Guatemala s Crossroads: Democratization of Violence and Second Chances Julie López - PDF

Guatemala s Crossroads: Democratization of Violence and Second Chances Julie López Working Paper Series on Organized Crime in Central America. December Project Description This paper is part of

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Guatemala s Crossroads: Democratization of Violence and Second Chances Julie López Working Paper Series on Organized Crime in Central America. December Project Description This paper is part of the ongoing work of the Latin American Program on citizen security and organized crime in the region and their effects on democratic governance, human rights, and economic development. This work is carried out in collaboration with the Mexico Institute, which has worked extensively on security and rule of law issues in Mexico. Our goal is to understand the sub-regional dimension of organized crime, focusing on the ways in which the countries of the Andean region, Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, the United States, and Canada play central and inter-connected roles. This essay represents one of three papers commissioned by the Woodrow Wilson Center on the nature and dynamics of organized crime in Central America and its connections to broader criminal networks in Mexico and the Andean region. This paper, along with the others in this series, is a working draft. It may be cited, with permission, prior to the conclusion of final revisions. The paper will be part of a Wilson Center publication planned for early Comments are welcome. If you have questions or comments related to this paper or would like to contact the author, please Eric Olson at and Cynthia Arnson at The research for this project is made possible by a generous grant from the Open Society Foundations. Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars and Julie López 2 Guatemala s Crossroads: Democratization of Violence and Second Chances Guatemala 2010 Julie López EXECUTIVE SUMMARY I. INTRODUCTION II. NATURE AND ROOTS OF OC IN GUATEMALA Genesis of corrupt and criminal structures. Armed conflict shields organized crime. Signing of Peace Accords change dynamics of criminal networks. The haunting failure to dismantle clandestine State intelligence apparatuses. Infiltration of the judicial system, the Congress, the Executive branch, and the military. III. ROLE OF GUATEMALA IN OC NETWORKS FROM SOUTH TO NORTH AMERICA Types of criminal activity (OC and DTOs) in Guatemala and links between them. Links between criminal activity in Guatemala (gangs, OC), other Central American countries, Mexico and Colombia. Role of Guatemala. Geography, organization and structure of local and foreign of DTOs in Guatemala. IV. CAUSE AND EFFECT OF NEIGHBORING OC ACTIVITY Fight against OC and human rights concerns. Strategies to confront challenges posed by OC and DTOs. Striking a balance between political alliances and political will. Merida Plan and role and relevance of foreign assistance. V. CONCLUSION EXECUTIVE SUMMARY EXECUTIVE SUMMARY Executive Summary The State of Guatemala is embarked in two wars. On the one hand, it s fighting organized crime; on the other, it s at war with itself. While significant portions of its resources are used to fight drug trafficking and extortions, and an explosion of other organized crime activities, the State seems to be imploding from corruption and insufficient professional personnel in the public sector. After a 36-year internal conflict, this stage in Guatemala s history is often desceribed as the key time to decipher the origin of the country s current maladies. But the answer is not so clear cut. Security and political analysts attribute the proliferation of organized crime to the Intelligence Structures and Clandestine Security Apparatuses (CIACS, their acronym in Spanish) that were not dismantled after the peace accords were signed. They also attribute it to scores of men left unemployed after the end of the conflict, whose main skill was knowing how to fire a gun. The origin of organized crime and the elements contributing to its growth are broad and complex. Criminal structures can be seen as a three-legged stool, where the three legs are the local crime lords or capos, foreign criminal networks, and local corrupt authorities which, throughout history, have involved civilians and the military. Some analysts trace the first signs of these structures back to the 1940s, beginning with the strengthening of local criminal networks that worked with foreign contacts on a regional level. Other origins are traced backed to contraband networks dating back to colonial times and the 18 th century. One main turn of events is found in the early 60s when most State structures were under military control, including the surveillance of the entire country as part of the counterinsurgency strategy. No significant criminal activity could be conducted without the army s knowledge. This strategy enabled them to create a network of informants that was later used to cover up participation in contraband and other illegal activities. These networks included contacts in immigration, customs and police agencies. Some contacts willingly cooperated with corrupt military officials; others acted as facilitators (as in the counterinsurgency context) without knowing that the military was abusing its authority. During the height of the armed conflict, criminal activity was camouflaged by internal warfare, and the fight against insurgency did not allow full detection of the growth of criminal structures. When the peace accords were signed, some of the CIACS which had been operating with impunity, and perpetrating human rights abuses had also been engaged in organized crime, and continued to do so after the conflict ended. Criminal networks kept their contacts inside the State, both military and civilian, as proved by numerous cases of infiltration in the judicial system, Congress, Executive branch, police and army. Other significant factors also include the relaxation of quality control in the training and vetting of troops in the army during the early 1980s, police officers since 1997, and public sector personnel since the 1960s. As a result, some were more susceptible to being tainted by money from criminal sources. Simultaneously, every electoral period carries along scores of party supporters who are placed in government positions as payment for political favors. Professional standards are not always the main criteria for the choice of personnel. This trend does not fall under the umbrella of organized crime, but contributes to it by fostering corruption and facilitating certain criminal behavior. These conditions would have prevailed regardless of the counternarcotics strategies in Mexico and Colombia. However, the composition of criminal networks in Guatemala might have been different had the Mexican DTO s not had such a strong presence in the country since the late 1990s. 4 Guatemala s geographical position makes it a preferred transit point for several types of OC s networks. The country hosts structures that engage in extortion, kidnapping, car-theft, illegal immigration, trafficking in persons, trafficking arms and drugs, among others. Most kidnappers and extortionists operate at a national level, although some of the latter have money laundering structures that stretch to Panama and further. Illegal immigration and trafficking in persons networks have connections in South and Central America and continue on to Mexico and the U.S.; car theft networks have intended markets as far as Europe. Illegal drugs transit from south to north, coming directly from Colombia, or including detours in Panama and Honduras. Guatemala is both a transit point and a warehouse. Both weapons and drug money travel from north to south, going through Mexico, continuing on to Guatemala and Honduras by land. Small quantities of money are transported by air in commercial flights by individual passengers. Two major foreign drug trafficking organizations operate in Guatemala: the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel and the Zetas, which took over former Gulf Cartel holdings in the country. The Sinaloa group was identified with operations in the southern coast, and the Gulf Cartel (now the Zetas) operated mostly in the north and center of the country, and branched out to Guatemala s Atlantic coast, but the scenario is changing. Trafficking groups appear more concerned with guarding routes than entire territories. The two main local families negotiating with foreign traffickers are the Lorenzanas on the eastern border, and the Mendonzas, on the Atlantic coast and north of the country, as well as some small families near the high-lands. U.S. authorities estimate that in 2010, some 250 to 300 tons of cocaine go through Guatemala en route to the United States that is 50 to 100 tons more than their 2000 estimate. However, in 2009, Guatemalan authorities only seized 58 per cent of the amount seized in At least 10 per cent of the drugs that aren t accounted for stay in the country as payment for transportation. The rest are taken to Mexico and, eventually, the U.S. Lack of political will and commitment that is both strong in depth and scope seem to be missing from long term endeavors in security, in part by the multiplicity of political parties and the limited life-span of each one. The strongest political parties soar for two administrations before they start disintegrating, making it difficult to lend continuity to any policies they supported while in office, or when they were strong members of the opposition. The current Congress includes representatives from 14 parties, each one with at least two political currents including the official National Unity of Hope (UNE, its acronym in Spanish), making it challenging to pass laws aimed at fighting organized crime, or the tax reform, much needed to increase funds allocated to security. Human rights concerns also abound at all levels, from abuse of authority against the civilian population, to extra judicial executions, to authority enforcers (such as the police) being abused by a system that denies them the right to proper working conditions. Despite the generally accepted understanding that Guatemala s current security issues have been festering for decades, the current Álvaro Colom administration has confronted strong criticism from political opposition and the private business sector due to corruption scandals and soaring violence. However, diplomats acknowledge two positive signs: the 2007 creation of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG, its acronym in Spanish), by request of the previous government and with the support of the United Nations Organization, and the appointment of human rights activist Helen Mack as head of the Police Reform Commission. So far, CICIG has yielded concrete results in the judicial system not seen in years, or ever. In the meantime, efforts are being made to request the extension of the Merida Initiative s scope, which comprises US$16 million for Guatemala (mostly for programs against addiction), to also include 5 counternarcotics operations and development projects in areas where OC has filled the void left by the State (traffickers garner the loyalty of local communities by providing them basic services). Today, the country is seen as standing at a crossroads where it can continue along a path of democratization of violence, of indiscriminate homicidal rates that encompass all social groups in urban and rural areas alike, or it can embark in a long term police reform that could along with institutional strengthening in the whole justice system help reverse the current trends and increase security. Yet, the answer as to which path it will follow, as the late 2011 elections draw closer, is not clear. The quality of the results will not be visible until a few years down the line. I. INTRODUCTION September 15, 2010 began with a bang, literally. Unsuspecting shoppers enjoying a leisurely Independence Day holiday at Guatemala City s Tikal Futura Mall found themselves in the middle of a shootout. Hours later, the news: police had tried to arrest Mauro Salomón Ramírez, wanted since 2009 by a Tampa Florida court on conspiracy charges to import 3.7 tons of cocaine to the United States (US). Ramírez escaped, but he left behind a trail of death and unanswered questions. One policeman and a pastor were killed in the crossfire. 1 In the hours and days that followed, Ramírez s wife, ex-wife, and brother (in possession of $1.8 million dollars) were arrested. Two weeks after the Tikal Futura shootout, Ramírez himself was captured in Suchitepéquez, in southeast Guatemala. Authorities also seized a handful of weapons, SUVs and millions of dollars. Ramírez s was a landmark arrest. 2 Twenty years had passed since Guatemalan authorities had arrested a key player from one of its local drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). In 1990, Arnoldo Vargas, then mayor of the city of Zacapa near the border with Honduras, was arrested and extradited to the US two years later on drug trafficking charges. Vargas was sentenced to 30 years in prison by a New York court. Since then, other Guatemalans wanted on the same charges have been arrested (and flown to the U.S.), but none of these arrests took place in Guatemala until Ramírez, whose extradition process is currently in progress. After Ramírez s arrest, local press released a video showing a police officer at the Tikal Futura Mall carrying a bag of money the apparent contents of the bag disclosed by a conversation between him and another police officer. No one, including the prosecutors at the scene, had registered the seizure of money. 3 The images muddied the successful arrest, highlighted the apparently perennial corruption in the 1 Policías se balearon y dieron muerte al pastor, Prensa Libre, October 27, 2010, found at: 2 Ex esposa de presunto capo Ramírez apela prisión preventiva, Prensa Libre, September 30, 2010, found at: Capturan a colombiana, esposa de capo Ramírez Barrios, Prensa Libre, September 30, 2010, found at: Envían al Preventivo de la zona 18 al hermano del capo Ramírez, Prensa Libre, October 3, 2010, found at: Quetzaltenango_0_ html; Capturan a Mauro Salomón Ramírez en Suchitepéquez, Agencia Guatemalteca de Noticias, October 2, 2010, found at: Localizan dinero en auto del capo Mauro Salomón Ramírez, Prensa Libre, September 18, 2010, found at: 3 Policías se apropian de dinero durante operativo en Tikal Futura, Prensa Libre, October 12, 2010, found at: Fernández, Dina, 6 police, and were reminiscent of a yet unanswered question: why was a police officer on the September 15 operation discovered carrying an undisclosed amount of U.S. dollars, Euros, and Guatemalan currency? Press reports quoted Minister of the Interior, Carlos Menocal, dismissing the video as a fabrication and saying that the money was no cause for alarm because the amount was insignificant. However, even before the video surfaced, word about money having been unofficially seized at the Tikal Futura Mall was spreading quickly within police circles. 4 Guatemala City residents were still trying to decide whether the September 15 incident was the beginning of a trend in the country s capital, or an isolated incident, when that event was overshadowed by an almost equally shocking one on October 16. On that day armed thugs walked into a Mexican restaurant and shot a man point blank. In the process, they also killed two women and injured eight others. The crime scene was in the Zona Viva that clusters the most expensive hotels and touristy area of the capital. 5 The shootout was a grim reminder that this is an age of insecurity for everybody, of indiscriminate violence with no regard for people or places. The October 16 attack included victims such as 28-year old Jennifer Prentice, who just months earlier received her PhD at the London School of Economics; and 15- year old Patricia Velásquez, who sold candy and chewing gum in the Zona Viva to make a living. However, what surviving victims experienced that early morning is what residents of countless towns and villages have already lived through for years in remote and not so remote areas of rural Guatemala. Now violence is more visible because it has reached the doorstep of Guatemala s middle and upper classes (less than 47% of the total), whose voices are usually heard louder. The events in the last third of 2010 bring both despair and hope. While Ramírez s arrest is significant, it also highlights that plenty remains to be done to deal with corruption amongst the country s security forces and parts of the judicial system. The problem has been endemic for many years pre-dating the end of the country s armed conflict and the December 1996 peace accords that brought a formal end to it. Now, 14 years later, Guatemala has a second chance. With nearly three years of work and several concrete results from the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG, its acronym in Spanish), 6 the country is also on the verge of restructuring the role of the army and launching a police reform project that will take 13 years to complete. But obstacles abound, including the lack of financial resources and political will to ensure continuity of the reforms. Surpassing both obstacles would allow Guatemala to adopt police reform as a State policy and not as a temporary reform with the life-span of the current presidential administration (which will end on January 14, 2012). Guatemala s transition from internal armed conflict to a post-conflict period, begun in 1996, has been turbulent. The formation in 1997 of the National Civilian Police (PNC, in Spanish), to replace its predecessor National Police (with strong military links), was intended as the State s response to organized crime (OC) and common crime, which, in turn, had grown and strengthened in the shadow of the 36-year armed conflict. The challenge overwhelmed the PNC and the gap between Guatemala s security needs Policías sin ton ni son, El Periódico, September 20, 2010, found at: 4 Author interview with retired police detective; Guatemala City, Guatemala, September 27, Indignación por ataque asesino en la Zona Viva, Prensa Libre, October 17, 2010, found at: 6 The CICIG was formed in 2007 at the request of the Guatemalan government. Through an accord between the United Nations Organization and the Government of Guatemala that established the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, the CICIG investigates corrupt State structures linked to OC.. 7 and the police s capabilities only widened in the last decade due to the State s failure to strengthen civilian authority and capacity. The armed forces, once seen as the country s greatest evil by left-wing groups and part of civil society due to atrocities committed during the armed conflict, are now being utilized to support police efforts to rescue the country from the turmoil caused by organized crime. Today the international community is searching for signs of a long-term commitment from the Guatemalan authorities, one that will surpass any given administration, to cleanse State institutions of corruption and strengthen the armed forces, so the country can participate as a capable and strong partner in the regional fight against OC. Although donor countries view CICIG s presence in Guatemala as a step in the right direction, they acknowledge that it is not a magic wand, and have pressed Guatemala to invest in institutional strengthening as a key to continuing the flow of foreign assistance. Will Guatemala make the necessary investments? Only time will tell. The next two years will be critical the final year of the current administration and the first year of the incoming one. This is history in the making. II. NATURE AND ROOTS OF OC IN GUATEMALA In examining the origins of OC structures in Guatemala, it is necessary first to determine what criminal phenomena are linked to OC. Organized crime has become a one-size fits all explanation for what doesn t have any other apparent explanation, 7 says Ricardo Stein, Special Advisor to the Resident Coordinator of the United Nations System in Guatemala, and consultant
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