GUATEMALA CITY -- With Washington's attention focused elsewhere, Guatemala has quietly become the transshipment point for more than 75 percent of the cocaine smuggled into the United States, according to US authorities.
Loosely patrolled borders, two coastlines, staggering corruption, lax enforcement, and judicial impunity have long made Guatemala a favored transit point for contraband. But with US resources channeled toward battling drugs in Colombia and terrorism in the Middle East, organized crime has made even more dramatic inroads here in the past several years.
In the first half of this year, traffickers moved 90 percent of US-bound cocaine through Central America, much of it through Guatemala, a top US Drug Enforcement Administration official told Congress this month. As Mexico has stepped up antidrug patrols and interdiction in recent years, traffickers are increasingly looking to Guatemala as a dropoff point for their payloads.
Senior Guatemalan officials said in interviews that they would ask for stepped-up US military cooperation and a permanent DEA base in the dense jungle bordering Mexico. Their remarks followed the arrest this month near Washington, D.C., of Guatemala's top three antidrug investigators on charges of narcotics trafficking. Guatemalan authorities are also investigating allegations of involvement by senior members of the Guatemalan armed forces in the drug trade.
The traffickers have already shown an ability to adapt in the face of increased enforcement efforts. With Guatemalan authorities increasing air surveillance of the northern province of Petén, where hundreds of abandoned drug planes litter the jungle, traffickers have shifted to speedboats to carry drugs to both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. Using mobile refueling stations at sea, the traffickers rely on cooperation from Guatemalan customs and police, DEA agents and local prosecutors say.
''The narco nexus may be stronger than the state now," said Julio César Godoy, Guatemala's deputy minister of security. ''There are areas where the army, police, local officials all work for narcotraffickers -- it's like Colombia in the 1980s. . . . The narcos abuse and kill, and nobody says anything because the judges, prosecutors, military commanders, and governors are all bought off."
In addition, the traffickers are buying loyalty and recruiting among the population by ''playing a role like the state," he said. ''They loan money, host parties, help pay for funerals, provide jobs."
As US Coast Guard and Navy boats have stepped up patrols along the coast in the past year, traffickers have begun to use small planes to drop cocaine packets along the coastlines and then pay fishermen to pick them up and hand them off to the trafficking networks onshore.
Within Guatemala, production of drugs is increasing along with transhipment, the officials say. Opium poppy cultivation is up in parts of the countryside where law enforcement cannot operate because of traffickers' heavily armed security forces. Guatemalan heroin has become a new worry for the United States.
Another troubling shift, authorities say, is that Mexican and Colombian cartels have started paying Guatemalan smuggling crews and off-loaders in drugs, rather than cash. The strategy is to sow drug use in Guatemala, where an estimated 10 percent of the cocaine shipped remains for local consumption.
In 2003, the most recent year for which it provides data, the DEA estimated that 150 metric tons, or 330,000 pounds, of cocaine moved through Guatemala annually. But in just two years, the problem has dramatically worsened.
Some 220,000 pounds of cocaine were shipped through a single Caribbean port -- at Santo Tomás, in the northeastern province of Izabal -- during the first five months of this year alone, according to Guatemalan authorities.
From Guatemala, drugs are usually smuggled into the United States on overland routes across the poorly guarded jungle border into Mexico.
Recently, police have made some advances. Following a four-month joint investigation by US and Guatemalan authorities, the antinarcotics official in charge of the Santo Tomás port, Rubilio Palacios, and Guatemala's top two antinarcotics officials were charged in a three-count indictment Nov. 16 in Virginia, where they had traveled for a DEA training course. They are accused of shielding huge drug shipments from inspection, tipping off traffickers to enforcement actions, and providing official vehicles to transport drugs.
In response, the Guatemalan government has pledged to purge and restructure its antidrug agency, known as SAIA. Random lie-detector and psychological tests will be required of all agents, Interior Minister Carlos Vielmann said. But revamping the agency might not solve the underlying problem of poorly trained and corruptible officers.
Guatemalan convictions of traffickers, whether private citizens or officials, are rare. None of 16 alleged Guatemalan traffickers wanted in the United States has been extradited in the last dozen years since warrants were issued because of delays in the country's judicial system, said Michael P. O'Brien, the DEA's representative in Guatemala. The United States has revoked visas for two retired generals suspected of major trafficking, but the two have not been arrested here.
The government of President Oscar Berger, which took office in January 2004, says it is doing all it can but lacks technical equipment, honest personnel, and antiracketeering laws to fight crime networks that ran rampant starting in 2000, under then-president Alfonso Portillo. Guatemala is seeking Portillo's extradition from Mexico on corruption charges, while numerous other top former officials have been prosecuted or are under investigation.
During that four-year stretch of lawlessness at the highest levels under the former administration, Mexican and Colombian cartels sowed roots in Guatemala and built up local cartels, while organized crime bought its way into nearly every institution from the banks to the courts, according to antinarcotics specialists here.
''Organized crime is a monster that always existed here . . . but it was permitted to get out of control, and this shadow power is devouring the democratic system," said Pedro Trujillo, director of the Institute of Political Studies and International Relations at Francisco Marroquín University.
Guatemala has also become a regional money-laundering center, drawing dirty funds from as far as California and Florida, and lubricating the economy with expensive houses, luxury cars, and private planes.
In the early 1990s, the DEA had a fleet of helicopters stationed here for surveillance and interdictions. Since then, ''enforcement efforts have shifted to other areas," leaving a dearth of resources for enforcement in Central America, DEA director of operations Michael Braun testified before Congress Nov. 9.
Godoy, the deputy security minister, said President Berger intends to ask Washington for a permanent DEA station in Petén and for more US assistance. ''We want a 'Plan Guatemala' like 'Plan Colombia,' " he said, referring to the $3 billion, five-year US antinarcotics aid package to the world's leading cocaine producer. Berger is also asking for a three-year extension of ''Plan Maya Jaguar," a joint operation that allows US aircraft and soldiers to conduct occasional antinarcotics operations with Guatemalans.
Expanding military cooperation with the United States could be controversial, however, both among corrupt interests here who fear the long arm of the United States, and also in Washington. The US military has withheld military aid to Guatemala since the mid-1990s because of human rights abuses by the military during the 36-year civil war that ended in 1996.
Levels of drugs seizures by Guatemalan agents are pitifully low, raising suspicions that dealers are tipped off, said Fredyn Fernández, Guatemala's chief narcotics prosecutor. Nine of every 10 drug raids here are unsuccessful.
This month, some 70 border customs agents were transferred under suspicion of taking bribes to allow contraband to cross into Mexico.
Lack of resources is also a major impediment. The Guatemalan military has only a handful of aircraft, none with nighttime capabilities, allowing traffickers to land planes under cover of darkness.
Even when drugs are intercepted, weak laws impede the capture of suspects, authorities say. Congressman Otto Pérez Molina is sponsoring a bill that would allow undercover agents to infiltrate drug rings and police to conduct controlled buys. A newly passed law will permit wiretapping starting in January.
''If we don't take action now, we could become another Colombia," Molina warned.