Guatemala : The Untouchable Narco-State

2005-11-21

Richard Moore

    CIA reports are even more candid. "The commanding officers
    of the units involved have been instructed to destroy all
    towns and villages which are cooperating with the
    guerrilla[s] and eliminate all sources of resistance,"
    reads one 1992 Guatemala City CIA Station report formerly
    classified "SECRET." The CIA report goes on, "When an Army
    patrol meets resistance and takes fire from a town or
    village it is assumed that the entire town is hostile and
    it is subsequently destroyed." Forensic teams have since
    exhumed many mass graves. Some unearthed women and
    infants. More than 200,000 people were killed in Guatemala
    in what stands as Central America's bloodiest conflict
    during the Cold War.

Isn't it bizarre that Washington has the temerity to accuse 
Cuba of human rights violations?

rkm

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The Untouchable Narco-State 

Guatemala's military defies the DEA 

by Frank Smyth 

The alert went out across the state this past July. A
McAllen-based FBI analyst wrote a classified report that
the Department of Homeland Security sent to U.S. Border
Patrol agents throughout Texas. About 30 suspects who were
once part of an elite unit of the Guatemalan special
forces were training drug traffickers in paramilitary
tactics just over the border from McAllen. The unit,
called the Kaibiles after the Mayan prince Kaibil Balam,
is one of the most fearsome military forces in Latin
America, blamed for many of the massacres that occurred in
Guatemala during its 36-year civil war. By September,
Mexican authorities announced that they had arrested seven
Guatemalan Kaibiles, including four "deserters" who were
still listed by the Guatemalan Army as being on active
duty.

Mexican authorities say the Kaibiles were meant to augment
Las Zetas, a drug gang of soldiers-turned-hitmen drawn
from Mexico's own special forces. It's logical that the
Zetas would turn to their Guatemalan counterparts. In
addition to being a neighbor, "Guatemala is the preferred
transit point in Central America for onward shipment of
cocaine to the United States," the State Department has
consistently reported to Congress since 1999. In early
November, anti-drug authorities at the U.S. Embassy in
Guatemala told the Associated Press that 75 percent of the
cocaine that reaches American soil passes through the
Central American nation.

More importantly, perhaps, the dominant institution in the
country -- the military -- is linked to this illicit trade.
Over the past two decades, the U.S. Drug Enforcement
Administration (DEA) has quietly accused Guatemalan
military officers of all ranks in every branch of service
of trafficking drugs to the United States, according to
government documents obtained by The Texas Observer .
More recently, the Bush administration has alleged that
two retired Guatemalan Army generals, at the top of the
country's military hierarchy, are involved in drug
trafficking and has revoked their U.S. visas based on
these allegations.

The retired generals, Manuel Antonio Callejas y Callejas
and Francisco Ortega Menaldo, are Guatemala's former top
two intelligence chiefs. They are also among the founders
of an elite, shadowy club within Guatemala's intelligence
command that calls itself "la cofradía" or "the
brotherhood," according to U.S. intelligence reports. The
U.S. reports, recently de-classified, credit la cofradía
with "engineering" tactics that roundly defeated
Guatemala's Marxist guerrillas. A U.N. Truth Commission
later found the same tactics included "acts of genocide"
for driving out or massacring the populations of no less
than 440 Mayan villages.

Guatemala's military intelligence commands developed a
code of silence during these bloody operations, which is
one reason why no officer was ever prosecuted for any Cold
War-era human rights abuses. Since then, the same
intelligence commands have turned their clandestine
structures to organized crimes, according to DEA and other
U.S. intelligence reports, from importing stolen U.S. cars
to running drugs to the United States. Yet not one officer
has ever been prosecuted for any international crime in
either Guatemala or the United States.

There is enough evidence implicating the Guatemalan
military in illegal activities that the Bush
administration no longer gives U.S. military aid,
including officer training. The cited offenses include "a
recent resurgence of abuses believed to be orchestrated by
ex-military and current military officials; and
allegations of corruption and narcotics trafficking by
ex-military officers," according to the State Department's
2004 report on Foreign Military Training.

While some in the Bush administration and Congress want to
restart foreign military training, others are concerned
about the inability of the Guatemalan government to rein
in its military. "The reason that elements of the army are
involved so deeply in this illicit operation is that the
government simply does not have the power to stop them,"
said Texas Republican Congressman Michael McCaul, who sits
on the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of the Committee on
International Relations and is the Chairman of the
Department of Homeland Security Subcommittee on
Investigations.

Guatemala is hardly the first military tainted by drugs;
senior intelligence and law enforcement officers in many
Latin American nations have been found colluding with
organized crime. But what distinguishes Guatemala from
most other nations is that some of its military suspects
are accused not only of protecting large criminal
syndicates but of being the ringleaders behind them. The
Bush administration has recently credited both Colombia
and Mexico with making unprecedented strides in both
prosecuting their own drug suspects and extraditing others
to the United States. But Guatemala, alone in this
hemisphere, has failed to either prosecute or extradite
any of its own alleged drug kingpins for at least 10
years.

For decades, successive U.S. administrations have tried
and failed to train effective Guatemalan police, while
saying little or nothing about the known criminal
activities of the Guatemalan military. That finally came
to an end in the past three years under Republican Rep.
Cass Ballenger, a staunch conservative from North
Carolina, who served as chairman of the Western Hemisphere
Subcommittee.

"Clearly, the Guatemalan government has not taken every
step needed to investigate, arrest, and bring drug
kingpins to justice," said then-Chairman Ballenger in 2003
before he retired. Echoing his predecessor, the new
Chairman, Indiana Republican Rep. Dan Burton, commented
through a spokesman that he wants to see the same alleged
ringleaders finally brought "to full accountability."

Until that happens, drugs from Guatemala and the attendant
violence will continue to spill over the Texas border.

Guatemala has long been sluggish in efforts to take legal
action against its military officers for human rights
violations. That impunity has since spread to organized
criminal acts as well. The turning point came in 1994,
when Guatemala's extraditions of its drug suspects came to
a dead stop over a case involving an active duty army
officer. The case highlights both the terrible price for
those who seek justice in Guatemala and the timidity of
the United States in demanding accountability.

A military intelligence officer back in the early 1980s,
Lt. Col. Carlos Ochoa briefly trained at the U.S. Army
Command and General Staff College in 1988. Two years
later, the DEA accused him of smuggling drugs to locations
including Florida, where DEA special agents seized a small
plane with half a metric ton of cocaine, allegedly sent by
the colonel.

State Department attorneys worked for more than three
years to keep Guatemala's military tribunals from
dismissing the charges, and finally brought Ochoa's
extradition case all the way to Guatemala's highest
civilian court. The nation's chief justice, Epaminondas
González Dubón, was already well respected for his
integrity. On March 23, 1994, Guatemala's Constitutional
Court, led by González Dubón, quietly ruled in a closed
session (which is common in Guatemala) four-to-three in
favor of extraditing Ochoa.

Nine days later, on April 1, gunmen shot and killed
González Dubón behind the wheel of his own car in the
capital, near his middle-class home, in front of his wife
and youngest son. On April 12, the same Constitutional
Court, with a new chief justice, quietly ruled
seven-to-one not to extradite Ochoa. The surviving judges
used the same line in the official Constitutional Court
register -- changing the verdict and date, but not the
original case number -- to literally copy over the original
ruling, as was only reported years later by the Costa
Rican daily, La Nación.

The Clinton administration never said one word in protest.
The U.S. ambassador in Guatemala City at the time, Marilyn
McAfee, by her own admission had other concerns, including
ongoing peace talks with the Guatemalan military. "I am
concerned over the potential decline in our relationship
with the military," she wrote to her superiors only months
before the assassination. "The bottom line is we must
carefully consider each of our actions toward the
Guatemalan military, not only for how it plays in
Washington, but for how it impacts here."

Four years after the murder, the Clinton administration
finally admitted in a few lines buried in a thick report
to Congress: "The Chief Justice of the Constitutional
Court had approved [the] extradition for the 1991 charges
just before he was assassinated. The reconstituted court
soon thereafter voted to deny the extradition."

Ochoa may not have been working alone. "In addition to his
narcotics trafficking activities, Ochoa was involved in
bringing stolen cars from the U.S. to Guatemala," reads a
"SECRET" U.S. intelligence report obtained by U.S. lawyer
Jennifer Harbury. "Another military officer involved with
Ochoa in narcotics trafficking is Colonel Julio Roberto
Alpírez de Leon."

Alpírez, who briefly trained at the U.S. School of the
Americas in 1970, served "in special intelligence
operations," according to a U.S. Defense Intelligence
Agency (DIA) report. A White House Oversight Board
investigation later implicated him in the torture and
murder of a Marxist guerrilla leader who was married to
the Harvard-trained lawyer Harbury, and in the torture and
mysterious decapitation of an American hotelier named
Michael Devine. Col. Alpírez, since retired, has denied
any wrongdoing and he was never charged with any crime.

But Ochoa, his former subordinate, is in jail today. Ochoa
was arrested -- again -- for local cocaine dealing in Guatemala
City, where crack smoking and violent crimes, especially
rape, have become alarmingly common. Ochoa was later
sentenced to 14 years in prison, and he remains the most
important drug criminal ever convicted in Guatemala to
date.

Until now, the DEA had never publicly recognized the
bravery of Judge González Dubón, who died defending DEA
evidence. "The judge deserves to be remembered and honored
for trying to help establish democracy in Guatemala," said
DEA senior special agent William Glaspy in an exclusive
interview. Since the murder, the DEA has been all but
impotent in Guatemala.

The impunity that shields Guatemalan military officers
from justice for criminal offenses started during the Cold
War. "There is a long history of impunity in Guatemala,"
noted Congressman William Delahunt, a Democrat from
Massachusetts, who is also a member of the Western
Hemisphere Subcommittee. "The United States has
contributed to it in a very unsavory way dating back to
1954, and also in the 1980s," he added, referring to a
CIA-backed coup d'état in 1954, which overturned a
democratically elected president and brought the
Guatemalan military to power, and to the Reagan
administration's covert backing of the Guatemalan military
at a time when bloodshed against Guatemalan civilians was
peaking.

It was also during this Cold War-era carnage that the
army's la cofradía came into its own.

"The mere mention of the word ' cofradía ' inside the
institution conjures up the idea of the 'intelligence
club,' the term 'cofradía' being the name given to the
powerful organizations of village-church elders that exist
today in the Indian highlands of Guatemala," reads a
once-classified 1991 U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency
cable. "Many of the 'best and the brightest' of the
officers of the Guatemalan Army were brought into
intelligence work and into tactical operations planning,"
it continues. Like all documents not otherwise attributed
in this report, the cable was obtained by the non-profit
National Security Archives in Washington, D.C.

According to the 1991 cable, "well-known members of this
unofficial cofradía include" then army colonels "Manuel
Antonio Callejas y Callejas" and "Ortega Menaldo." (Each
officer had briefly trained at the U.S. School of the
Americas, in 1970 and 1976, respectively.)

The intelligence report goes on: "Under directors of
intelligence such as then-Col. Manuel Antonio Callejas y
Callejas back in the early 1980s, the intelligence
directorate made dramatic gains in its capabilities, so
much so that today it must be given the credit for
engineering the military decline of the guerrillas from
1982 to the present. But while doing so, the intelligence
directorate became an elite 'club' within the officer
corps."

Other Guatemalan officers called their approach at the
time the practice of "draining the sea to kill the fish,"
or of attacking civilians suspected of supporting leftist
guerrillas instead of the armed combatants themselves. One
former Guatemalan Army sergeant, who served in the
bloodied province of Quiché, later told this author he
learned another expression: "Making the innocent pay for
the sins of the guilty."

CIA reports are even more candid. "The commanding officers
of the units involved have been instructed to destroy all
towns and villages which are cooperating with the
guerrilla[s] and eliminate all sources of resistance,"
reads one 1992 Guatemala City CIA Station report formerly
classified "SECRET." The CIA report goes on, "When an Army
patrol meets resistance and takes fire from a town or
village it is assumed that the entire town is hostile and
it is subsequently destroyed." Forensic teams have since
exhumed many mass graves. Some unearthed women and
infants. More than 200,000 people were killed in Guatemala
in what stands as Central America's bloodiest conflict
during the Cold War.

The violence left the military firmly in control of
Guatemala, and it did not take long for this stability to
catch the attention of Colombian drug syndicates. First
the Medellín and then the Cali cartels, according to
Andean drug experts, began searching for new smuggling
routes to the United States after their more traditional
routes closed down by the mid-1980s due to greater U.S.
radar surveillance over the Caribbean, especially the
Bahamas.

"They chose Guatemala because it is near Mexico, which is
an obvious entrance point to the U.S., and because the
Mexicans have a long-established mafia," explained one
Andean law enforcement expert. "It is also a better
transit and storage country than El Salvador because it
offers more stability and was easier to control."

DEA special agents began detecting Guatemalan military
officers running drugs as early as 1986, according to DEA
documents obtained through the U.S. Freedom of Information
Act. That's when Ortega Menaldo took over from Callejas y
Callejas as Guatemala's military intelligence chief. Over
the next nine years, according to the same U.S. documents,
DEA special agents detected no less than 31 active duty
officers running drugs.

"All roads lead to Ortega," a U.S. drug enforcement expert
said recently. "Even current active-duty officers may have
other ties with retired officers. They have a mentor
relationship."

U.S. intelligence reports reveal the strong ties that
cofradía high-level officers cultivated with many
subordinates, who are dubbed "the operators." "This
vertical column of intelligence officers, from captains to
generals, represents the strongest internal network of
loyalties within the institution," reads the 1991 U.S. DIA
cable. "Other capable officers were being handpicked at
all levels to serve in key operations and troop command,"
this U.S. report goes on. "Although not as tight knit as
the cofradía, the 'operators' all the same developed their
own vertical leader-subordinate network of recognition,
relationships and loyalties, and are today considered a
separate and distinct vertical column of officer
loyalties."

Cofradía officers extended their reach even further,
according to another U.S. intelligence cable, as the
mid-level officer "operators" whom they chose in turn
handpicked local civilians to serve as "military
commissioners [to be] the 'eyes and ears' of the military"
at the grassroots.

Few criminal cases better demonstrate the integration
between the Guatemalan intelligence commands and drug
trafficking than one pursued in 1990 by DEA special agents
in the hot, sticky plains of eastern Guatemala, near the
nation's Caribbean coast. This 15-year-old case is also
the last time that any Guatemalans wanted on drug charges
were extradited to the United States. Arnoldo Vargas
Estrada, a.k.a. "Archie," was a long-time local "military
commissioner," and the elected mayor of the large town of
Zacapa. U.S. embassy officials informed (as is still
required according to diplomatic protocol between the two
nations) Guatemalan military intelligence, then led by
Ortega Menaldo, that DEA special agents had the town mayor
under surveillance.

Vargas and two other civilian suspects were then arrested
in Guatemala with the help of the DEA. Not long after, all
three men were extradited to New York, where they were
tried and convicted on DEA evidence. But the DEA did
nothing back in Guatemala when, shortly after the arrests,
the military merely moved the same smuggling operation to
a rural area outside town, according to family farmers in
a petition delivered to the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City
in 1992 and addressed simply " Señores D.E.A."

"[B]efore sunrise, one of the planes that transports
cocaine crashed when it couldn't reach the runway on the
Rancho Maya," reads the document which the peasants either
signed or inked with their thumbprints. The document names
the military commissioners along with seven local
officers, including four local army colonels whom the
farmers said supervised them.

One of the civilian military commissioners the peasants
named was Rancho Maya owner Byron Berganza. More than a
decade later, in 2004, DEA special agents finally arrested
Berganza, along with another Guatemalan civilian, on
federal "narcotics importation conspiracy" charges in New
York City. Last year, the DEA in Mexico City also helped
arrest another Guatemalan, Otto Herrera, who ran a vast
trucking fleet from the Zacapa area. Then-Attorney General
John Ashcroft described Herrera as one of "the most
significant international drug traffickers and money
launderers in the world."

Yet, not long after his arrest, Herrera somehow managed to
escape from jail in Mexico City. Not one of the Guatemalan
military officers the farmers mentioned in their 1992
petition has ever been charged. As the DEA's Senior
Special Agent Glaspy explained, "There is a difference
between receiving information and being able to prosecute
somebody."

In 2002, then-Chairman Ballenger forced the Bush
administration to take limited action to penalize top
Guatemalan military officials thought to be involved in
drug trafficking. "The visa of former Guatemalan
intelligence chief Francisco Ortega Menaldo was revoked,"
confirmed State Department spokesman Richard A. Boucher in
March 2002, "under a section of the Immigration and
Nationality Act related to narco-trafficking, and that's
about as far as I can go into the details of the
decision."

By then, Ret. Gen. Ortega Menaldo had already denied the
U.S. drug charges, while reminding reporters in Guatemala
City that he had previously collaborated with both the CIA
and the DEA dating back to the 1980s. Indeed, a White
House Intelligence Oversight Board has already confirmed
that both the CIA and the DEA maintained at least a
liaison relationship with Guatemalan military intelligence
in the late 1980s and early 1990s when it was run by Col.
Ortega Menaldo.

The CIA, through spokesman Mark Mansfield, declined all
comment for this article.

Eight months after revoking Ortega Menaldo's visa, the
Bush administration again cited suspected drug trafficking
to revoke the U.S. entry visa of another Guatemalan
intelligence chief, Ret. Gen. Callejas y Callejas. But
after the news broke in the Guatemalan press, this
cofradía officer never responded publicly, as Ortega
Menaldo did, to the U.S. drug allegation.

Rather than confront the impunity that allows Guatemalan
military officers to traffic drugs, many of the country's
elected officials seem to be going in the opposite
direction. Not long after the Bush administration named
the two retired cofradía intelligence chiefs as suspected
drug traffickers, members of the Guatemalan Republican
Front, or FRG party, which was founded by another retired
army general, introduced legislation in the Guatemalan
Congress that would remove civilian oversight over the
military in criminal justice matters.

Throughout the Cold War period, Guatemala's civil justice
system seldom had the opportunity to try officers for any
crime. Instead officials submitted themselves to military
tribunals. In the 1990s, civilian courts began for the
first time tentatively to exert their authority to process
military officers for crimes like drug trafficking. But
the proposed legislation stipulates that any officer,
whether active duty or retired, may only be tried in a
military tribunal, no matter what the alleged crime. A
court martial is normally reserved for crimes allegedly
committed by military personnel in the course of their
service. If this law is passed, however, it would ensure
that Guatemalan officers accused of any crime, from murder
to drug trafficking, could once again only be tried by
their military peers.

"This would be a new mechanism of impunity," noted José
Zeitune of the Geneva-based International Commission of
Jurists and author of a 2005 report on the Guatemalan
judiciary.

As Chairman, Ballenger accused the FRG party, which enjoys
a plurality in the Guatemalan Congress, of drug
corruption. The FRG was founded by Ret. Gen. Efrain Ríos
Montt. A controversial figure, he launched a coup d'etat
in 1982 to become president of Guatemala just as the
intelligence officers of la cofradía were rising.

The new vice-chairman of the Western Hemisphere
subcommittee is Jerry Weller III, a Republican from
Illinois. He recently married Zury Ríos Sosa, who is Ret.
Gen. Montt's daughter. Unlike other members of the
Subcommittee, Weller, through his spokesman, Telly
Lovelace, declined all comment for this article.

Congressman Weller's father-in-law groomed Guatemala's
last president, an FRG member named Alfonso Portillo, who
fled the country in 2004 to escape his own arrest for
alleged money laundering, according to a State Department
report. During President Portillo's tenure, one of his
closest companions inside the National Palace was the
cofradía co-founder Ortega Menaldo, according to
Guatemalan press accounts.

Today the shadowy structures of Guatemala's intelligence
commands are so embedded with organized crime that the
Bush administration, for one, is already calling in the
United Nations. Putting aside its usual criticisms of the
international body, the administration supports a proposal
to form a U.N.-led task force explicitly called the
"Commission for the Investigation of Illegal Armed Groups
and Clandestine Security Apparatus" in Guatemala. So far
the only nation to yield its sovereignty to allow the
United Nations a similar role is Lebanon, where U.N.
investigators are digging into the murder of a former
prime minister.

The proposed U.N. plan for Guatemala also enjoys the
support of its new president, Oscar Berger, a wealthy
landowner and lawyer who is well respected by the U.S.
administration. But the proposed U.N. Commission is
encountering resistance from FRG politicians like Weller's
wife, Ríos Sosa, who is also an FRG congresswoman.

So what are U.S. officials and Guatemalan authorities
doing to stop the military officers involved in drug
trafficking?

"In terms of public corruption against both the army and
others, [Guatemalan authorities] have a number of
investigations underway, right now," then-Assistant
Secretary Robert B. Charles said earlier this year at a
State Department press conference. But, in keeping with
past practices, not one of these suspected officers has
been charged in either Guatemala or the United States.

More troubling still is a recent case involving those
Mexican soldiers-turned-hitmen, the Zetas. This past
October 22, seven members of the Zetas were arrested in a
Guatemalan border town with weapons and cocaine. The
Associated Press reported that, according to Guatemalan
authorities, the Zetas came to avenge one of their members
who had been killed in Guatemala. Despite the evidence
against the men, a little more than a week after their
arrests, Guatemalan authorities inexplicably set them
free.

Frank Smyth is a freelance journalist who has been writing
about Guatemalan drug trafficking since 1991 in
publications including The Progressive, The Sacramento
Bee, The Washington Post, The Village Voice, The New
Republic, Salon.com and The Wall Street Journal. He has
been a special correspondent for The Fort Worth
Star-Telegram and The Economist. He is a contributor to
Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, edited by Roy
Gutman and David Rieff. His clips are posted at
www.franksmyth.com. 
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