The bloody eruption of the Mexican Zetas cartel into its territory is the latest chapter in a vicious cycle of repeated government failures, massive corruption and criminal violence that threatens the frail democracy of Guatemala, the gateway for most of the drugs reaching the U.S. from Mexico.
Guatemala : Drug Trafficking and Violence , the latest report from the International Crisis Group, calls for decisive action to deal with these challenges. Countries that consume drugs must provide assistance commensurate with their interest in stemming the flow of narcotics. But donors alone cannot rescue Guatemala. The winner of next month’s presidential election needs to find the internal resources and the political will to bolster law enforcement and justice while simultaneously addressing endemic social and economic inequities that are among the most extreme in Central America.
“Both candidates talk tough on crime. That’s fine for winning votes but if the country fails to actually strengthen rule of law institutions, any gains will be illusory”, said Mark L. Schneider, Crisis Group’s Special Adviser on Latin America. “Guatemala’s next president not only has to go after individual drug lords but also provide the police, prosecutors and judges with the resources, training and protection they need to do their jobs and protect its citizens.”
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. In some regions, traffickers themselves have become de facto local authorities, with both illegal and legal businesses that provide jobs, security and social services.
There are signs of progress. An activist attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, is reviving long-stalled investigations into past human rights abuse while aggressively pursuing the current threat posed by organised crime. A veteran human rights activist, Helen Mack, was tapped by the outgoing government to reform the police. The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a unique joint initiative by the UN and the Guatemalan government, is pursuing high-profile cases.
But ending the impunity that has allowed trafficking networks and other illegal organisations to flourish will require a long-term, multi-dimensional effort.
“Under-resourced and widely mistrusted institutions are being overwhelmed by crime, especially at the local level”, said Javier Ciurlizza, director of Crisis Group’s Latin America & Caribbean program. “Confronting these networks will require considerable political will on the part of Guatemalan leaders and substantial financial and moral support from abroad”.