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Gangs, drugs fuel violence in Guatemala

By Arthur Brice, CNN
An armed and hooded man stands guard to prevent an attack by the Salvatrucha gang in the Castana neighborhood.
An armed and hooded man stands guard to prevent an attack by the Salvatrucha gang in the Castana neighborhood.
  • Violence emerges as a key issue ahead of presidential elections
  • Nearly 6,000 people met violent deaths last year, the government says
  • Former diplomat: "They are really teetering on the brink of becoming a failed state"

Guatemala City, Guatemala (CNN) -- The smartly-dressed, blond woman emerged from a tony restaurant on Avenida Reforma, one of Guatemala City's main boulevards. A tall, broad-shouldered and barrel-chested man preceded her, his eyes calmly scanning the parking lot from behind dark sunglasses. Two other similar-looking bodyguards trailed behind her as they walked toward a luxury SUV.

As the vehicle pulled out into midday traffic, the three guards sat with their passenger windows open -- one in the front seat, two in the back -- their heads slowly swiveling as they inspected their surroundings in full surveillance-and-protect mode.

Guatemalans -- wealthy or not -- tell pollsters and just about anyone else who asks they are plenty worried when it comes to crime and violence in the Central American country, labeled by some observers as one of most dangerous nations in the world.

The government reports that 6,500 people met violent deaths in 2009 and nearly 6,000 were slain last year in Guatemala -- a nation slightly smaller than Tennessee in size, with a population of about 14 million.

Forty-one percent of those deaths were linked to drug trafficking, President Alvaro Colom has said.

Top-level politicians, including most of the 10 candidates competing in the presidential election on Sunday, openly say that corruption pervades all levels of government and police. Colom maintains it exists "in all kinds of structures, not only in the government."

In addition, the U.S. State Department reported this year that more than 96% of all crimes go unpunished.

And even when criminals are arrested, they continue their activities inside prison, said Fernando Carrera Castro, director of the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies in Guatemala City.

"The prisons, in general, are centers of corruption," Carrera said last year. "From inside prison, they direct kidnappings, extortion, drug trafficking."

The result, said a June 2010 report by the watchdog International Crisis Group, is that Guatemala has become one of the world's most dangerous countries.

"They are really teetering on the brink of becoming a failed state," said Donald Planty, the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala from 1996-99.

Much of the violence is due to the increasing presence of Mexican drug traffickers, particularly the ruthless Zetas cartel.

Planty points out that the Zetas and other cartels control the northern third of the country, particularly Peten, a province that borders Mexico.

"Peten is like the 'Wild West' for Guatemala. There's very little state presence," security analyst Samuel Logan told CNN this year.

But it's not just in Peten.

Former Special Prosecutor for Counter-Narcotics Leonel Ruiz told the BBC in June 2009 that the Zetas operated in 75% of the country. And the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute said last year that the influence of organized crime groups rivaled or exceeded that of the Guatemalan government in 40% of the country.

Logan notes there are two main criminal elements in Guatemala: transnational drug cartels that deal in large-scale exportation and street gangs that sell drugs at the retail level and are involved in other crimes, such as robbery and extortion. In many cases, the two groups work together.

The youth street gangs, known as "maras," account for nearly half of crimes in Guatemala City and about 40% nationwide, Interior Minister Carlos Menocal said last year.

And those maras are heavily armed, Menocal says, pointing out that the cartels provide the local gangs with weapons to sell.

"Two-and-half-years ago, we could tell that the maras were still using makeshift rifles," Menocal is quoted as saying in a draft report released Thursday by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "Now they use AK-47s, Galils, AR-15s, machine-guns with laser visors, plus 9 mm and .40 brand new guns."

Authorities estimate that between 1.2 million and 1.8 million weapons are in use in Guatemala, according to the report.

The large-scale drug trade flourishes in Guatemala for several reasons.

U.S. officials point out that their interdiction efforts have disrupted previous sea channels for Colombian cocaine headed to the vast American market. As a result, traffickers have turned to an overland route through Central America, particularly through Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, an area known as the Northern Triangle.

Admiral James Winnefeld, in charge of the U.S. Northern Command, told the U.S. Senate in April that almost all of the cocaine headed for the United States crosses into Mexico through Guatemala. Those shipments amounted to about 250 to 300 tons last year, an increase of up to 100 tons in the past decade, the Wilson Center report said, citing the U.S. Narcotics Affairs Service.

The drug surge in Guatemala also results from Mexican President Felipe Calderon's war on the cartels, which he launched shortly after coming into office in December 2006. About 40,000 people have died as a result, the Mexican government says.

Guatemala shares a 620-mile porous border with Mexico and many traffickers and other criminals have no trouble navigating the estimated 700 unofficial crossings. A "balloon effect" results when "reductions in illegal drug activity in one country lead to an increase in another," the Wilson Center observed.

"Guatemala is at the epicenter of the drug threat," said a report last year by the U.S. International Narcotics Control Strategy.

But criminal activity is not limited to the drug trade. Widespread abductions, vehicle thefts, extortion, money laundering and human trafficking also plague the nation.

It's no surprise then that a Vox Latina national survey in July found that more than two-thirds of Guatemalans said violence was the issue that concerned them most, far outpacing the combined totals for the economy, unemployment, poverty and lack of education.

Given those fears, it's also no surprise that law-and-order candidate Otto Perez Molina -- a former army general -- is polling about two times higher than his nearest challenger in Sunday's presidential election.

"The more crimes that occur, the more people want him," said Eduardo Asturias Rinze, a 28-year-old agronomist whose family owns a 250-head dairy farm in southern Guatemala.

The latest polls show Perez Molina falling short of the 50% plus one vote needed to win the election outright in the first round. Nearest rival Manuel Baldizon would likely face Perez Molina if the election goes to a second round on November 6. The new president takes office in January.

Perez Molina has staked much of his candidacy on a pledge to implement a policy of "Mano Dura" (Hard Hand) against criminals.

Analysts agree that Perez Molina will likely win the election but are divided on whether Mano Dura would prove successful.

"Otto Perez is clearly going to win," said Planty, the former U.S. ambassador. "This is good for Guatemala because the principal issue across the board is security."

However, he said, "Mano Dura needs to be nuanced and refined."

A Mano Dura policy tried in El Salvador relied on greater budgetary expenditures, the suppression of legal guarantees, jailing more young people and minors, expediting trials and extending punishments, the United Nations Development Programme said in a 2010 report on security on Central America.

"Mano Dura has failed in countries that tried it," the U.N. report said. "The crime rates did not fall."

"Mano Dura has proven its capacity to produce votes among a population that rightfully demands solutions, but it will only aggravate the problem," the report said.

Latin America security analyst Logan, who wrote a book about the Mara Salvatrucha gang in 2009 and just finished another one on the Zetas cartel, said he's likewise concerned about Mano Dura.

"If you talk with people in El Salvador," he said, "they'll agree that the Mano Dura did nothing more than overcrowd their prisons."

Former Gen. Perez Molina, who also served as Guatemala's intelligence chief, has said he is willing to increase use of the military in the fight against crime or even accept help from U.S. armed forces.

Logan sees good and bad to this approach.

"On the plus side, if he becomes president he brings to bear a certain level of experience on the intelligence level," he said.

"On the negative side ... in terms of the Mano Dura, pushing harder against organized crime groups with the military is putting the cart before the horse. It puts the military in the field when they're not ready for it."

And there's no guarantee that the military can succeed, Logan said.

"We've seen in Mexico that the Zetas don't have a problem taking on the military in combat," the analyst said. "It could end up being more violent than Mexico."

Logan also worries about civil liberties.

"Mano Dura plus implementation by the military will lead to an increase in violence," he said. "There also could be human rights abuses."

Perez Molina has denied accusations by a Guatemalan indigenous organization that he violated human rights as an army officer during the country's 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996. His supporters point out that scant evidence of the alleged abuses has been found.

Planty, the former diplomat, defends the former army commander, saying "the human rights allegations are largely unfounded."

For his part, Baldizon, the likely runner-up in Sunday's election, has offered a plan to form a 25,000-member national guard to fight crime and obtain intelligence. He also has said he would send the military to protect the border.

Some observers say Guatemalan police are just not up to the job. In a country with 22,000 police officers, the U.N. Development Programme points out there are 73 private security companies, about 120,000 bodyguards or private security agents and more than 60 gun shops.

"Security is privatized and militarized in Guatemala," the U.N. report said.

But that security comes at a price.

"Violence here affects the poorest people out of all proportion," the U.N. agency concluded.

The rich, it seems, can afford to hire burly security guards who will walk them to their luxury vehicles and drive them home in perceived protection.