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Guatemala: U.S. should look beyond Mexico in fighting drug trade

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • Guatemala's interior minister says his country needs help combating cartels
  • Organized crime groups have more resources than governments, he says
  • U.N.: Corruption and violence are high in Guatemala
  • More than 200,000 people have been killed there since 1970

(CNN) -- The United States should provide more money to fight drug trafficking in Central America instead of focusing aid dollars only on neighboring Mexico, a top Guatemalan official said.

Guatemala has seen a significant spike in drug violence, including clashes between authorities and members of the Zetas drug gang, Guatemalan Interior Minister Carlos Menocal told CNN en Espaņol on Monday.

And the country needs help combating cartels, which are increasingly carving out new drug transport paths, he said.

Menocal said Guatemalan authorities have seized $5.8 billion worth of assets from suspected criminal organizations since 2008 -- a quantity equivalent to country's entire budget.

"This shows that the structure of organized crime has many more resources than Central American countries have to combat it," Menocal said.

Through the $1.3 billion aid package known as the Merida Initiative, the U.S. provides support for Mexico's drug war, including aircraft and efforts to beef up the country's courts and other institutions. The U.S. government has pledged $165 million to a project known as the Central American Regional Security Initiative, according to the State Department.

In August, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. was committed to promoting security in Central America.

"We are doing everything we can in the fight against corruption and impunity, in providing the equipment and the support that law enforcement and the military require and helping to build civil society to stand against the scourge of drug trafficking," she said at a meeting of Central American leaders.

But Menocal said Monday that far more is needed -- at least $250 million to build the basics of a regional security force to fight drug traffickers.

"In the end, the large majority of drugs travel through Central America, and the assignment of resources or the financial support of the United States government is not the same as Colombia and Mexico receive," he said.

Corruption and violence are high in Guatemala, according to the United Nations, which created a committee in 2006 to investigate those issues there. Carlos Castresana, the former head of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, announced his resignation earlier this year because he felt the country had not made enough reforms to its justice system.

More than 200,000 people have been killed in the nation since 1970, mostly as a result of organized crime, drug-trade violence and a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996.

There were 6,451 slayings in Guatemala in 2009, in which 230 verdicts were achieved, Castresana said earlier this year. That means, he said, that more than 96 percent of the killings last year were not solved.