From October 30 to November 5, 2016, I traveled to Guatemala to interview experts in the defense and security sectors about transnational organized crime and the work of the Guatemalan government to confront the challenge. Narco-trafficking, urban street gangs, and a web of hidden influences continue to cast a shadow over the country. But despite the struggles and public perceptions, Guatemala is making impressive progress against criminality, corruption and dysfunctional institutions. It’s a good-news story that deserves to be told.
Because of its geographic proximity to the U.S.—and the access point to the U.S. for narcotics and human trafficking that that affords—Guatemala is a strategically important country to the United States. Moreover, it has also invested heavily in partnering with the U.S. addressing its security challenges. The success of Guatemala’s security policies has both important lessons for U.S. policymakers and significant bearing for U.S. engagement in the region more broadly.
References to Guatemala in the U.S. press generally focus on child migrants, the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 street gangs or the United-Nations sponsored anti-corruption commission CICIG, which helped bring about the arrest of the former president General Otto Pérez Molina. Yet, since the country’s “low point” in 2008, the government has successfully fought off an invasion by the violent Mexican criminal cartel Los Zetas, dismantled significant parts of four of the five major drug-smuggling organizations in the country (the Mendozas, Lorenzanas, Lopez Ortiz, and Leon family clans), brought murders and major crimes down by more than 50 percent, and done so with a military role in public security that is modest and decreasing. At the same time, Guatemala has also made significant progress against high-level corruption and strengthened key public institutions and processes.
The statistics are impressive. From a high-point of 46 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2008, Guatemala ended 2015 with a rate of 29.5 per 100,000, and is on track to end 2016 at 23 per 100,000. Similarly, serious crimes fell to 97 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015, and may finish 2016 at 90.
With respect to violent street gangs, Guatemala has always been less affected than neighboring El Salvador and Honduras. The 12,000 gang members in Guatemala are dominated by Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13 or Maras) and the larger Barrio 18 (B-18). In contrast to neighboring El Salvador, in Guatemala the two gangs are mostly limited to marginal neighborhoods on the outskirts of the capital, such as Villanueva and Mixto.
The Guatemalan national police (PNC) and “citizen security squadrons” associated with the armed forces have helped to keep the Maras at bay, yet the national presence of the gangs has arguably been limited even more by the nation’s 100,000-plus private security whose presence in the businesses and neighborhoods of those with the resources to pay for them has effectively blocked the gangs from descending into the more prosperous neighborhoods in the center of Guatemala City. In the rest of the country, narco-traffickers and citizen vigilantes, in the tradition of the nation’s 36-year civil war, effectively maintain their territory free of gang infestations by killing any criminal interlopers who dare to establish a presence and extort local communities.
Guatemala is a key transit country for narcotic trafficking, human trafficking and contraband. Approximately 80 percent of drugs traveling from South America for the U.S. pass through Guatemala or its territorial waters.
As in Mexico and other parts of Latin America, the elimination of high-profile narco-traffickers in recent years has fragmented the drug smuggling business in Guatemala. By one estimate, there are 54 distinct groups in the country, most focused on transporting drugs through the national territory under contract to, or to sell to, Mexican cartels such as Sinaloa.
With respect to the main trafficking groups, although the two leading Mendoza brothers have been eliminated, three continue, working with Mexico’s Gulf cartel among others, to move cocaine along routes principally in the east of Guatemala. Similarly, of the four Lorenzana brothers, one continues to be active, transporting drugs along western routes. While the once-feared Mexican group Los Zetas have largely been eliminated from Guatemalan territory, the Mexican cartel Jalisco Nuevo Generación reportedly has a modest presence in areas such as Coban, seeking to build ties with the remnants of the organization of narco-trafficker Horst Walther Overdick, previously the Zetas principal local partner in Guatemala.
An important byproduct of government actions against the leadership of the Mendozas, Lorenzanas, Lopez Ortiz, and Leon organizations in recent years has also been to elevate the importance of a longstanding, well-entrenched, but low-profile group centered in Huehuetenango, the “huistas.” The group has now become one of the most important narco-trafficking groups in the country, buying cocaine at the Honduran and El Salvadoran border, and selling it to the Mexican Sinaloa cartel at the Mexican border.
While Guatemala has been used to temporarily warehouse north-bound drugs, it has generally been free of laboratories for transforming intermediate products into cocaine. However, heroine poppies are grown in the poor, mountainous department of San Marcos, financed by local, largely indigenous families, and transformed domestically into an intermediate product that is transported to the border and sold to Mexican narco-traffickers.
Prior to 2012, the Department of San Marcos, and to a lesser degree, El Progreso, were the site of methamphetamine labs, but such activities have been curtailed thanks to stricter regulation of precursor chemicals, in combination with coordination by the Guatemalan government through the United Nations with the Chinese government (the principal source of precursor chemicals) regarding commercial shipments of relevant chemicals bound for Guatemala.
Building the state
In addition to drugs, Guatemala is also a transit country for migrants, including not only those from Latin America, but also from the PRC and other locations. During the past year, some 1,500 migrants from Africa have arrived at Guatemala’s borders, up from less than 20 the year prior. Unfortunately, because the government lacks agreements with many of these countries regarding the treatment of undocumented immigrants, as well as resources to deport them, after recording information about them, Guatemalan authorities free them to continue their journey through Mexico. The capability of the Guatemalan government to address challenges such as street gangs and narco-traffickers, in conjunction with partners such as the U.S., has advanced considerably in recent years under both the previous government of Pérez Molina and the current government of Jimmy Morales. Even combined, though, the effectiveness of the two countries efforts has still been hampered by serious shortcomings in resources and institutions.
Since 2008, working in conjunction with U.S. institutions such as the Defense Institution Reform Initiative (DIRI), Guatemala has developed a sophisticated national security planning system, with relevant documents and processes coordinated through the Technical Secretariat of Guatemala’s National Security Council that meets with the President at least once a month.
The Guatemalan national police (PNC) has also taken significant steps forward, expanding in size to 35,000 members with plans to grow by a further 6,000. The increase in force is, in part, to cover the planned elimination of the paramilitary “citizen security squadrons,” organized by the armed forces, currently supporting the PNC throughout the country. The PNC has also expanded screening of recruits and confidence testing mechanisms such as polygraphs amongst members. To improve the professionalization of the police, it has also established clearer standards for internal promotion. This has included increased educational requirements and establishing a year-long undergraduate police sciences program and associated masters degrees.
Beyond such reforms, under Pérez Molina, numerous functional task forces were set up within the police and the interior ministry (under which the police are located) to increase coordination between government agencies in addressing pressing needs, including the fight against narco-trafficking, extortion, homicide, and the robbery of vehicles and cellphones, among other areas. While these “thematic” task forces have now been eliminated, some have been transformed into new organizations, such as the police anti-gang directorate, DIPANDA.
A key element in the fight against organized criminal groups is attacking their finances and financial activities. To this end, Guatemala has created one of the most respected financial intelligence units in Central America, the Intendencia de Verificacion Especial (IVE), located within the nation’s banking oversight organization, yet coordinated with the Attorney General’s office in order to develop cases. The organization also shares data and best practices with financial intelligence organizations in other countries through the Edgemont Group—which includes non-Central American governments—the international association of financial oversight organizations of which the IVE has been a member for more than a decade.
The Guatemalan armed forces also support the fight against organized crime, yet in a more limited fashion than many other countries in the region. Although the armed forces served as a pillar of Guatemalan society before and during the 1960-1996 civil war, that role has been progressively reduced in recent years, with the 1996 peace accords limiting their budget to a mere .33 percent of GDP, and with former president Oscar Berger cutting their post-conflict strength to a mere 15,000 in 2004 and eliminating the bases in each department (state) in the nation—an infrastructure that once allowed them to project a presence throughout the country.
Since 2006, the military has supplemented the police in maintaining public order through paramilitary “citizen security squadrons.” There are currently a total of 9 such squadrons of 500 people, commanded by active-duty military officers down to the company level, but manned by military reservists, brought in under contract. Today, these units are used to augment the police through joint units in difficult urban areas, with four deployed in the greater Guatemala City area in joint task forces such as “Maya,” “Milagro,” and formerly “Kaminal,” and remaining five in other parts of the country.
Despite a relatively successful track record, as noted previously, because of a commitment to remove the military from public security functions, the current administration is working to replace these units with regular police, pulling 1500 reservists out of 21 urban neighborhoods during the past year alone, and seeking to phase out the organization entirely, possibly before the end of 2017.
Beyond the squadrons, the military is also supporting anti-crime efforts through the contribution of forces to territorially-oriented, multi-agency task forces under the command of the police, including Tecun-Uman on the border with Mexico in the departments of San Marcos and Huehuetenango, and Chorti on the border with Honduras. A third task force on the border with El Salvador, Xinca, is to be established in 2017, and a fourth, Belam, is being considered for the department of Peten’s western border with Mexico. The task forces are also being supported by the United States, including the provision of vehicles such as armored prototype Jeep CJ-8s and other forms of support.
While these task forces have participated in a number of important counter-drug operations, they are widely perceived in the country as ineffective, in part because they often operate in support of other units, or based on intelligence from other entities such as the 5th (counternarcotics) directorate of the interior ministry. In addition, in part to insulate the task forces from corrupt local police units, the task forces do not enjoy the benefits of contributions from the rest of the national police infrastructure.
On the ground, the Guatemalan army has also created a number of new brigades to better cover the national territory, including a “jungle brigade” deployed in the west of Petén, and a “high mountain” brigade headquartered in the department of San Marcos. Nonetheless, funding for the military in recent years has been so limited that such new brigades lack the special equipment that would allow them to provide effective coverage of the jungle and mountainous territory for which they are responsible.
In covering narcotics and other illicit flows in the nation’s territorial waters and rivers, a key tool is Guatemala’s Naval Infantry Brigade. Because the majority of maritime drug transits occur on the Pacific Ocean, rather than the Atlantic, the Navy’s intercept assets, including nine ocean-going Boston Whaler watercraft donated by the United States, are focused there. In addition, the Guatemalan navy also has refitted “go-fast” boats confiscated from drug traffickers (known locally as “colombinas”), as well as U.S.-donated “metal shark” speedboats, used principally to cover inland waterways, such as those in the Petén.
As narco-traffickers have increasingly used Guatemala’s Pacific coast as a transit route, the challenge of using the country’s limited number of small watercraft and only one naval base on the Pacific coast, at Quetzal, to cover its extensive territorial waters has led to a creative new initiative: a “mothership” watercraft. That strategy involves employing a larger ship specially outfitted to refuel and resupply the smaller boats to extend their time on station. The first of two such ships, a $1.9 million gift from the U.S., will be delivered during the coming year, refueling and resupplying the smaller Guatemalan Navy craft, and thus allowing them to remain longer on their missions and away from land.
Guatemala is also advancing in controlling its airspace, but it still faces significant challenges. The small Guatemalan Air Force presently consists of helicopters and aircraft seized from criminals, including a Beechcraft 206 outfitted (with U.S. help) with forward-looking infrared radar, and a second B-206 currently being acquired from narco-traffickers under the 2010 confiscation law (58-2010).
Beyond these assets, which are generally considered too slow to actually intercept suspected narco-trafficker aircraft, the remainder of Guatemala’s aging aircraft are grounded due to maintenance issues which are cost-prohibitive to fix. Under former president Pérez Molina, the government terminated a plan to acquire Super Tucano interceptor aircraft from Brazil. The country has acquired three radars and receives radar feeds from the U.S. inter-agency task force JIATF-South. However, it currently lacks, but is working toward, the ability to integrate these radars into a common air picture for command and control purposes.
Guatemala is also completing an agreement with the Canadian government to establish a joint operations center, which will further contribute to its command and control capabilities.
Finally, the government is employing a number of elite forces to go after the leadership of transnational criminal organizations and other high value targets in the country. These include the inter-agency task force against terrorism (FIAT), the GEIR (Groupo Especial de Intervención y Rescate), and naval special forces (FEN). The FIAT is built around police special forces (the “halcones”) transported by the Guatemalan Air Force, and incorporating prosecutors and other government players on an “as needed” basis. By contrast, the GEIR and the FEN use military special forces, the “Kabiles,” with GEIR involved mostly on land operations and the FEN focused on interdictions at sea.
While the small amount of news about Guatemala in the mainstream U.S. media concentrates on the CICIG and its fight against public corruption, the nation’s progress in the struggle against transnational organized crime continues to be a good-news story that deserves greater attention. That success reflects thoughtful initiatives of both the current and previous Guatemalan governments. Although not prominent in the news, there are arguably few countries in the region that demonstrate the level of commitment to working with the U.S. that Guatemala does.
Driven by substantial flows of narcotics and people through the country, and the corrosive effect on Guatemala’s institutions of the resources involved, that threat continues to evolve. It is important for the U.S., as well as Guatemala to live up to the faith that each has put in the other as partners; much work remains to be done.
The author thanks those who contributed their time and insights for this piece, including General Juan Pérez Ramírez and the Guatemalan Defense Staff, the office of the Technical Secretary of the Guatemalan National Security Council, and the Guatemalan Planning and Consolatory Commission, the U.S. Security Cooperation Office in Guatemala, among others. However, the views expressed in this work, and any errors, are strictly his own.