Guatemala’s Narco-military

No country so small has ever moved so much cocaine north. Earlier in this decade, about 50 to 75 metric tons of cocaine passed through Guatemala each year, according to the State Department. But today, the State Department estimates that Guatemala annually transships (receives and then ships on) approximately 200 to 300 metric tons of cocaine, making Guatemala a frequent stop along the American drug-trade route. At least half of all the cocaine that State Department experts estimate reaches the U.S. market goes through Guatemala.

Colombia has long been at the heart of the drug trade, and back in the 1980s most of its cocaine was transshipped north through the Caribbean. But in the 1990s, Colombian drug trafficking routes shifted to the northern Central American and Mexican land isthmus. Throughout this decade, it was Mexico, which shares its southern border with Guatemala, that transshipped up to three-fourths of America’s cocaine. But over the past two years, Guatemala’s role in the trade has dramatically expanded. “Mexico still moves the same amount of cocaine,” says one U.S. expert, only now most of it goes to Guatemala first.

When it comes to the drug war, however, the Clinton administration along with its Congressional critics are concentrating mainly on Colombia. American leaders are focusing on the role of Colombia’s leftist “narco-guerrillas” in the drug trade, while ignoring the role being played by rightist military forces in Latin American nations from Colombia to Guatemala.

La Bodega

There is something ironic about Guatemala’s increased role in the drug trade especially when one considers the nature of the criminal syndicates behind it. Guatemala was a staunch Cold War ally of the United States and, back in 1954, the CIA engineered a coup from Honduras that deposed Guatemala’s elected president, Jacobo Arbenz, after he first nationalized the lands of the U.S. firm United Fruit and then received arms from Czechoslovakia. The coup established the Guatemalan military as the country’s dominant institution, and its officer corps has since enjoyed near-blanket impunity from prosecution.

While most of Central America was consumed by ideological warfare in the 1980s, Guatemala’s conflict was by far the bloodiest. Its anti-communist military explicitly rejected human-rights considerations along with any covert U.S. aid conditioned upon them, although the CIA continued to provide the Guatemalan military with covert assistance even as its forces committed many war crimes.

The war crimes peaked in the early 1980s with the wholesale massacres of as many as 400 ethnic Mayan villages suspected of supporting leftist guerrillas. Last February, a U.N. truth commission reported that the Guatemalan military abuses included acts of genocide. One month later, President Clinton apologized in Guatemala City for America’s past complicity in the Guatemalan military’s war crimes.

But President Clinton has yet to address the Guatemalan military’s role in drug trafficking, which the DEA first began to detect during the Bush administration. As early as 1990, DEA special agents termed Guatemala, la bodega or “the warehouse.” One of their first suspects was a Guatemalan Army lieutenant colonel, Carlos Ochoa Ruiz. The DEA maintains that Ochoa transshipped a half metric ton of cocaine –worth $7.5 million wholesale — from Western Guatemala to Tampa, Fla., where he remains indicted in a U.S. federal court.

Eastern Guatemala peasants say military officers there, too, transshipped cocaine. In 1992, they filed a petition with the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City that accused suspects including four Army colonels of driving them off their farmland in order to build clandestine runways to run drugs, after killing at least nine people — including a mother and her son — in order to accelerate the land clearing. One of the suspects named by surviving peasants, Arnoldo Vargas Estrada, was later convicted in a U.S. federal court in New York of smuggling several metric tons of cocaine a month from Guatemala to New York. Yet not one of the four Army colonels named by the peasants in Guatemala was ever charged with any crime.

While some Army officers moved cocaine in private planes, some Air Force officers moved drugs in military planes. The highest-ranking officer accused of trafficking by the DEA is Gen. Carlos Pozuelos Villavicencio who retired in 1993 as Guatemala’s Air Force commander. Although the Clinton administration denied him a U.S. entry visa explicitly over his alleged role in cocaine transshipments, Pozuelos, too, was never charged with the crime.

The Ochoa case

So far, only one major military drug suspect in Guatemala received a serious sentence. Ironically he is the same suspect, Army Lt. Col. Carlos Ochoa Ruiz, that the DEA first accused of trafficking back in 1990. Ochoa currently is incarcerated in Guatemala after being convicted in a Guatemalan court even as he remains wanted for trial in a U.S. federal court in Tampa. No case better illustrates the difficulties of prosecuting Guatemalan military officers for running drugs.

Ochoa was the first Guatemalan military officer the United States tried to prosecute for trafficking. After a U.S. federal grand jury indicted him in 1990 in Florida, the State Department asked Guatemala to extradite him there to stand trial. The Guatemalan military gave Ochoa a dishonorable discharge in order to put distance between his name and the institution, but that did not stop a military tribunal from inexplicably reclaiming jurisdiction over him later to try and dismiss the case against him allegedly for lack of evidence.

The State Department appealed the case three times — all the way to Guatemala’s Constitutional Court, the country’s highest judicial body. The presiding judge, Epaminondas Gonzalez Dubon, was already well respected for his integrity, having bravely ruled against a 1993 “self-coup” by Guatemala’s then-President Jorge Serrano. Because of his unblemished record, State Department officials were confident that Gonzalez would lead the court to favor their appeal.

Gonzalez did exactly that, although he paid with his life for his decision. According to court documents published later by the Costa Rican daily newspaper, La Nacion, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court led by Gonzalez voted four to three to extradite Ochoa on March 23, 1994. Nine days later, a four-man team murdered Judge Gonzalez Dubon in Guatemala City in front of his wife and son. Eleven days later, the same court led by a new presiding judge voted seven-to one against the extradition.

A wall of silence

Although the matter was the end of a four-year effort by the United States, Clinton, like his Guatemalan Ambassador Marilyn McAfee, remained shamefully silent about the interminable loss of the case. State Department officials would later say the administration saw no reason to protest a decision it could no longer appeal. Meanwhile, Ochoa went free only to go on running cocaine to the United States.

Ochoa got caught trafficking again — this time with 30 kilograms of cocaine — in Guatemala in 1997. This year in July, a Guatemalan court finally convicted him, with Judge Marco Tulio Molina Lara sentencing him to 14 years. Such a lengthy sentence is unprecedented for a senior Guatemalan military officer, even though hundreds of officers have been implicated in either human rights or drug-trafficking crimes.

No doubt, the conviction and sentencing of a recidivist military trafficker is an important first step for Guatemala toward breaking the wall of impunity that has long protected its officer corps from justice. But the State Department’s report about the country’s recent expansion in cocaine transshipments only shows that this change has come too little too late for the United States.

Frank Smyth, who covered El Salvador for CBS News Radio, the Village Voice, The Economist and other outlets, is co-author of Dialogue and Armed Conflict: Negotiating the Civil War in El Salvador. He is an Adjunct Professor in the School of Communication at American University.