The New Narco-State and Guatemala’s Schizophrenic Future


*a longer version of this piece was published in The Guatemalan Times

If Job were a country, it would have to be Guatemala.  Sure, there are other countries in worse shape-Haiti comes to mind, and Somalia and Afghanistan and all the rest-but rarely do we see the convergence of so many different sorts of disasters.

Geography plays a role in Guatemala’s tumult; it is, literally, a turbulent country.  Stretching over breathtaking diversity, its terrain ranges from expanses of lowland rainforest in the north (once home to Classic Maya civilization, now the base for drug smugglers) to the dramatic peaks and valleys of the fertile highlands.  But seismic instability gives rise to the picturesque vistas and, looking beyond the colorful dress of the natives, we find crushing poverty.

The latest round of natural disasters includes volcano eruptions, floods, and catastrophic landslides, which have killed hundreds and left thousands homeless over the last few months.

Yet, the worst news coming out of Guatemala concerns not natural disasters but political ones.  The murder rate in Guatemala City is 108 per 100,000.  That is twice the rate for Baghdad.  Over one in every thousand people in Guatemala City is killed every year-and virtually no one is prosecuted.  A rate this high ripples quickly through the population, touching everyone in some way.  It is a whole new category of non-war violence.

In March, the national police chief, Baltazar González, was arrested along with the head of the anti-narcotics agency, on charges of aiding drug traffickers.  Six months earlier González’s predecessor had been arrested on similar charges.  And in January of this year, the immediate past president of Guatemala was taken into custody for extradition to the U.S. on money laundering charges.

Such high profile cases have been pursued by the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).  Guatemala, which usually guards its sovereignty jealously, legally empowered this U.N.-sponsored commission of international jurists to initiate and carry out investigations and to help prepare cases to be presented through the national courts.

CICIG, despite the taint of international meddling, has proven to be hugely popular and one of the country’s most trusted institutions.  It is seen as being above not only political infighting but also insulated from the effects of narco-money and organized crime influence.

Yet, Guatemala still teeters on the brink of becoming a failed state.  Even more frightening and likely is that the country represents a new sort of narco-state, one which is nominally democratic, shows moderately improving indicators of income and development, and yet which virtually abdicates its role in enforcing the rule of law.

As the rainy season marched forward, the news from Guatemala became more gruesome.  In June, four severed heads were found in plastic bags in prominent spots around Guatemala City, from the National Congress to an upscale shopping center.  A note attached to one incongruously called for an end to impunity for corrupt government officials.

Later that same month, Carlos Castresana, the Spanish jurist who headed CICIG, resigned, citing an inability to work with Guatemalan prosecutors.  The between-the-lines message was that the newly appointed Attorney’s General’s close ties to narco-traffickers was a mockery of the process.  Indeed, Attorney General Conrado Reyes was subsequently sacked by the Constitutional Court, which issued a vague statement citing threats to constitutional stability from illegal forces.

    When people fear for their security, little else matters.  And such is the state of insecurity in Guatemala now.  A 2008 survey by the Latin American Public Opinion Project found that 63% of Guatemalans see security as the country’s primary problem.

This is nothing new for Guatemala; the country has long suffered endemic violence.  The period in the 1970s and 1980s know as “la violencia” was especially brutal, marked by massacres, kidnapping, torture, and pervasive everyday terror.  

After Peace Accords were signed in 1996, the military retreated from its historically heavy-handed role in national politics.  This created a power vacuum that was filled by narco-traffickers (the most powerful group being the Mexican-based Zetas), international street gangs (such as MS-13), and mafia-like groups that emerged from corrupt military fraternities.

The DEA estimates that over 80% of Colombian cocaine bound for the U.S. is transshipped through Guatemala, financing the expansion of this dark network.

Guatemala is not a failed state.  Yet.  Economist Normal Bailey gives it 50/50 odds on surviving in the medium term, noting that the state’s loss of control over the use of force and  breakdown of the rule of law already results in de facto state failure in large parts of the country.

Still, Guatemala does amazingly well considering the conditions.  Violence notwithstanding, a number of indicators are looking up.  Economically, the country is pretty stable for the short term; it is propped up with drug money, but that shows no sign of stopping anytime soon.  The schools function-more or less-and average years of education are on the rise.  Life expectancy is increasing.  Incomes are growing slightly.

Indeed, by the indicators the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) uses, Guatemala is making significant gains in terms of overall human development.  But, as UNDP coordinator Linda Asturias points out, there is serious lingering inequality that is not improving.

Some suggest that Guatemala needs a military coup.  Others suggest a “Colombian solution,” an all-out war on traffickers and gangs.  Given Mexico’s experience, and Guatemala’s limited resources, it is not at all clear if Guatemala could win such a war.  And calling for Guatemala to mount a major internal military action is unconscionable given the brutality and human rights abuses of military action during the civil conflict.   

The impressive improvements in social indicators will mean little if the country’s corrosive violence continues apace.  The greatest danger for Guatemala, and for the rest of the world, is a continuation of the current trajectory, with moderate improvements in health and education placating concerns over the failure to provide physical security or legal recourse that allows drug traffickers and organized criminals to flourish.  This may well prove to be the model of a new, more sustainable, form of narco-state.