Good afternoon. I want to thank Mr. Farnsworth and the Council of the Americas for their invitation to speak to you today. It is a pleasure to be here with this distinguished group and to discuss recent developments in security and efforts to combat organized crime in Guatemala. The inclusion of Guatemalan Ambassador Francisco Villagran de Leon, as well as current Mexican Ambassador to Guatemala Eduardo Ibarrola and former U.S. Ambassador Donald Planty adds a wealth of knowledge and experience to our discussion. Our mission at the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, or INL, is to mitigate the effects of criminal and narcotics activity overseas in order to reduce the impact on the United States, a mission that often reveals how intertwined our countries are within this hemisphere. The deteriorating security situation in Guatemala has a direct impact on the United States, and I am here today to talk about ongoing U.S. efforts working with the Guatemalan Government to curb the criminal activity, which threatens the Guatemalan population as well as our own.
Current Situation on the Ground
Guatemala faces one of the hemisphere’s most persistent security challenges. Fourteen years after the end of Guatemala’s 36 year civil war, a succession of administrations has been unable to fully overcome the legacy of internal conflict. Weak institutions, corruption and intimidation in the government, and widespread public distrust continue to plague Guatemalan society. These gaps create space for a variety of violent groups to operate with impunity; including drug traffickers and powerful street gangs with origins both foreign and domestic.
Guatemala is further threatened by its geographic location along the drug corridor linking Andean producers with Mexican distributors and their markets in the United States. Nearly 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States transits through Mexico via Central America’s land, sea, or air corridors. As the last link in this Central American chain, Guatemala is under threat from drug traffickers, who move an estimated 250 metric tons of cocaine through the country each year. Guatemala is also a transit country for pseudoephedrine, a main component of methamphetamine, as well as a minor producer of poppy and opium derivatives.
These factors contribute to making Guatemala one of the most dangerous countries in the Hemisphere. In 2009, there were 48 homicides per 100,000 people. Guatemala’s murder rate has roughly doubled in the last ten years and is now eight times that of the United States, and four times that of Mexico. Drug violence is spilling over the border, as the Mexican government’s tough stand on narco-traffickers pushes notorious organizations like the Zetas southwards. The Zetas, arrival in the country has led to violent conflicts with local traffickers. Drug gangs compromise government control along border areas with Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras.
Drug traffickers are not the only international criminal forces plaguing Guatemala. In recent years, we have also seen the proliferation of powerful youth gangs, such as MS-13 and 18th Street, with extensive international linkages in El Salvador, Honduras, and the United States. In Guatemala, these gangs terrorize entire neighborhoods. They engage in armed robbery and murder-for-hire, as well as elaborate extortion schemes often coordinated by gang leaders inside Guatemala’s prisons, exposing just how weakened the criminal justice system has become.
Though fighting corruption has been a major priority of the Colom administration, numerous international bodies have found that the government remains compromised by criminal elements, including clandestine groups that persist from the internal conflict. The high rate of turnover of public officials in recent years exposes the prevalence of corruption, and the challenge it poses for international engagement, as foreign governments must continually rebuild relationships with new interlocutors.
Government officials, even when well-intentioned, are also challenged by intimidation, very constrained budgets, and limited training Criminals convicted of crimes are often free to continue their illegal activities while incarcerated at insecure prison facilities. Guatemala lacks the resources to confront these challenges; it has one of the lowest tax collection rates in Latin America, and in 2009 justice and law-enforcement budgets were cut due to lack of revenue. These factors combine to create an impunity rate of 96.5 percent for murder, with similarly high numbers for other crimes.
The U.S. Response
The United States recognizes the grave threat posed by criminal groups in Guatemala and its neighbors, and is working closely with the Guatemalan government to restore law and order. Since 1990, we have maintained an active Narcotics Affairs Section at our Embassy in Guatemala City. In 2008, the U.S. Government launched the Merida Initiative, a partnership with the governments of Mexico and Central America. Since then, the Central American component of Merida has evolved to address the unique challenges of Guatemala and other countries, as the Central American Regional Security Initiative, or CARSI. While our efforts in Mexico have until recently focused on the acquisition of equipment, in Guatemala and other Central America countries we have long emphasized the need for institutional capacity building among law enforcement and the judiciary. It is along these lines that our support for Guatemala continues to unfold.
Despite ongoing challenges, the United States has worked in partnership with the Government of Guatemala to achieve a notable number of successes in recent years. The Department of State has facilitated training and cooperation between law enforcement agencies in the United States and their counterparts in Guatemala. The most immediate result of this cooperation has been the establishment of elite units of prosecutors and police officers who have been thoroughly vetted. These vetted units now form a reliable core of professionals trained to address Guatemala’s numerous law enforcement challenges.
Under the direction of the vetted units, and through the use of expanded investigative methods like wire-tapping, informants, and intelligence-based surveillance through the Police Collection, Analysis and Dissemination Center, or CRADIC, the Guatemalan government seized 100 percent more illegal narcotics in 2009 than in 2008; 11.8 metric tons of pseudoephedrine, 7.1 metric tons of cocaine, and 950 grams of heroin. As for the narcotics produced within Guatemala, last year the United States provided provisions and logistic support for four poppy eradication operations, helping our Guatemalan counterparts destroy 1,345 hectares of poppy.
The Department of State has also helped coordinate actions to secure Guatemala’s borders, in an effort to reduce the flow of weapons, drugs, and people through the country. CARSI funds have gone to help U.S. Customs and Border Patrol conduct evaluations of all of Guatemala’s land-based border crossings, with further evaluations of sea and airports to come. These evaluations have been essential tools in our coordination with Guatemalan counterparts to strengthen border security. Customs and Border Patrol’s recent presence at seaports and airports in particular has resulted in several high profile seizures, a sign that these new resources and methods are beginning to take effect.
Success in Guatemala, however, is about more than the volume of drugs seized. Success depends on the creation of durable law enforcement institutions that are effective in their fight against crime and responsive to the citizens they must serve.
We have contributed five hundred thousand dollars to the Police Reform Commission headed by human-rights advocate Helen Mack. The Commission is working toward improving Guatemalan law enforcement in five areas: criminal investigation, crime prevention, professionalization, police planning (including operational intelligence), and internal control. We believe these efforts will continue to make Guatemalan law enforcement more capable and more responsive in addressing the significant security challenges faced by the country.
At the local level, the United States helped establish the Villa Nueva Model Police Precinct. Located in a suburb of Guatemala City, this project builds trust between the community and the police. To build community recognition of the police as protectors, the United States uses anti-gang and anti-narcotics programs like D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) to reach out to local youth. We have also funded a two-year period of on-the-job training for local police, teaching them to work more effectively with community leaders. These combined efforts have led to an elimination of gang activity in 78 schools in Villanueva, and a much higher conviction rate of offenders, as more crimes are reported and cases are brought to trial after stronger investigations.
Our work to establish principles of community-based policing has been matched by support for a more efficient and responsive judiciary. In conjunction with the Model Precinct, we have supported the establishment of 24-hour courts, which provide, for the first time, immediate protection to victims and witnesses, as well as to the prosecutors, clerks, and judges associated with sensitive cases, while also guaranteeing due process for those charged with crimes. Before the arrival of the 24-hour courts in Villa Nueva, suspects waited an average of three days for arraignment, and some 66 percent of cases were eventually dismissed due to lack of merit. The 24-hour court has sharply reduced this inefficiency and waste of resources; arraignments are now held within 24 hours, and an average of only 9.7 percent of cases are dismissed on lack of merit. Having seen these benefits, the Government of Guatemala has provided resources for further replication of such courts and now there are five 24 hour courts currently operating with more under consideration.
Following the success of these programs, the Department plans to use future CARSI funding to expand the Model Precinct program to Mixco, another suburb of the capital. Through the use of Department of Defense 1207 funds, we will further replicate the program, as well as a hardened 24-hour court and other successful youth crime prevention programs, in the northern city of Coban. In August, agents from Guatemala’s counternarcotics force arrested four suspected Zetas with a cache of military-grade weapons outside of this city, making the area an essential next step in expanding the reach of effective law enforcement outside of the capital area.
Making headway against the significant challenges in Guatemala will require the efforts of more parties than just the United States. It will take the combined effort of the Guatemalan government and society in conjunction with a whole range of international partners and in coordination with neighboring countries in Central America. In recognition of the need for multilateral efforts, the United States has been a consistent supporter of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, known by its Spanish acronym CICIG (See-Sig). This independent body, backed by the United Nations, has made valuable advances in investigating and prosecuting high-profile threats to the rule of law in Guatemala, and the United States was pleased to continue its support by contributing four million dollars to CICIG this year. We very much appreciated the good work of former Commisioner Carlos Castresana and Francisco Dall’Anese has done a great job so far in his first months as CICIG’s new commissioner.
What is most encouraging about CICIG is its truly multilateral character, as part of an international consensus on the significant and ongoing threats facing Guatemala.
Though the United States has achieved some success with the specific programs described above, we do not by ourselves have the resources to establish a 24-hour court in every neighborhood or a vetted unit at every precinct. There is no one solution to address Guatemala’s deteriorating security situation; the challenge is complex and multifaceted, and so our response must be targeted and thoughtful. Turning the tide will require collaboration with other donors, other governments, and the United Nations, as well as strong regional programs from South America to Mexico and, most important, good governance from the Guatemalans themselves. Only by coordinating efforts across all these diverse sources can we hope to achieve meaningful and lasting progress.