Guatemala remains a major transit country for illegal drugs. Transnational criminal organizations continue to take advantage of Guatemala’s porous borders with Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico and underfunded and underequipped law-enforcement institutions to smuggle narcotics, migrants, and other illicit goods through the country’s land and sea territories. Guatemala continues to cultivate opium poppy and marijuana in the Western Highlands and Petén Department, respectively, but the level of opium cultivation decreased during the course of 2015.
Although Guatemala’s efforts against drug trafficking in 2015 remained on par with past years, the antinarcotics fight (and government initiatives generally) was overshadowed and distracted by a series of ongoing government corruption investigations that ultimately led to the arrest of the President Vice President.
B. Drug Control Accomplishments, Policies, and Trends
1. Institutional Development
The Guatemalan political scene changed drastically over the course of 2015. A customs administration corruption scandal broke in April with other high-profile corruption cases following in May and June. The subsequent investigations led to the arrest of many high-level officials in addition to those who resigned or were fired due to allegations of corruption. The scandal ultimately led to the resignations of Vice President Baldetti on May 8 and President Perez Molina on September 3, and subsequently their arrests. The caretaker government, headed by President Alejandro Maldonado, led Guatemala through free, fair, and generally peaceful first round elections on September 6, and a runoff presidential election on October 25. Political newcomer and anti-establishment candidate Jimmy Morales rode the tidal wave of discontent with corruption and established politicians to a landslide victory and was inaugurated as President on January 14, 2016.
Weekly protests throughout much of 2015, including the two largest national demonstrations in Guatemala’s history, spurred the establishment of congressional working groups to draft overdue reforms for electoral, civil service, government procurement, and justice sector laws.
Amid the turmoil, purported changes to Guatemala’s National Drug Policy were quietly shelved. In 2014, Perez Molina, a vocal proponent of drug legalization, appointed members of his cabinet and several prominent civil society leaders to a high-level commission to study alternative drug policies. The commission released the first of two reports in September 2014, which focused on defining the drug problem in Guatemala. A second report making policy recommendations was expected to be released in mid-2015; however, the document was not released before Perez Molina’s resignation and the Committee ceased to function.
Guatemalan authorities continued to deal with the rise in number of unaccompanied children and other migrants arriving at the U.S. border. Guatemala, along with the other countries in the Northern Triangle - Honduras and El Salvador - developed a comprehensive strategic plan, the Alliance for Prosperity, to improve their economies, strengthen their governmental institutions, and provide better security for their citizens. Toward that security goal, the National Civil Police (PNC) finished implementing a new data-driven policing model based on New York City’s successful COMPSTAT program. The Guatemalan developed version, MOPSIC, contributed to a three percent decrease in overall crime in 2015 with a five percent decrease in homicides and eight percent in the violent crime rate nationwide. In the Guatemala City metropolitan area, where MOPSIC was first implemented in 2014, there was a 13 percent year on year decrease in homicides and seven percent drop in the violent crime rate.
Despite these decreases, many areas of the country, especially along the borders, are under the direct influence of drug trafficking organizations. Many observers note that Guatemala today is a more violent place on average than it was during the 1960-1996 armed internal conflict. As much as 40 percent of this violence is generated by the drug trade, according to Guatemalan government estimates. Every year, hundreds of metric tons (MT) of cocaine are smuggled through Guatemala.
Beyond drug trafficking and its effects, Guatemala law-enforcement authorities were hampered by the high rate of turnover in key positions due to corruption scandals. After the former Minister of Government was forced to resign, the new Minister of Government made sweeping changes to the top levels of the PNC, Penitentiary System, and Counternarcotics Police. The PNC had three different Directors within a six month span from March to September 2015. Although the new appointees are highly competent, the high level of turnover affected continuity in the short term.
Guatemalan law-enforcement institutions suffer from inadequate budgetary support. Not only are tax collection rates among the lowest in the world, but extensive corruption further starves institutions of scarce resources, including, for example, a scheme that involved the head of the PNC’s logistics division, who was accused of using fake businesses to generate thousands of false invoices for vehicle repairs. Authorities could improve their budgetary situation by better administering and distributing seized assets. In 2014, the Seized Asset Secretariat disbursed more than $5.99 million. In 2015, however, the Secretariat managed just one distribution of $852,000.
The Government of Guatemala continues to work closely with U.S. authorities on extradition matters, including those who were wanted for prosecution on drug-related charges. A U.S.-designated drug kingpin was extradited in 2015.
Guatemala is a party to the Central American Commission for the Eradication of Production, Traffic, Consumption and Illicit Use of Psychotropic Drugs and Substances, as well as the Central American Treaty on Joint Legal Assistance for Penal Issues. It is also a party to the Inter-American Convention against Corruption, and the Inter-American Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters. A maritime counter-narcotics agreement with the United States is fully implemented. Guatemala ratified the Inter-American Mutual Legal Assistance Convention, and is a party to the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD). Guatemala is one of six countries (with Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, France, Belize and the United States) that ratified the Caribbean Regional Agreement on Maritime Counternarcotics.
2. Supply Reduction
Eradication efforts over the course of 2015 suggest opium poppy cultivation in Guatemala may have declined. A 2014 U.S. government assessment estimated 640 hectares of opium poppy were under cultivation in Guatemala. Over successive eradication missions during 2015, the total number of hectares found and eradicated decreased from 285 hectares over a three week period in January-February, 2015 to 103 hectares during a 10-day July mission, and to 40 ha in November. Guatemalan military and Counternarcotics Police analysts pointed to the drop in opium farm-gate prices from $13 an ounce to $3 as the principal reason farmers converted to corn, potatoes, and other crops. Experts also pointed to the increase in poppy production in Mexico and the disruption of opium trafficking networks, including the May 12 arrest of Cornelio Chilel (alias “The King of Poppy”) in the San Marcos region of Guatemala as further reasons for the drop in cultivation.
During the first nine months of 2015, total interdiction statistics from the Counternarcotics Police, Ministry of Defense’s Counter Narcotics Naval Unit and other U.S.-assisted specialized units reported total seizures at 7.25 MT of cocaine and 25 kilograms (kg) of heroin, in line with 2014 seizures. In addition, counternarcotics units seized over $4.4 million in bulk U.S. cash and approximately $3 million in local currency. The police also seized 575 MT of precursor chemicals, largely consisting of inbound shipping containers at the seaports.
3. Public Information, Prevention, and Treatment
The Government of Guatemala continued its public awareness efforts on the dangers of illegal drugs in 2015. U.S.-funded drug demand reduction programs consisting of awareness and training efforts directed towards community and government leaders, educators, parents, and students, targeted 157,000 people in 42 municipalities in the departments of Guatemala City, Izabal, Jutiapa, Zacapa, Santa Rosa, Retalhuleu, Quetzaltenango, and San Marcos. The United States launched four awareness and information campaigns targeting 25,000 middle and high school students. In addition, 2847 Police Academy students received drug related information and training workshops.
The Health Ministry´s Technical Unit, in charge of authorizing and monitoring drug treatment centers, conducted two U.S.-funded studies to evaluate 65 treatment centers and to study patients to determine the quality of services being offered in treatment centers. The United States supported the update and revision of the 2006 Minimum Treatment Standards Guide. A new 2015 Minimum Treatment Standards Guide was developed and presented to the Health Minister for its approval. In 2015, both the Colombo Plan and CICAD provided training and certification for treatment professionals, with U.S. support. The CICAD program provided training for 120 participants over a six-month period. The United States supports a program to develop anti-drug community coalitions in Guatemala, which focus on organizing various sectors at the local level to develop strategies that prevent drug use and reduce crime and violence.
The Government of Guatemala does not, as a matter of policy, encourage or facilitate illicit drug production or distribution, nor is it involved in the laundering of the sale of illicit drugs proceeds. However, Guatemala’s economic, governmental, and security challenges are exacerbated by widespread corruption, which permeates public and private institutions. Guatemalan Attorney General Thelma Aldana, in coordination with the UN International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) have played a vital role in investigating hundreds of current and former government officials. The Embassy and the international community work closely with CICIG, a unique UN-sponsored entity under the leadership of Commissioner Ivan Velasquez since September 2013. CICIG was created in 2007 to bolster Guatemalan justice sector institutions by investigating criminal organizations operating within state institutions, drafting reforms, and reporting on justice-related topics. CICIG’s mandate was extended to September 2017 by former President Perez Molina.
C. National Goals, Bilateral Cooperation, and U.S. Policy Initiatives
The United States assists the Government of Guatemala through training and mentoring select personnel, donating essential equipment, and providing adequate operational support where appropriate. This assistance is channeled through four program areas: police professionalization and reform; justice sector capacity building; enhancing citizen security and reducing the threat of gangs; and counternarcotics. In 2015, efforts included working with both the PNC and local governments to implement community policing techniques through model police precincts; collaborating with the PNC on the full implementation of the new policing model MOPSIC and the further development of its associated crime reporting database; coordinating specialized training with the Miami-Dade Police Department on community policing, special tactics, tactical life-saving, and bike patrols; and working with the Penitentiary System to develop plans for a model prison as a basis for further reforms.
The United States worked extensively with the Judicial System to provide training and technical expertise to prosecutors and judges presiding over high-impact cases, including those of the former President and Vice President, in order to add credibility to the judicial processes. The end goal is to create effective structures and organizations sustainable by the Guatemalan Government.
The United States works closely with Guatemala to improve the government’s ability to provide security and justice to its citizens and combat transnational organized crime networks more effectively. In 2015, the Government of Guatemala sustained their anti-drug efforts from previous years, while also grappling with multiple, high-level corruption scandals. The rise in corruption-related arrests is a sign that the justice system, strengthened in part by ongoing U.S. assistance, is responding to Guatemalan citizens’ demand for accountability. Although these investigations caused uncertainty in the short term due to successive waves of personnel changes in key law-enforcement positions, the long term effects should be positive, as institutions such as the Public Ministry and Judicial System showed new competencies and independence. The law enforcement instructions will still face challenges, including lack of funding, but the recent fight against corruption should pay dividends in the future