A Brave Guatemalan Judge Challenges Corrupt Brass Hats

Original article can be found here.

Something new and promising happened in Guatemala last month when Judge Marco Tulio Molina Lara sentenced ex-Army Lt. Col. Carlos Ochoa Ruiz to 14 years in prison for trafficking in cocaine. Mr. Ochoa Ruiz is one of at least 31 current or former Guatemalan military officers the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has suspected of running drugs. But no Guatemalan officer of his rank has ever received such a lengthy sentence. He has one final appeal available, which may yet set him free.

In American eyes, Mr. Ochoa Ruiz is a recidivist criminal. In 1990, DEA special agents set him up in a sting operation; they claim that he sent half of a metric ton of cocaine, worth $7.5 million wholesale, to Tampa, Fla. He was indicted in absentia in federal court. The U.S. demanded his extradition but after Guatemala’s top judge ruled in favor of the extradition and was subsequently murdered, the ruling was later reversed by the same high court. The murder remains unsolved. Mr. Ochoa Ruiz was caught running cocaine again three years later, leading to his arrest and last month’s conviction.

Guatemala has a major problem bringing present or former military officers suspected of felonies to justice. “Guatemalan military officers strongly suspected of trafficking in narcotics rarely face criminal prosecution,” wrote the State Department in 1994, complaining that suspects like the former Lt. Col. Ochoa Ruiz were merely discharged from military service. “In most cases, the officers continue on with their suspicious activities.”

The Clinton administration has largely chosen to ignore military involvement in Guatemalan drug trafficking, in part because for much of its first term it was focusing on a peace agreement, finally concluded in 1997, to end Guatemala’s 35-year civil war. It feared that raising the impunity issue would disrupt the peace process. Earlier this year the State Department reported that Guatemalan traffickers are now moving 200 to 300 metric tons of Colombian cocaine a year to northern markets, up sharply from about 50 tons in the early 1990s. That is, according to State Department officials, at least half of all the cocaine reaching the U.S. Most of the cocaine coming in through Mexico transits through Guatemala as well.

Former or current military officers, who for years have enjoyed a high degree of impunity, often protect Guatemalan criminal syndicates. According to a signed petition from Guatemalan peasants that was presented to the DEA, one syndicate led by military officers and a mayor killed locals who resisted abandoning the land they farmed, which the trafficking syndicate wanted for clandestine runways. Ex-mayor Arnoldo Vargas Estrada was later convicted of drug trafficking in federal court in New York. The four Army colonels named by the peasants in the same petition were never charged anywhere.

Guatemalan President Alvaro Arzu undertook to clean house in the military when he began his four-year term in 1996. The State Department reports that last year he discharged even more “military officers thought to be involved in corruption and smuggling.” But one of the bravest steps taken by anyone in Guatemala so far was last month’s sentencing of Mr. Ochoa Ruiz by Judge Molina Lara. It was the Bush administration that first requested Mr. Ochoa Ruiz’s extradition in 1991. The Guatemalan military later discharged him explicitly to put distance between his name and the institution. But that did not stop a military tribunal from inexplicably reclaiming jurisdiction over the former officer in 1993 in order to dismiss the U.S. extradition case against him, citing a “lack of evidence.”

The Clinton administration appealed the case three times, all the way to Guatemala’s top judicial body, the Constitutional Court. The presiding judge, Epaminondas González Dubon, was already well respected for his integrity, having made a historic, independent ruling in 1993 when he declared unconstitutional the imposition of martial law by the country’s then-president, Jorge Serrano. Mr. Ochoa Ruiz’s extradition case reached Judge González Dubon’s bench less than a year later, and in March 1994 he signed an order to extradite the former officer and circulated it to the court’s other judges to sign as well. On April 1, as Mr. González Dubon was returning with his family from an Easter day-trip, four men assassinated him as his wife and son looked on.

How did the Clinton administration react? Neither President Clinton nor his ambassador to Guatemala, Marilyn McAfee, said a word about it. They remained silent when, on April 12, the Constitutional Court’s surviving judges quietly overturned the late Judge González Dubon’s ruling and set Mr. Ochoa Ruiz free. Apparently the Clinton administration saw no reason to publicly protest this reversal of its efforts to bring a suspected drug trafficker to justice.

Four months later, in the Village Voice I accused another military officer, Gen. Carlos Pozuelos Villavicencio, the former Air Force commander, of allegedly using military aircraft to transship cocaine. In a hastily called press conference, Guatemala’s then-defense minister, Gen. Mario René Enríquez, threatened to spend his “last personal penny” suing me for libel. Ambassador McAfee called her own press conference two days later and announced that Gen. Pozuelos Villavicencio was indeed a DEA suspect. The general was never charged nor did any lawsuit ever materialize.

Some important gains have been made under President Arzu, but Guatemala still has a long way to go and fear is still an overriding consideration for all judges. The record of impunity is one reason Colombian traffickers have made alliances, with Guatemalan military officers. Considering the price paid to finally convict Mr. Ochoa Ruiz, it is no wonder that the cocaine traffic through Guatemala expanded so rapidly.

Mr. Smyth, a contributor to “Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know,” (Norton,
1999) writes regularly for Intellectual-Capital.com.

Has Guatemala Become the Cali Cartel’s Bodega?

Original article can be found here.

Colombia has been reluctant to prosecute top leaders of the Cali cartel and dismantle their organization. The Clinton administration is pushing Colombia to do more, while the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led by Jesse Helms (R., N.C.), threatens to impose trade sanctions.

But Colombia is not the only country where drug cartels and their major confederates operate with impunity. It shares that distinction with Guatemala, where the Drug Enforcement Administration has also uncovered evidence of institutional corruption.

While Colombian cartels used the Caribbean as their primary smuggling route through the mid-1980s, increased radar, as well as opportunity, led them to shift operations toward Mexico. In the late 1980s, they expanded those routes to neighboring Guatemala.

So much cocaine was detected there by 1990 that DEA special agents coined Guatemala la bodega or “the warehouse.” Today up to 75{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af} of the cocaine reaching the U.S. still passes through Mexico, but, according to the DEA, up to one-third of it is first received and stored across Mexico’s southern border in Guatemala.

Guatemala, like Colombia, has cooperated with the U.S. in both poppy eradication and cocaine interdiction. But in both countries this cooperation breaks down over prosecution or extradition of major suspects. “Extradition is the Achilles heel of this whole process,” says the DEA’s chief spokesman, James McGivney, in Washington, “whether it be Guatemala or Colombia.”

Unlike Colombia, Guatemala has an extradition treaty with the U.S. But Its Constitutional Court has only honored it in a few cases. The process is complicated by the fact that many major suspects are Guatemalan military officers.

In response, the Clinton administration has been willing to forgo prosecution of these cases. Why? One reason is to achieve cooperation with the military on other matters (the Guatemalan military receives no U.S. funding, but the police do). But the result only gives officers blanket impunity.

Lt. Col. Carlos Ochoa Ruiz was allegedly working with two Colombians from Call. Now wanted in federal court in Florida, Lt. Col. Ochoa is the first Guatemalan military officer against whom the DEA initiated prosecution. Back in October 1990, special agents watched him and others allegedly load cargo on a private plane, and then tracked it to Tampa.

The State Department requested his arrest and extradition. But one month later a Guatemalan judge released him. By 1992, two more civilian judges had ruled in his favor, while the military discharged Lt. Col. Ochoa and two Army captains also implicated in the case to put distance between them and the institution.

But that didn’t stop a military tribunal from unexpectedly reclaiming jurisdiction in 1993, and ruling to dismiss all proceedings in Guatemala for “lack of evidence.” The evidence in Tampa includes a half metric ton of cocaine. That’s worth about $7.5 million wholesale; retail it’s enough to fill a few million pipes with crack.

One judge who took the evidence into account was Epaminondas Gonzalez Dubon, the Constitutional Court president, and Guatemala’s highest justice. No other judge in memory was more independent. In May 1993, then President Jorge Serrano declared a “self-coup” and imposed martial law; Judge Gonzalez promptly declared it unconstitutional.

This helped galvanize both domestic and White House opposition, bringing down the “self-coup” one week later.

In March 1994, Judge Gonzalez made another independent ruling. “Gonzalez Dubon had signed a Court decision in which he declared [ex-Lt. Col. Ochoa’s] extradition constitutional,” reads a Human Rights Watch report. Judge Gonzalez then left Guatemala City with his family for an Easter day-trip. On their way back, in Guatemala City on April 1, four men in a car shot and killed Judge Gonzalez in front of his wife and son.

Police treated this, the slaying of Guatemala’s highest justice, as a common crime. Attorney General Ramses Cuestas claimed that it was an attempted car jacking, although no one stole anything. The surviving judges then declared ex-Lt. Col. Ochoa’s extradition unconstitutional, exhausting the State Department’s appeal.

This aborted the DEA’s most important test of whether the U.S. can prosecute a Guatemala military officer. How did the Clinton administration react? The U.S. ambassador, Marilyn McAfee, first ignored the denial, and then issued a press release, which concluded: “Unfortunately, there have been cases in which efforts to process suspected drug traffickers have been frustrated. Examples of these cases include that of Lt. Col. Ochoa, whose extradition was denied by the Constitutional Court, and the rejections for extradition of the American citizen, Carolyn Holly Fried, who has been accused of selling thousands of doses of illegal drugs to school-age children.”

According to Paul Mountain, supervising agent at the California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, Ms. Fried is not accused of selling drugs to any children; and the same Constitutional Court that denied ex-Lt. Col. Ochoa’s extradition two months later approved Ms. Fried’s.

Last month, the Constitutional Court denied the extradition of another Guatemalan, this time a wealthy businessman, Roberto Antonio Beltranena Butalino. He is named as a defendant with ex-Lt. Col. Ochoa in Tampa. Ironically, this ruling was announced in Guatemala the same day that the State Department certified to Congress that Guatemala had “cooperated fully” in the war against drugs.

When asked to comment on these matters, Assistant Secretary of State Robert Gelbard declined. Staff members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee say they will now review the administration’s handling of Guatemala.

More suspects remain untried, including six Army captains and two Air Force majors. Guatemala discharged all of them from active service over the DEA’s accusations. Yet, last year’s State Department drug control report, says: “in most cases, the officers continue on with their suspicious activities.”

The impact of cocaine trafficking in Guatemala, as in Colombia, is ripping its social fabric, already in shreds from four decades of Central America’s war. It was brave of Judge Gonzalez to say that the rule of law applies to all. But rather than back up the judge who backed up special agents, the Clinton administration has gone to unusual lengths to erase his memory. This only helps the Cali cartel and other Colombian drug traffickers. Threatening Colombia while coddling Guatemala won’t work.