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The Untouchable Narco-State: Guatemala’s Army defies DEA

Original story including links to cited classified U.S. cables here.

(See also related links pegged to the release of this story by Harvard University’s and George Washington University’s National Security Archive:

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 1982 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 on 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, 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

El narco-Estado intocable: Militares guatemaltecos desafían a la DEA

La alerta atravesó el estado en julio. Un analista de la FBI ubicado en McAllen escribió un informe clasificado que el Departamento de Seguridad Interna envió a agentes de la Patrulla Fronteriza de Texas. Alrededor de 30 sospechosos, que alguna vez fueron parte de una unidad elite de las fuerzas especiales guatemaltecas estaban entrenando a narcotraficantes en tácticas paramilitares cerca de la frontera de McAllen.

La unidad, llamada los kaibiles, en memoria de el príncipe maya Kaibil Balam, es una de las más temibles fuerzas militares de Latinoamérica, acusada de muchas de las masacres que ocurrieron en Guatemala durante su guerra civil de 36 años. Alrededor de septiembre, autoridades mexicanas anunciaron que habían arrestado a siete kaibiles guatemaltecos, entre ellos cuatro “desertores”, activos según los registros del ejército de Guatemala.

Las autoridades mexicanas dicen que los kaibiles pretendían incorporarse a Los Zetas, una banda de soldados convertidos en delincuentes salidos de las fuerzas especiales de México. Es lógico pensar que Los Zetas contactaran a su contraparte guatemalteca. Además de ser un vecino, “Guatemala es el punto en Centroamérica preferido para el tráfico de cocaína hacia Estados Unidos”, según lo ha reportado consistentemente el Departamento de Estado al Congreso, desde 1999. A principios de noviembre, las autoridades antidrogas asignadas en la embajada de Estados Unidos en Guatemala dijeron a la Associated Press que el 75 por ciento de la cocaína que llega a América pasa por la nación centroamericana.

Tal vez sea más importante el hecho que la institución dominante en el país, el ejército, está involucrado en el tráfico ilegal de drogas. Durante las pasadas dos décadas, la Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) de Estados Unidos ha acusado silenciosamente a oficiales militares guatemaltecos, de todos los rangos y en todas las ramas, de estar al servicio del tráfico de drogas a Estados Unidos, de acuerdo con documentos oficiales conseguidos por The Texas Observer. Recientemente, la administración Bush ha sospechado que dos generales retirados del ejército de Guatemala, en lo más alto de la jerarquía militar, están envueltos en el tráfico de drogas y ha revocados sus visas, con base en tales sospechas.

Los generales retirados, Manuel Antonio Callejas y Callejas y Francisco Ortega Menaldo, son dos altos jefes de inteligencia. Están entre los fundadores de un club exclusivo y oscuro de la estructura de inteligencia que se autonombra “la cofradía”, según informes de inteligencia de Estados Unidos. Estos informes, recientemente desclasificados, acreditan a la cofradía la “ingeniería” de tácticas que derrotaron completamente a los grupos guerrilleros marxistas guatemaltecos. Una Comisión de la Verdad de las Naciones Unidas estableció que esas tácticas incluyeron “actos de genocidio”, por las expulsiones y masacres de pobladores de no menos de 440 comunidades mayas.

Las autoridades de inteligencia militar de Guatemala desarrollaron un código de silencio durante estas operaciones sangrientas, lo cual es una razón por la que ningún oficial fue perseguido por violaciones a los derechos humanos durante la Guerra Fría. Desde entonces, las mismas autoridades de inteligencia han transformado sus estructuras clandestinas para actividades del crimen organizado, según informes de la DEA y otros servicios de inteligencia estadounidenses, que van de la importación de autos robados en Estados Unidos al tráfico de drogas hacia ese país. Sin embargo, ningún oficial ha sido perseguido por un crimen internacional, ni en Guatemala ni en Estados Unidos.

Tan hay evidencias del involucramiento de militares de Guatemala en actividades ilegales que la administración Bush ya no proporciona ayuda militar a ese país, ni siquiera entrenamiento de oficiales. Entre esas evidencias están “un reciente resurgimiento de abusos supuestamente orquestados por oficiales y ex oficiales militares; y sospechas de corrupción y narcotráfico de parte de ex oficiales militares”, según el informe de 2004 sobre Entrenamiento Militar en el Extranjero del Departamento de Estado.

Mientras algunos miembros de la administración Bush y del Congreso quieren reanudar el entrenamiento militar, otros están preocupados por la incapacidad del gobierno guatemalteco para controlar al ejército. “La razón por la que elementos del ejército están tan involucrados en estas operaciones ilícitas es que el gobierno simplemente no tiene el poder para detenerlos”, dijo el congresista republicano tejano Michael McCaul, quien es integrante de la Subcomisión del Hemisferio Occidental de la Comisión de Relaciones Internacionales y es el presidente de la Subcomisión sobre Investigaciones del Departamento de Seguridad Interna.

El ejército de Guatemala no es el primero corrompido por las drogas; se han descubierto los nexos con el crimen organizado de altos funcionarios de inteligencia y de apoyo a la ley, en muchas naciones de América Latina. Pero lo que distingue a Guatemala de la mayoría de las otras naciones es que algunos de sus militares sospechosos son acusados no solamente de proteger a grandes sindicatos criminales, sino también de dirigirlos. Recientemente, la administración Bush reconoció a Colombia y a México por su progreso en la persecución de sus sospechosos de participar en el narcotráfico y en la extradición a Estados Unidos de otros. Pero Guatemala, país único en este hemisferio, no ha procesado ni extraditado a uno solo de sus supuestos capos por lo menos durante los últimos 10 años.

Durante décadas, sucesivas administraciones estadounidenses han intentado, sin éxito, entrenar a efectivos agentes de la policía guatemalteca, mientras decían poco o nada sobre las conocidas actividades criminales de militares. Eso se acabó en los últimos tres años gracias al representante republicano Cass Ballenger, un firme conservador de Carolina del Norte, quien fue presidente de la Subcomisión del Hemisferio Occidental.

“De manera clara, el gobierno de Guatemala no ha tomado las medidas necesarias para investigar, arrestar y llevar ante la justicia a capos del narcotráfico”, dijo en el 2003, Ballenger, entonces presidente de la subcomisión. Respaldando a su predecesor, el nuevo presidente, el republicano Dan Burton, comentó a través de un vocero que desea ver que los mismos supuestos capos finalmente sean presentados para que rindan cuentas. Mientras eso no ocurra, las drogas provenientes de Guatemala y la violencia concurrente continuarán desbordando la frontera tejana.

Guatemala ha sido muy lento en sus esfuerzos por emprender acciones legales contra sus oficiales militares acusados de violaciones a los derechos humanos, y la impunidad se ha extendido a actos criminales. En 1994, las extradiciones de Guatemala de sospechosos de ser narcotraficantes se interrumpieron, con un caso en el que estaba involucrado un oficial militar activo. El caso resalta el terrible precio que pagan quienes buscan justicia en Guatemala y la timidez de Estados Unidos para exigir rendimiento de cuentas.

Un oficial de inteligencia militar a comienzos de los ’80, el teniente coronel Carlos Ochoa, fue entrenado durante un corto periodo en el Colegio de Comando y Estado Mayor del Ejército de Estados Unidos en 1988. Dos años después, la DEA lo acusó de trasladar drogas a, entre otras ciudades, Florida, donde elementos de la agencia detuvieron una avioneta que contenía media tonelada métrica de cocaína, supuestamente enviada por Ochoa.

Abogados del Departamento de Estado trabajaron durante más de tres años para evitar que tribunales militares guatemaltecos desestimaran los cargos, y finalmente llevaron el caso de extradición hasta la corte civil de mayor rango. El ex presidente de la Corte de Constitucionalidad, Epaminondas González Dubón, ya era respetado por su integridad. El 23 de marzo de 1994, dirigió una sesión cerrada (algo común en Guatemala) del tribunal en la que éste emitió, con cuatro votos a favor y tres en contra, una resolución a favor de la extradición de Ochoa. Nueve días después, el 1 de abril, hombres armados asesinaron a González Dubón detrás de su auto, en la capital, cerca de su hogar de clase media, frente a su esposa y su hijo menor. El 12 de abril, la misma Corte de Constitucionalidad, con un nuevo presidente, resolvió en una votación de siete a uno a favor de la no extradición. Los magistrados usaron la misma línea en el registro oficial -cambiando el veredicto y la fecha, pero no el número de caso- para escribir sobre la resolución original, hecho solamente reportado años después por el diario costarricense La Nación.

La administración Clinton nunca dijo una palabra de protesta. La embajadora estadounidense de entonces, Marilyn McAfee, admitió que tenía otras prioridades, entre ellas las negociaciones de paz que se desarrollaban. “Estoy preocupada por la potencial declinación de nuestras relaciones con el ejército”, escribió a sus superiores unos meses antes del asesinato. “Lo más relevante es que debemos considerar cuidadosamente cada una de nuestras acciones relacionadas con el ejército guatemalteco, no sólo por las implicaciones en Washington, sino también por sus impactos aquí”.

Cuatro años después del asesinato, la administración Clinton finalmente admitió unas cuantas líneas en un grueso informe al Congreso: “El presidente de la Corte de Constitucionalidad había aprobado la extradición por los cargos hechos en 1991, precisamente antes de ser asesinado. La corte reintegrada poco después votó a favor de rechazar la extradición”.

Ocho no pudo haber estado trabajando solo. “Además de sus actividades relacionadas con el narcotráfico, Ochoa estaba involucrado en el traslado a Guatemala de autos robados en Estados Unidos”, se lee en un informe “secreto” de inteligencia de Estados Unidos obtenido por la abogada estadounidense Jennifer Harbury. “Otro oficial militar involucrado con Ochoa en el narcotráfico es el coronel Julio Roberto Alpírez de León”.

Alpírez, quien durante un breve periodo fue entrenado en la Escuela de las Américas de Estados Unidos en 1970, trabajó en “operaciones de inteligencia especiales”, según un informe de la Agencia de Inteligencia de la Defensa (DIA). Posteriormente, una investigación del Consejo de Fiscalización de la Casa Blanca lo implicó en la tortura y asesinato de un líder guerrillero marxista, esposo de la abogada formada en Harvard Harbury, y en la tortura y misteriosa decapitación de un hotelero estadounidense llamado Michael Devine. El coronel Alpírez, desde su retiro, ha negado las acusaciones y nunca fue procesado.

Pero Ochoa, su ex subordinado, se encuentra en la cárcel. Fue arrestado -otra vez- por la venta de cocaína en la ciudad de Guatemala, donde el consumo de crack y la comisión de crímenes violentos, principalmente secuestros, alarmantemente se han convertido en algo común. Ochoa fue condenado a 14 años de prisión, y él es el más importante narcotraficante que ha sido condenado en Guatemala.

Hasta ahora, la DEA nunca ha reconocido públicamente el valor del magistrado González Dubón, quien murió defendiendo una de sus evidencias. “El magistrado merece ser recordado y honrado por tratar de ayudar a establecer la democracia en Guatemala”, dijo el agente especial de la DEA, William Glaspy, en una entrevista exclusiva. Desde el asesinato, la DEA ha sido de todo, pero impotente en Guatemala.

La impunidad que protege a oficiales militares guatemaltecos de la justicia comenzó durante la Guerra Fría. “Hay una larga historia de impunidad en Guatemala”, observó el congresista William Delahunt, demócrata de Massachusetts, quien es miembro de la Subcomisión del Hemisferio Occidental. “Estados Unidos ha contribuido a ello de una manera ofensiva, tomando en cuenta su actuación en 1954 y en los ’80”, añadió, haciendo referencia al golpe de Estado de 1954, que derrocó a un presidente democráticamente electo y llevó al ejército guatemalteco al poder, y al respaldo encubierto de la administración Reagan a ese ejército en un periodo en el que el derramamiento de sangre de civiles fue mayor.

También fue durante esta carnicería de la época de la Guerra Fría cuando la cofradía del ejército consiguió sus mayores éxitos. “La sola mención de la palabra ‘cofradía’ dentro de la institución evoca la idea de un ‘club de inteligencia’, siendo el término ‘cofradía’ el nombre dado a las poderosas organizaciones de líderes de templos de poblados que existen en el altiplano indígena guatemalteco”, se lee en documento de la Agencia de Inteligencia de la Defensa de Estados Unidos, que en 1991 fue clasificado. “Muchos de los ‘mejores y más brillantes’ oficiales del ejército guatemalteco fueron asignados a labores de inteligencia y a la planeación de operaciones tácticas”, continúa. Como todos los documentos que no son atribuidos a otra fuente, el cable fue conseguido por la asociación sin fines de lucro National Security Archives, de Washington, D.C.

De acuerdo con el cable de 1991, “miembros bien conocidos de la no oficial cofradía eran” los entonces coroneles “Manuel Antonio Callejas y Callejas” y “Ortega Menaldo” (quienes recibieron entrenamiento durante un corto periodo en la Escuela de las Américas, en 1970 y 1976, respectivamente).

El informe de inteligencia continúa: “Bajo las órdenes de directores de inteligencia como el entonces coronel Manuel Antonio Callejas y Callejas, en los primeros años de los ’80, la jefatura de inteligencia consiguió mejoras tan dramáticas en sus capacidades que hoy debe reconocérsele la ingeniería de la declinación de la guerrilla desde 1982 hasta el presente. Pero mientras lo hacía, la jefatura de inteligencia se convirtió en un ‘club’ de elite entre los oficiales”.

Otros oficiales guatemaltecos llamaron a su enfoque “secar el mar para matar al pez”, o de ataque a civiles de quienes se sospechaba que apoyaban a la guerrilla izquierdista y no a los combatientes armados mismos. Un ex sargento del ejército de Guatemala, que estuvo asignado en el ensangrentado departamento Quiché, dijo después al autor de este artículo que aprendió otra expresión: “Hacer que inocentes paguen los pecados de los culpables”.

Los informes de la CIA son aun más cándidos. “Los oficiales al mando de las unidades involucradas han recibido instrucciones de destruir todos los pueblos y aldeas que están colaborando con la guerrilla y de eliminar todas las fuentes de resistencia”, se lee en un documento de 1982 de la estación de la agencia de la ciudad de Guatemala que estuvo clasificado como “secreto”. El informe continúa: “Cuando una patrulla del ejército encuentra resistencia y es atacado desde un pueblo o aldea se asume que todo el pueblo es hostil y es destruido”. Equipos forenses han exhumado numerosas tumbas colectivas. Algunos de los cuerpos son de mujeres y menores. En Guatemala fueron asesinadas más de 200,000 personas, en el que se considera el conflicto más sangriento de Centroamérica durante la Guerra Fría.

La violencia dejó al ejército firmemente en el control de Guatemala, y no paso mucho tiempo sin que esta estabilidad captara la atención de los sindicatos de la droga colombianos. Primero el cartel de Medellín y después el de Cali, según expertos en drogas andinos, comenzaron a buscar nuevas rutas hacia Estados Unidos, después que las tradicionales fueron cerradas a mediados de los ’80, debido a una mayor inspección con radares sobre el Caribe, especialmente sobre las Bahamas, efectuada por Estados Unidos.

“Escogieron a Guatemala porque está cerca de México, que es un punto de entrada obvio a Estados Unidos, y porque los mexicanos tienen una mafia establecida desde hace mucho tiempo”, explicó un agente andino. “También es un país más conveniente para el tránsito y el almacenamiento que El Salvador, porque ofrece más estabilidad y es más fácil de controlar”.

Agentes especiales de la DEA empezaron a detectar a oficiales militares guatemaltecos implicados en el narcotráfico en 1986, según documentos de la agencia obtenidos apelando a la Ley de Libertad de Información. Eso ocurrió cuando Ortega Menaldo designó a Callejas y Callejas como jefe de inteligencia militar. Durante los siguientes nueve años, de acuerdo con los mismos documentos, los agentes detectaron a no menos de 31 oficiales activos también involucrados.

“Todos los caminos conducen a Ortega”, dijo recientemente un experto estadounidense del combate contra el narcotráfico. “Aun oficiales activos pueden tener otros nexos con oficiales retirados. Tienen una relación de maestro-aprendiz”.

Informes de inteligencia de Estados Unidos revelan los fuertes lazos que oficiales de la cofradía cultivaban con muchos subordinados, a quienes se conoce como “los operadores”. “Esta columna vertical de oficiales de inteligencia, de capitanes a generales, representa la red interna de lealtades más fuerte de la institución”, se lee en el cable de la DIA de 1991. “Otros oficiales capaces eran escogidos en todos los niveles para que participaran en operaciones clave y en comando de tropas”, continúa el informe. “Aunque no con nexos tan fuertes como en el caso de la cofradía, los ‘operadores’ desarrollaron su propia red vertical de reconocimiento de líderes-subordinados, relaciones y lealtades, y actualmente son considerados una columna vertical de lealtades de oficiales separada y diferente”.

Los oficiales de la cofradía extendieron su influencia aún más, según otro cable de inteligencia de Estados Unidos, como lo demuestra el hecho que “operadores” oficiales de nivel medio reclutaron a civiles locales como “comisionados militares para que fueran los ‘ojos y oídos’ del ejército”.

Pocos casos criminales demuestran mejor la integración de jefes de inteligencia guatemaltecos con el narcotráfico que uno investigado en 1990 por agentes especiales de la DEA en las calientes planicies del oriente de Guatemala, cerca de la costa caribeña. Por ese caso, de hace quince años, fue que por última vez un guatemalteco acusado de estar involucrado en el narcotráfico fue extraditado a Estados Unidos.

Arnoldo Vargas Estrada, alias “Archie”, fue durante mucho tiempo un “comisionado militar”, y el alcalde electo de la ciudad más grande de Zacapa. Funcionarios de la embajada de Estados Unidos informaron (como es requerido según un protocolo diplomático de los dos países) a la inteligencia militar guatemalteca, entonces dirigida por Ortega Menaldo, que agentes especiales de la DEA observaban al alcalde.

Vargas y otros dos civiles sospechosos fueron entonces arrestados en Guatemala con el apoyo de la DEA. No mucho tiempo después, los tres fueron extraditados a Nueva York, donde fueron procesados y condenados con base en las evidencias proporcionadas por la DEA. Sin embargo, la DEA no hizo algo en Guatemala cuando, poco después de los arrestos, los militares simplemente trasladaron la misma estructura de tráfico de drogas a un área rural lejos de la ciudad, según afirmaron finqueros en una solicitud entregada a la embajada de Estados Unidos en la ciudad de Guatemala, en 1992, y dirigida simplemente a “Señores D.E.A.”.

“Antes del amanecer, una de las avionetas que transporta cocaína se estrelló porque no pudo llegar a la pista de la finca Rancho Maya”, se afirma en el documento que los campesinos firmaron o en el que imprimieron sus huellas digitales. El documento contiene los nombres de comisionados militares y de siete oficiales locales, entre ellos cuatro coroneles que supervisaban a los finqueros.

Uno de los comisionados militares que los campesinos mencionaron fue el propietario de la finca Rancho Maya, Byron Berganza. Más de una década después, en 2004, agentes especiales de la DEA finalmente arrestaron a Berganza, junto a otro civil guatemalteco, en la ciudad de Nueva York, bajo cargos de “conspiración para la importación de narcóticos”. El año pasado, en la ciudad de México, la DEA también colaboró en el arresto de otro guatemalteco, Otto Herrera. El entonces procurador general estadounidense, John Ashcroft, describió a Herrera como uno de “los narcotráficantes y lavadores de dinero más importantes del mundo”.

Sin embargo, no mucho tiempo después de su arresto, Herrera logró escapara de una cárcel de la ciudad de México. Ninguno de los oficiales militares mencionados por los finqueros en su solicitud de 1992 fue procesado. Como explicó el funcionario de la DEA Glaspy, “Hay una diferencia entre recibir información y poder procesar a alguien”.

En 2002, el entonces presidente de la Subcomisión del Hemisferio Occidental, Cass Ballenger, forzó a la administración Bush a actuar limitadamente para castigar a altos oficiales militares guatemaltecos supuestamente involucrados en el narcotráfico. “La visa del ex jefe de inteligencia guatemalteco Francisco Ortega Menaldo fue revocada”, confirmó el vocero del Departamento de Estado, Richard A. Boucher, en marzo de 2002, “con base en una sección de la Ley de Inmigración y Nacionalidad relacionada con el narcotráfico, y eso es todo lo que puedo decir sobre la decisión”.

Para entonces, el general retirado Ortega Menaldo ya había rechazado los cargos de narcotráfico hechos por Estados Unidos, mientras recordaba a reporteros en la ciudad de Guatemala que el colaboró con la CIA y la DEA en los ’80. En efecto, el Consejo de Fiscalización de la Casa Blanca confirmó que cuando menos la CIA y la DEA mantuvieron una relación de intercambio de información con la inteligencia militar de Guatemala a fines de los ’80 y a principios de los ’90, cuando era dirigida por el coronel Ortega Menaldo.

La CIA, por medio del vocero Mark Mansfield, declinó hacer comentarios para este artículo.

Ocho meses después de revocar la visa de Ortega Menaldo, la administración Bush de nuevo argumentó sospechas de involucramiento en el narcotráfico para revocar la de otro ex jefe de inteligencia guatemalteco, el general retirado Callejas y Callejas. Pero después que la noticia fue publicada en la prensa guatemalteca, este oficial de la cofradía nunca respondió públicamente, como lo hizo Ortega Menaldo, ante la acusación.

En lugar de enfrentar la impunidad que permite que oficiales militares guatemaltecos trafiquen drogas, muchos de los funcionarios electos parecen marchar en la dirección contraria. No mucho tiempo después que la administración Bush señaló a los dos ex jefes de inteligencia pertenecientes a la cofradía como sospechosos de ser narcotraficantes, miembros del Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (FRG), partido fundado por otro general del ejército retirado, presentaron propuestas de reformas legales para que jueces civiles no conocieran casos de militares acusados de delitos.

Durante el periodo de la Guerra Fría, el sistema de justicia guatemalteco raramente tuvo la oportunidad de procesar a oficiales por cualquier tipo de delito, porque eran llevados ante tribunales militares. En los ’90, las cortes civiles empezaron a intentar ejercer su autoridad sobre oficiales militares acusados de estar involucrados en el narcotráfico. Sin embargo, la legislación propuesta estipulaba que cualquier oficial, activo o retirado, sólo podría ser procesado en un tribunal militar, independientemente del delito del que se le acusara. Una corte marcial normalmente está reservada para delitos supuestamente cometidos por personal militar durante su servicio. Si las reformas fuesen aprobadas, aseguraría que oficiales acusados de cualquier delito, desde asesinato hasta narcotráfico, pudieran nuevamente ser procesados únicamente por militares. “Esto sería un nuevo mecanismo de impunidad”, señaló José Zeitune, de la Comisión Internacional de Juristas -que tiene su sede en Ginebra- y autor de un informe sobre la justicia guatemalteca presentado en 2005.

Como presidente de la Subcomisión del Hemisferio Occidental, Ballenger acusó al FRG, que goza de la pluralidad del Congreso guatemalteco, de corrupción por drogas. El FRG fue fundado por el general retirado Efraín Ríos Montt, un personaje controversial que en 1982 organizó un golpe de Estado para convertirse en presidente de Guatemala precisamente cuando los oficiales de inteligencia de la cofradía estaban tomando fuerza.

El nuevo vicepresidente de la subcomisión es Jerry Weller III, un republicano de Illinois, que recientemente se casó con Zury Ríos Sosa, la hija del general retirado. A diferencia de otros miembros de la subcomisión, Weller, por medio de su vocero, Telly Lovelace, declinó hacer un comentario para este artículo.

El suegro del congresista Weller preparó al anterior presidente de Guatemala, un miembro del FRG llamado Alfonso Portillo, quien salió de ese país en 2004 para evitar ser arrestado por una acusación de lavado de dinero, de acuerdo con un informe del Departamento de Estado. Durante la gestión de Portillo, uno de sus más cercanos colaboradores en el Palacio Nacional fue el cofundador de la cofradía Ortega Menaldo, según la prensa guatemalteca.

Hoy las oscuras estructuras de la jefatura de la inteligencia guatemalteca están tan implicadas en el crimen organizado que la administración Bush, por una vez, ya está recurriendo a las Naciones Unidas. Haciendo a un lado sus comunes críticas al organismo internacional, ese gobierno apoya una propuesta para la integración en Guatemala de una fuerza de tarea dirigida por Naciones Unidas, llamada explícitamente “Comisión para la Investigación de Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad”. Hasta ahora, el único país que ha doblegado su soberanía para permitir a las Naciones Unidas un papel similar es Líbano, donde investigadores de Naciones Unidas buscan esclarecer el asesinato de un ex primer ministro.

El plan para Guatemala propuesto por Naciones Unidas también tiene el respaldo del presidente Óscar Berger, un terrateniente rico y abogado respetado por el gobierno de Estados Unidos. Sin embargo, la comisión propuesta por Naciones Unidas está encontrando resistencia de parte de políticos del FRG, como la esposa de Weller, Ríos Sosa, diputada al Congreso de Guatemala.

¿Y qué están haciendo los funcionarios estadounidenses y las autoridades de Guatemala para detener a los oficiales militares involucrados en el narcotráfico?

“Actualmente hay investigaciones sobre la corrupción de autoridades guatemaltecas del ejército y otras”, dijo este año el entonces secretario asistente Robert B. Charles en una conferencia de prensa dada en el Departamento de Estado. Sin embargo, ningún oficial ha sido acusado ni en Guatemala ni en Estados Unidos.

Más problemático es un caso reciente en el que están involucrados soldados mexicanos convertidos en delincuentes, los Zetas. El 22 de octubre, siete miembros de los Zetas fueron arrestados en una ciudad fronteriza de Guatemala con armas y cocaína. La Associated Press reportó que, de acuerdo con autoridades de Guatemala los Zetas fueron a ese país para vengar la muerte de uno de sus compañeros. A pesar de la evidencia que había contra ellos, poco después de una semana desde su arresto las autoridades los dejaron libres.

Frank Smyth es un periodista independiente que ha escrito sobre el narcotráfico en Guatemala desde 1991, en The Progresive, The Sacramento Bee, The Washington Post, The Village Voice , The New Republic, y The Wall Street Journal, entre otros medios. Ha sido un corresponsal especial de The Fort Worth Star-Telegram y de The Economist. Es colaborador de Crimes of War: What The Public Should Know, editado por Roy Gutman y David Rieff. Sus reportajes son publicados en y su dirección de correo electrónico es

Behind the Badge: Meet the GOP’s Law Enforcement Front Group

Original story found here.

Kirk Watson cannot forget the first time he saw it. Watson, a former Austin mayor, was running as the Democratic nominee for state attorney general. Only about 10 days remained before the 2002 November election. His campaign was in full gear. On that Sunday, Watson planned to visit dozens of churches. It was early in the morning in a Dallas hotel room and the candidate was shaving with the television on in the background.

He didn’t see the initial visuals of the commercial as the screen scrolled past stirring images of surgeons saving lives and the state Capitol building. A somber voice intoned “Personal injury lawyers like Kirk Watson have made millions suing doctors, hospitals, and small businesses, hurting families and driving up the cost of healthcare. Greg Abbott is different.”

By this point Watson was standing before the television, holding his razor, his face still lathered. “A respected Supreme Court Justice,” the voiceover in the ad continued, “Greg Abbott believes in common sense lawsuit reform and Greg Abbott supports the swift and aggressive prosecution of sexual predators and child pornographers. Greg Abbott has a plan for Texas. To learn more, log on now. [] Law Enforcement Alliance of America.”

Watson rapidly called his campaign manager, smearing the phone with shaving cream. He had only one question: Who in the world was the LEAA?

“We have to find out,” he told his campaign manager.

Over the remaining 10 days leading up to the election, the mysterious group with the strong law-and-order moniker spent about $1.5 million for ads that ran in every major media market in Texas, gunning down Watson and lifting up the GOP’s Abbott (Ironically, it was Watson who had received an honorary commission in the Austin Police Department while Abbott sued and won millions on a lawsuit after a falling tree left him paralyzed). While the Texas media buy in the Abbott-Watson race seems to have been the largest for any single state, the LEAA also spent millions for commercials against candidates in at least four other states in 2002. In some places, like Mississippi, the LEAA dropped more money on ads than all the candidates combined.

And Watson is still waiting for an answer to his question. The former mayor notes that he, not Abbott, received the endorsement of the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas, which is the largest police group in the state. Two years later, he still wants to know who was behind the LEAA? Who funded the campaign against him and why?

One agency tasked with policing groups like the LEAA is the Internal Revenue Service. But the IRS doesn’t appear to be interested. It has designated the non-profit LEAA as “a social welfare organization.” Under this tax designation, the LEAA can legally “educate” voters about issues but, it cannot advocate for the election or defeat of a candidate. The IRS forbids such organizations from “direct or indirect participation or intervention in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.” When big money is the key to demolishing political opponents, the biggest advantage that any “social welfare” group like the LEAA enjoys is that it is legally allowed to keep all its donors, even the largest ones, hidden.

Currently, the LEAA is under investigation by a Travis County grand jury as part of a wide-ranging inquiry into the 2002 campaign. Did the LEAA cross the line between “education” and “advocacy?” Did the LEAA serve as a key component in a coordinated GOP plan to skirt campaign finance laws and funnel prohibited corporate money into Texas politics? Was the author of that plan U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Sugar Land), whose principle objective was to redraw congressional lines so that more Republicans would be elected?

Those who track campaign money believe that the LEAA represents a troubling trend. “LEAA is one of a new breed of shadowy front groups that is willing to serve as a corporate money conduit and attack dog to benefit GOP candidates,” says Craig McDonald of the public policy organization Texans for Public Justice. “Its ‘issue ads’ are a mere hoax. When GOP candidates need a political attack from a so-called law-and-order group, they appear to funnel money to the LEAA to carry it out.”

What’s beyond dispute is the result of Greg Abbott’s ascension to attorney general. Without the attorney general’s approval, DeLay never would have been able to push through his redistricting plan. It was Abbott who was the first to rule that the state could pursue mid-decade congressional redistricting. This November, if Republicans do as well as expected, the GOP could lock in their controlling majority in the House of Representatives for years to come.

One day in late May, I decided to pay the LEAA a visit, so I drove less than 20 minutes from my office in Washington, D.C., to the edge of the I-495 beltway around the capital. I parked my car in a lot next to a northern Virginia office building filled with medical, accounting, and employment firms and the headquarters of the LEAA, an organization that bills itself as “the nation’s largest non-profit, non-partisan coalition of law enforcement personnel, crime victims, and concerned citizens.”

I took the elevator to the LEAA’s suite 421, consisting of a handful of cramped offices.

By this point, I had already called the headquarters and sent a fax, on both occasions, with the same request. What I wanted was the LEAA’s Form 990s. These publicly available tax documents, while not naming contributors, list how much the organization spends and where the money goes. By law, one can show up in person at the IRS-registered address of any non-profit group and simply ask for its Form 990. The law requires the group to provide a copy “generally” on the “day of the request.” There are even minor fines for not doing so.

The receptionist said that LEAA Operations Director Ted Deeds was not in. I showed her a copy of IRS regulations. I pointed out that now I was here in person, and was legally entitled to walk away with the form. There was another person in the office, who identified himself as the webmaster of While I waited, he went to call Deeds. He returned and told me “Mr. Deeds would honor my request.” When I pressed for more information, he said that there was no more.

On June 4, I sent Deeds an e-mail requesting the same information, which I copied to the IRS Media Relations Specialist for northern Virginia, James C. Dupree. In keeping with IRS policy, regional spokesman Dupree declined to say what, if anything, he or the IRS did with my request. To ensure that the IRS got it, I sent a letter of complaint to the IRS enforcement office for non-profit groups, which is based in Dallas, Texas, on July 1. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but a researcher at the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit watchdog Public Citizen had already complained in writing about the LEAA to the same IRS office on May 14 (Public Citizen eventually obtained some of the LEAA’s older Form 990s from the IRS).

At press time, the fines that could conceivably be levied against Chief Operating Officer Ted Deeds for ignoring two separate and ongoing requests for the LEAA’s 990 are more than $3,600, if the IRS were to enforce the law. “Responsible persons of a tax exempt organization who fail to provide the documents as required may be subject to a penalty of $20 a day for as long as the failure continues,” reads the tough language on the IRS website. “There is a maximum penalty of $10,000 for each failure to provide a copy of an annual information return.”

Four grand is no more than petty cash for a multi-million dollar non-profit like the LEAA, which had a budget in 2001 of nearly $5 million, according to a Form 990 obtained by Public Citizen. But $3,600 is not necessarily an insignificant amount for Ted Deeds, who is the official responsible, and who earned $82,500 operating the LEAA in 2001, according to the same form 990.

What Deeds has yet to provide to either the Observer or Public Citizen is the LEAA Form 990 for 2002. This is just one of the reasons why, according to Taylor Lincoln, a senior researcher at Public Citizen, the LEAA is the worst of its breed. Lately, Public Citizen and Lincoln have been collecting data on 30-odd non-profit groups involved in political campaigns, asking each one for copies of their Form 990s. “[The LEAA] are the only group which has not abided by its obligation to provide the form,” said Lincoln.

“A social welfare organization” like the LEAA is not supposed to be involved in politics, at least not full-time, according to the IRS website. “[A] social welfare organization may engage in some political activities, so long as that is not its primary activity.” Moreover, “any expenditure it makes for political activities may be subject to tax.”

One way to tell whether an activity is “primary” is how much the group spends on it. The LEAA spent only $43,050 on “political expenditures” according to its Form 990 in 2000, and far less, only $2,500, on “political expenditures” in 2001. But in both years the LEAA spent $2.43 million and $3.47 million, respectively, on what the LEAA told the IRS was “enhancement and education to further the understanding of and the need for revision in the current criminal justice system and education of the public into second amendment rights.”

The certified public accountant who prepares the LEAA’s IRS filings is Nanette K. Miller, whose office is in Washington, D.C. I asked her whether these “enhancement and education” expenditures were properly filed, or whether they should have been recorded instead as “political expenditures.”

“He’d be the one you have to ask,” she said, referring to LEAA Operations Director Ted Deeds. “I can’t disclose anything without talking to him, anyway.”

Deborah Goldberg of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University said that groups like the LEAA are taking advantage of a loophole involving the difference between federal and state laws. Since the Supreme Court upheld the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation in 2003, it no longer matters what “magic words” groups like the LEAA use, says Goldberg. Whether or not they run “issue ads” or explicitly endorse a candidate, such groups must disclose their contributors for any ads they run during federal races. But they only need to do so for ads they run during state races if the state itself has such a law. “Both Texas and Mississippi,” said Goldberg, are among the states that do not.

Of course, the LEAA is hardly the only IRS-registered “social welfare” organization doing “public education.” One such group on the opposite side of the nation’s political fence is MoveOn.Org, which had a budget of $4.48 million in 2003, on par with the LEAA’s budget in 2001. While LEAA refuses to disclose its latest balance sheet, MoveOn.Org provided its Form 990s in compliance with the law. Moreover, while the LEAA has no “political” entity registered with the IRS, MoveOn has two other registered political groups, a Voter Fund and a Political Action Committee, both of which are required by law to disclose every contributor who donates $200 or more.

IRS officials confirm that the LEAA filed a balance sheet with the IRS for 2002. By law, anyone should be able to obtain this form from the IRS. But after more than four months, the IRS has still failed to produce the document in a “timely manner” in violation of the laws governing the agency.

A month ago, Mark W. Everson, the man President Bush tapped to be commissioner of the IRS, promised Congress that the agency was finally going to clean up dirty non-profits. “It’s fair to say this problem has crept up over time, and our response has lagged,” replied Commissioner Everson under questioning from senators, adding that the IRS would be reviewing non-profit groups as soon as this summer to start enforcing the law.

“It’s obvious from the abuses we see that there’s been no check on charities,” complained the chairman of the finance committee, Senator Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican. Chairman Grassley went on, “Big money, tax free, and no oversight have created a cesspool in too many cases.”

But which non-profit “cesspools” will the IRS clean up first?

IRS officials said that Commissioner Everson is most concerned about non-profit groups and their affiliates whom the IRS suspects of either engaging in criminal fraud to deceive contributors or of hiding taxable income from the IRS. The latter includes environmental trusts, said the IRS official, who added, “[Everson] was not talking about the issue you raise.”

What about a little enforcement when the “law-and-order” group breaks the law?

“It would be a violation of federal law for us to comment on a specific entity,” said Bruce Friedland, public affairs specialist at IRS headquarters in Washington, D.C., declining to answer questions about why the IRS has failed to sanction the LEAA. All Friedland would say was, “This is a matter that the IRS takes very seriously.”

Commissioner Everson previously served in the Justice Department and in the Immigration and Naturalization Service back in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan. More recently, Everson left a job in Dallas as vice-president of a multi-billion dollar, Texas-based food service company, to serve President Bush first in the Office of Management and Budget, where he reportedly earned a reputation for efficiency.

But the IRS under his leadership hardly looks efficient when it comes to the LEAA.

The Law Enforcement Alliance of America was reportedly started in 1991 by a grant from the National Rifle Association (NRA), which set up the LEAA just eleven miles away from its own headquarters in northern Virginia. Tax records from both groups show that the NRA has continued to finance the LEAA. But the LEAA’s mission appears to have expanded since its early days, as a Republican election machine controlled from Washington, D.C., has increasingly come to rely on “issue” ads as part of its national strategy. The Law Enforcement Alliance has been allying itself with other groups connected to the GOP as part of this growing effort. In the process, the LEAA’s bank account has grown and its message has changed depending on the circumstance. Nowhere has this been more evident than in Texas, where the LEAA found new friends in the Texas Association of Business (TAB), and a political action committee called Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC) founded by House Majority Leader Tom Delay.

In 2002, TRMPAC and TAB were busy supporting candidates and pushing “issue” ads in an effort to remake the Texas Legislature. And indeed, after a slate of 19 Republican state representatives and senators won victory, they proceeded to elect DeLay’s close friend Tom Craddick (R-Midland) speaker of the House and push through, not only mid-decade congressional redistricting, but a host of giveaways for the corporate financiers of the campaign. A central link among all these groups and a likely target of the Travis County grand jury is John Colyandro.

Colyandro was the executive director of TRMPAC. He also worked on Greg Abbott’s campaign. According to a deposition in a civil suit filed by some of the losing Democratic candidates, Colyandro admitted that he contacted the LEAA to see if they would get involved in Texas legislative races. He has denied involvement in the LEAA’s television ads against Watson. Remarkably, four ads created for the $1.9-million TAB “issue” ad campaign mysteriously ended up with LEAA logos on them.

The ads were hardly subtle. “Mike Head is on the side of convicted baby killers and murderers,” read one. “When suspected crack cocaine traffickers and marijuana dealers found themselves in jail, Paul D. Clayton came to their aid,” read another.

The movement of the ads between the groups seems to indicate coordination between them, which could violate their tax status. This could become an important point in the grand jury proceedings as it brings into question how “independent” their “independent expenditures” really were.

The LEAA may also be channeling funds into other state races for America’s largest “business league,” reported The Wall Street Journal. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce represents more than three million firms, and includes an Institute for Legal Reform that carries out what its spokesman calls “voter education” in both national and state elections across the nation.

While the LEAA’s big issue is gun rights and criminal justice, the Chamber’s big issue is tort reform and limits on lawsuit damages. The organization has spent millions to support candidates on the lawsuit-reform bandwagon. “There are 42 supreme court races, and 11 attorney general races” in different states this year, said Sean McBride, vice president of communications for the Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform.

The Chamber, like the LEAA, favors unaccountable voter education drives. “We do not give contributions directly to candidates,” said McBride. “We take a hard look at those races in cooperation with business groups or other non-profits in those states.”

Do the non-profits include the LEAA?

Chamber spokesman McBride declined to comment.

When also asked about the LEAA, the Chamber’s General Counsel, Steve Bokat similarly replied, “I’m not at liberty to discuss it.”

No matter who is writing checks to the LEAA, its budget has increased nearly fivefold in just seven years. From 1995 through 1998, the NRA donated more than $500,000 a year to the LEAA, covering either nearly or slightly more than half of the LEAA’s budget, according to tax records from both groups obtained by the Observer. But the LEAA’s budget has swelled in recent years from $1.32 million in 1997 to $4.48 million by 2001. There is speculation the group spent even more money in 2002.

In addition to its presence in Texas, the LEAA has fought hard in Mississippi, which has long been the scene of pitched battles between trial lawyers and business interests. Two years ago, the LEAA sponsored smear ads in Mississippi against one 12-year sitting state Supreme Court justice. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce was active in Mississippi Supreme Court races in years past as well, but, in 2002, neither the Chamber nor its ads were anywhere in sight, while LEAA ads were everywhere.

What was odd about the LEAA’s campaign against this sitting Mississippi justice, Chuck McRae, was that, unlike many previous targets of the LEAA, he was a proud gun owner and the LEAA had no beef with him about gun rights. However, many businesses and, especially, doctors opposed Judge McRae’s re-election, complaining that he was too plaintiff-friendly in his Mississippi Supreme Court decisions. The LEAA’s ads, meanwhile, attacked him that year for overturning at least one murder conviction, and for voting against the disbarment of an attorney charged with stealing money from his own clients.

“What we find with a lot of these ‘front groups’ is that they adopt innocuous-sounding names that your average person is more likely to identify with than the chamber of commerce,” said Public Citizen’s Taylor Lincoln. “Take the Law Enforcement Alliance of America. Who is against law enforcement?”

It’s unclear whether the Travis County grand jury has tried to contact John W. Chapman, the chairman of LEAA’s board of directors, to ask him what he knows about the 2002 Texas campaign. It wouldn’t be hard; he’s just up the road on I-35. Chapman is a former police officer for juvenile offenses in Killeen, Texas. He joined the LEAA after the mass shooting by a lone gunmen in a Luby’s cafeteria there in 1991. On the LEAA website,, Chapman can be seen in one photo shaking hands with then-Texas Governor George W. Bush, and in another photo with a past NRA President. (Chapman declined to comment for this story.)

State officials in Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Kansas have accused the LEAA of illegally pumping money into their state’s electoral campaigns in violation of this group’s so-called “social welfare” status.

One judge in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County, Paul F. Lutty Jr., issued a temporary restraining order against the LEAA over its ads in the Keystone State in 2001. But even those who disagreed with LEAA ads, like the editors of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, said the county judge’s ruling was a violation of free speech.

One of the largest LEAA campaigns after Texas was a 2002 attorney general race in Illinois, where the LEAA spent a reported $1.3 million. The group attacked a Democratic candidate, Lisa Magidan, telling voters that she “has never tried a single crime,” while pointing out that the Republican candidate, Joe Birkett, was an experienced prosecutor. This time the LEAA’s Executive Director James Fotis characterized the ads as “freedom of speech.”

Indeed they are. But since running such ads amounts, as the LEAA’s own IRS filings show, to the group’s primary activity, if the IRS were to determine that these expenses should be filed as “political” instead of “educational,” not only would the LEAA lose its “social welfare” status and be required to pay taxes on its political campaigns, but it would also be required finally to shed light on its contributors.

There are others who criticize the LEAA for different reasons. Jim Pasco is executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police. It’s the nation’s largest law enforcement association with more than 300,000 members. The Grand Lodge Fraternal Order of Police is based in Nashville, Tennessee, and has more than 2,100 local lodges nationwide. The FOP also has a National Legislative Office that occupies three floors of a Capitol Hill townhouse.

“It’s absurd to suggest that LEAA represents the law enforcement community,” said Pasco, who is himself a retired Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms special agent.

These two groups have worked together. Both the Fraternal Order of Police and the Law Enforcement Alliance backed a federal law, now awaiting President Bush’s signature, that will allow off-duty as well as retired police officers to carry concealed weapons in any state. But on other issues, from state supreme court to attorney general races, Pasco says the LEAA does not represent America’s law enforcement personnel.

“There is no way on God’s green earth that the LEAA could spend millions of dollars on campaign ads,” said Pasco. “It’s not their money.”

How much money the LEAA spent in 2002 and who provided it is anybody’s guess. Since the LEAA and the IRS refuse and fail, respectively, to give a proper public accounting, the mystery will remain unsolved for the time being. More importantly, in the absence of a legal deterrent, who knows what plans are being laid for the LEAA to strike once again in October, 10 days before the election?

Frank Smyth is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. His work can be seen at Additional writing and reporting for this article was contributed by Jake Bernstein.