Pit Stop on the Cocaine Highway
Guatemala Becomes Favored Link for U.S.-Bound Drugs
By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
GUATEMALA CITY -- They call it the airplane graveyard. Scores of torched planes sit in the Laguna del Tigre rain forest, an ecological gem teeming with jaguars and toucans. The planes carried cocaine from Colombia and then were discarded like old soft drink cans, an incidental cost of the multibillion-dollar drug business that is overrunning Guatemala.
In the 1990s, tons of Colombian cocaine were flown to northern Mexico and then driven across the border into the United States. But now better-equipped Mexican military pilots scramble to intercept suspicious planes. So traffickers prefer Guatemala, where the radar is spotty and the government is largely unable to stop the flights, according to Guatemalan and U.S. law enforcement officials.
As a result, Guatemala is now the hottest destination in Central America for Colombian cocaine on its way to the United States. Officials say tons are being flown to hastily carved landing strips in remote places such as Laguna del Tigre or shipped here in fishing vessels or freighters, then loaded onto trucks for a journey across this Tennessee-size country. The drugs are then driven across Mexico and into the United States, hidden in almost anything from cans of house paint to crates of fresh cheese.
"Every day it is a bigger and bigger problem," said Juan Luis Florido, Guatemala's attorney general. "It is a matter of national security for us and for the United States."
The increased cocaine trafficking has left an ugly mark: sensational mob-style killings that U.S. Ambassador John Hamilton has described as "like something out of 'The Godfather.' " He recalled how hit men recently walked into a hospital and killed nurses as well as a suspected drug trafficker lying in a bed. There also has been an alarming rise in the local use of crack cocaine.
The problems have become so severe that some citizens lament that former military governments knew how to control the problem better than the current democratic leaders.
U.S. officials here say they are increasingly concerned about the drug activity. Guatemala, still recovering from decades of civil war, has the largest economy in Central America. The officials say the traffic in cocaine -- and, increasingly, heroin -- is bringing more violence and instability, which have driven hundreds of thousands of citizens to migrate illegally to the United States in recent years.
Guatemalan officials say about 10 percent of the estimated 150 to 200 tons of cocaine a year passing through Guatemala is sold to users here, much of it distributed by street gangs known as maras. Tens of thousands of tattooed gang members who control many poor neighborhoods are Central America's biggest security concern. Their counterparts in the United States, from Los Angeles to Northern Virginia, are alarming U.S. law enforcement officials.
Guatemalan police say that crack cocaine has become a major source of income for gang members here and that because so many of them are now smoking it, violence has become more brutal.
"The drug traffickers use the maras as assassins and as their local salesmen," said Fernando Mendizabal, Guatemala's lead prosecutor for drug-related crimes. "They are used as a tool by organized crime."
Florido, the attorney general, said the problem increased dramatically during the administration of President Alfonso Portillo, whose four-year term ended in January. Portillo is now being investigated for alleged money laundering in the United States and Guatemala. Portillo's vice president, Juan Francisco Reyes Lopez, is in prison on various charges related to fraud; at least two dozen other top members of that administration are imprisoned or under criminal investigation.
Florido said the new government of President Oscar Berger inherited a huge drug trafficking problem and almost no resources to fight it. He said that if Guatemalan anti-drug police happen to spot a drug plane now, they have to ask the army for a helicopter to chase it. There is only one army helicopter available to the police, he said, and it is in poor shape. A second helicopter recently crashed, injuring several anti-drug officers, and has not been replaced.
Florido said it has been nearly impossible to catch the traffickers, who unload their cocaine in minutes and then burn or abandon their planes. He said traffickers with sophisticated boats also usually outrun Guatemalan naval forces, which have limited navigation and communications equipment.
U.S. officials say their ability to help is limited by a congressional ban, passed in 1990, on many types of aid to the Guatemalan military. The ban was imposed in response to a decades-long record of human rights violations during the country's civil war, when the military engaged in widespread torture and summary executions. Human rights groups remain leery of U.S. aid to Guatemalan security services, citing past CIA support for human rights violators.
No U.S. government aircraft are based permanently in Guatemala, though U.S. anti-drug officials said they were occasionally able to borrow a U.S. military plane or helicopter from a base in neighboring Honduras.
Hamilton, the ambassador, said a sign of the limitations facing Guatemala's anti-drug force is aircraft with such old windshields that they are difficult to see out of. "I think it would make sense for us to put a modest amount of money into spare parts and into enhancing their maintenance capabilities for their intercept aircraft," he said.
"I think that Washington is taking a fresh look at the possibility," Hamilton added. "It's a combination of our own interest and a feeling that we have a moral obligation to help a government that is really trying hard."
Florido said Guatemala needs far more from the United States than spare parts.
A case that has focused attention on the trafficking problem here is that of Otto Herrera, a Guatemalan citizen who is accused of being a key Central American connection between Colombian drug cartels and distributors in the United States. Herrera, 39, who is married to a woman from the United States, was arrested at the Mexico City airport in April, a year after officials raided his house in an affluent Guatemala City neighborhood and found $14 million in cash and two grenade launchers. He currently is in jail in Mexico on drug trafficking charges. The United States had offered a $2 million reward for his arrest, and the Mexican attorney general called his apprehension "great news for the hemisphere."
Social conditions here have also aided the drug traffickers. The overwhelming majority of Guatemala's 12 million people live in poverty, and 30 percent cannot read or write. Hugo Beteta, an academic who is now a top government planning official, said that half of Guatemala's population is younger than 18 and that most of those people have no hope of getting a job. He said poor, idle youths see two choices: migrate to the United States or get involved in the drug trade.
"And if you get tough on migration, what is left for them?" he said.
Officials here say Guatemala's weak judicial system is another attraction for international drug traffickers. In the rare instance that traffickers are caught in Guatemala, they have been known to bribe their way out of jail. U.S. officials were outraged and suspected corruption recently when a known associate of Herrera's was suddenly freed.
Drug trafficking experts say Colombian cartels appear to have found the same fertile ground in Guatemala that they found a decade ago in Mexico. Before he died in 1997, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, one of Mexico's most notorious traffickers, pioneered the use of Boeing 727 jets to fly huge shipments of cocaine from Colombia to Mexico. Now it is Guatemala's turn, the experts say.
"They have changed their strategy, and it's bad news for everyone," Florido said.