated border crossings into Mexico. They load up high-powered outboard “go-fast” boats and race along the coastline before abruptly veering inland toward Belize or Mexico. They will employ helicopters, stolen jets, ocean freighters, shipping containers, anything that is available.
From Drugs to
Dan Fisk, deputy assistant Secretary of State for Central America publicly stated, “If you can move drugs and you can move money, you can move people and you can move weapons and you can move a lot of other things. This is why Central America becomes important, because it is, in effect, the soft spot in our security apparatus for a terrorist to exploit, not simply the drug traffickers. Whether you are moving kilos, or people, or weapons, it is the same skill set.”
Despite public statements of concern, particularly over Guatemala’s ever-expanding role, Washington is doing relatively little about the drug inundation. Central America remains a relatively blind spot in the United States’ hemispheric security picture. Current U.S. interdiction policy focuses on the production countries such as Colombia, and not so much on expanding the pressure of transit countries led by Guatemala and Nicaragua. Literally, Guatemala is getting away with murder, in spite of the State Department’s finding in the beginning of this decade that “Guatemala is the preferred country in Central America for storage and consolidation for onward shipment of cocaine to the United States.” Washington helps in small ways to supply local security units with necessary intelligence, donates fuel, furnishes patrol boats and arranges for police equipment to be delivered. The U.S. often has commended local anti-drug efforts, including Guatemala’s record seizure of nine-and-a-half tons of cocaine last year after several years of precipitously declining hauls. However, many skeptics insist that these efforts are more a matter of illusion than reality and that there is an elaborate hoax at play in which U.S. dry policymakers, together with their Guatemalan counterparts, pretend that far more is being accomplished than actually is the case.
Central America has become a thriving way-station market for the movement of cocaine; even small villages are cashing in on the trend. A confluence of events has played into the smuggler’s hands, as U.S. diplomats, political leaders and military personnel are distracted by Colombia as well as Iraq, and now the Asiatic tsunami. Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard, which used to routinely dispatch patrol boats to the region, has been busy covering U.S. coastal and inland waters since September 11, escorting passenger ships and oil tankers into vulnerable harbors. Central American militaries have had their budgets and troop strength slashed since the civil wars of the 1980s ended, leaving large portions of their terrain un-patrolled. Both Nicaragua and Guatemala have appealed to Washington for military aid and related gear to help counter the drug traffickers, with only limited success. Meanwhile, the traditional deep distrust that civil rights protestors have for the Central American military has not dissipated.
In Guatemala, this neglect has brought with it a bitter harvest. A frustrated DEA agent in the region described Central American armies versus the traffickers as little better than “a high school [football] team playing a member of the Big Ten.” In July, the Nicaraguan army staged a military exhibition to show how it would use its Soviet era armor and artillery to repel an invasion. Though the demonstration was respectable enough, it was far too predictable to be a match for the unconventional tactics relied upon by the drug traffickers.
Up-scale traffickers routinely use Global Positioning Systems (GPS), night vision equipment, satellite phones, and the swift go-fast boats in their trade. A senior Nicaraguan army commander concedes that the smugglers are “better equipped than his own forces,” adding “The narco (narcotic) activity has such an abundance of money that their boats and planes [have become all but] disposable; they use them once and then throw them away. What we are trying to do is create a special reactive force on land, air, and the sea, turning to helicopters, boats, and Special Forces to allow us to move quickly to remote locations and stop the traffickers.”
The Salvadoran and Honduran military, close U.S. allies during the 1980s are in slightly better shape than Guatemala’s since neither country has such an extensive problem with drug trafficking, nor are their armed forces so corrupted. Guatemala, the northernmost Central American republic, is particularly popular with smugglers for its long coastline and a border with Mexico. The old demons that infect the Guatemalan army for its horrendous human rights record and reputation for brutality impede a final victory against such traffickers, especially since military corruption is combined with the most venal national police force in the region.
The greatest obstacle to shutting down the Central American drug corridor is the tendency of cocaine money to corrupt everything it touches – the police, the military, prosecutors, judges, and poor populations. In just one example, Guatemala’s elite and heavily U.S.-funded anti-drug force known as the DOAN (Departamento de Operaciones Anti-Narcoticos) was disbanded two years ago after police stole more than a ton of confiscated cocaine. Guatemalan vice president, Eduardo Stein, says he fears his nation is becoming a narco state. “I would not hesitate to say that the Colombianization of Guatemala is underway, you are talking about [a] network of colossal proportions that wields formidable amounts of money and there is no legal employment in the rural areas that can compete with the kind of money they offer.” As the Latin-American saying goes, “Who can resist $10,000 shot out of a cannon”?
Nick Hogan, a former U.S. military trainer in Central America during the 1980s and current head of the Narcotics Affairs section of the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala, generally considered one of the most knowledgeable experts on the subject, told NPR that he believes the region is once again destabilizing. “If you had been working in the region for the past 20 to 30 years you would notice that it almost looks like it is coming around full cycle. I think that Central America will once again become a problem and the United States needs to take notice of that. U.S. security officials say the region that was once over-run by revolutionaries is fast turning into a haven for drug traffickers.”
A Battle for the Seas
Off the Pacific coast of Guatemala, where drug traffickers and the country’s navy battle for control of the cocaine shipments on the high seas, would-be anglers are making illegal and lucrative catches. In early September, the Guatemalan navy launched a five-day drug interdiction mission, Pelican 2, in an area off its Pacific coast that drug and human traffickers frequent. Inside the operation center at the Puerto Quetzal’s naval base, Captain Otta Wontlin affirmed that, “many boats use Guatemalan waters to transport illegal aliens and drugs to the north; this is an operation to intercept those boats.”
The traffickers’ preferred ocean transport vehicle is the go-fast boat; the slender, fiberglass crafts have open hulls that can carry up to two tons of cocaine and extra fuel with three 200 horsepower outboards bolted to the stern, allowing the boat to hit speeds of 60mph, faster than anything the Guatemalan navy possesses or is likely to possess in the near future. In order for Pelican 2 to achieve its objectives, it must first use spotter planes to get a fix on the go-fast boats, which have a dull grey hue, rendering them nearly impossible to be focused on. U.S. counter-narcotics and immigration officers say the movement of drugs and aliens along the coast of Central America is nearly constant. Scores of seaside towns that once exported bananas and palm oil have been drawn into the lucrative business of drugs and contraband trafficking, with those in Guatemala at the head of the column.
The game is to get shipments of Colombian cocaine from sea to shore, where they are then sub-divided and transported in stages to Mexico. One method to accomplish this is to use a fast boat or a drug plane to drop waterproofed 25kilo packages into the sea at a predetermined GPS coordinate, 10-50 miles offshore. A buyer then signals a group of waiting fishermen, who swiftly retrieve the floating bundles. The latter then can re-sell the bagged substance to the buyer for 3-5k dollars per kilo as a transportation fee. The buyer also pays the original Colombian supplies. ‘Lottery of the sea,’ as the local fishermen call it, can be the Almighty’s catalyst to elevate a person out of his or her economic slough and into some big extra money. With their huge resulting profits, local traffickers can purchase a house, car, boat, or taxi in town. These purchases are not only for consumption, but are used as a financial cushion to deal with the gaps in the intermittent, usually unpredictable trafficking cycles.
The secret machinations involved in Central American drug trafficking are endless. At an unloading location for drugs, crews of accomplices collect trash and burn it. Though this would seem an ordinary act, the resultant bonfire from the burning trash essentially signals to another group to unload the drugs at a pre-set location. The drugs are then likely to be transferred to another site where the financial dealings take place. A local informant confides that the police are often paid off to provide protection for the traffickers. Moreover, the traffickers are routinely tipped off to navy operations, allowing for the uninhibited movement of drugs, money, people, and weapons. This is known to be an almost institutionalized practice in the Guatemalan navy and other drug-related institutions.
Repressed Prosperity and Legal
The sudden affluence that cocaine money has brought to coastal towns throughout Central America is visible in all sorts of significant ways. Far grander homes are being erected than ever before, new cars are blazing through the streets, and church tithes are increasing – all funded by cocaine. Unfortunately, but almost predictably, after the five-day Pelican 2 operation, the combined efforts of the navy and air force did not intercept a single drug or human smuggling boat. A Guatemalan navy official denied the allegation that navy personnel may have sold out the operation; he maintained that these naval sorties are strictly controlled, but also acknowledged that there are certain individuals who seek to impugn the prestige of the navy, and that bad weather, not corruption, recurrently keeps the traffickers off the water.
Nowhere is the influence of trafficking stronger than along the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, where cocaine is transforming the fundamental fabric of traditional culture. Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast is populated mainly by Miskito Indians, predominately Afro-Caribbeans descended from freed and escaped slaves. For the past two centuries, coastal residents depended on fishing for their livelihood; however, that is changing with the coming of the illegal drug trade. Those receiving a slice of the drug money see this illegal trade as God’s blessing. Others observe families falling into ruin, people being jailed, and still others forced into a life of secrecy and isolation.
In the absence of public facilities or support, more and more people are relying upon drug income to fund the building of clinics, churches and schools. An exceedingly large number of institutions and individuals have become addicted to drug funding to assist needy families, widows, and even to augment teachers’ salaries. It has become one of the most dependable sources of prosperity, as there are few reliable substitutes that can provide such a handsome return. Very few of the available alternatives could be considered ‘honest’ work, in any sense.
The criminal drug industry is second only to the arms trade in the magnitude of wealth, power and influence it generates. Whole economies now depend upon the production and sale of illegal drugs, and the people who least would like to see the trade decriminalized are the criminal traffickers themselves. If Washington continues to snub the matter, Guatemala, with its unsavory alliance of corrupted officials and traffickers, will remain an important, perhaps irreplaceable, drug smuggling transshipment point between South America and the United States.
This analysis was prepared by Christina
McIntosh, COHA Research Fellow.
January 5, 2005