Unraveling the pretense of the Guatemalan “Narco-State”

Journalist Frank Smyth has an interesting report in the Texas Observer, dubbed “The Untouchable Narco-State: Guatemala's military defies the DEA”

The basic premise of the piece, which is quite well written, is that the Guatemalan military and intelligence apparatus is in league with narco-traffickers, and that some of its current and former officers often serve as the “ring leaders” of those trafficking organizations.

This has tripped up DEA’s operations in the country and led the Bush administration to cut off military aid to the country. On top of that, no major narco-prosecution has been carried out, either in Guatemala or the United States, in recent memory, against anyone of significance in the military cabal in the small Central American country because of the deep-rooted corruption.
From the report:

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.

So far so good. But Smyth’s report, drawn in large part from documents often dating back 15 years or more, fails to explore some pertinent connections that might help explain why the most powerful nation on the planet, the USA, is unable to deal with the corruption in a tiny country like Guatemala.

Among the first connections that needs to be pointed out is that the Zetas received their paramilitary training in the United States.

From a prior Narco News report:

A major reason for their “professionalism” in this area is that many of the Zetas have received some specialized military or other tactical training from U.S. agencies, including from the DEA, FBI and U.S. military.

A former DEA official who worked extensively south of the border during his career explains:

“A lot of the Zetas came from former Mexican police offices or the military, and some are even students from universities in Texas that work part time with the Zetas to provide security. So they come from a diverse background. Some of them have prior training from the DEA, FBI and the U.S. military, as well as other agencies. We go to great lengths to assure they are not engaged in criminal activity before training them, but later on they can be lured into drug business by the money. It happens … And they (the Zetas) are very organized and have recruiters, who are out constantly bringing in new people and training them.”

Given that fact, is it unreasonable to question where the Kaibiles were trained — which is not addressed directly in Smyth’s story?

Given the United States’ long history of intervention in Guatemala, would it be out of line to suspect that agents of the United States also trained the Kaibiles in paramilitary methods?

Smyth alludes to this possibility obliquely by pointing out that two top retired Guatemalan generals allegedly in the thick of the corruption were trained at the School of the Americas.

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.

…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.)

Smyth also points out the following in his report:

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.

OK, based on Smyth’s reporting, we know the Zetas are working hand-in-hand with the Kaibiles in propping up narco-trafficking operations in Guatemala and Mexico. It also appears clear that the United States did provide some military training to Guatemalan military and intelligence units in the past, based on the fact that the Bush administration recently allegedly cut off that training. (So that’s an admission it had to exist at some point, right?)

Now, assuming both the Zetas and Kaibiles have training tentacles connecting them back to U.S. agencies, we can see how U.S. intelligence, namely the CIA, might have tainted the game here a bit.

Now chew on this bit of information from Smyth’s report:

… 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

… 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. .

Not one crime? How is this possible? The United States surely has the power to throw its might and money around in Guatemala, just as it is doing in Mexico and Colombia. What is the missing piece here?

In a recent conversation I had with a U.S. intelligence operative, it was pointed out to me that highly classified intelligence operations don't show up on the public-record radar. Even tenacious reporters like Smyth are not likely to run across CIA cables revealing the existence of front companies set up to trade in the one black market commodity even more lucrative than drugs — namely weapons.

In fact, the way it was explained to me is that such covert U.S. operations “play in the same soup” as everyone else in the global weapons black market. In other words, you can’t tell the bad guys from the good guys in the thick of that game.

So where am I going with this? Well, ask yourself. How could the Guatemalan military be so involved in the narco trade and seemingly be so untouchable, even by a mega-superpower like the USA, unless it was by design?

The drug trade, and the billions of dollars it throws off for weapons purchases, sure could go a long way in propping up a military regime in a tiny country located at the crossroads of Latin America. Such a ruthless military junta might serve U.S. interest in the region in ways that are less obvious than can be gleaned from 15-year-old government documents and interviews with DEA PR flacks.

Consider the case of DEA agent Richard Horn, who ran head-first into CIA operations when he actually tried to do his job in another foreign country:

Horn served in the early 1990s as the DEA country attaché to Burma – which ranks as one of the top opium poppy producing countries in the world.

… From the start, Horn ran into problems with the top U.S. State Department official in Burma, Charge d’Affaires Franklin Huddle Jr., and the CIA chief of station in Burma at the time, Arthur M. Brown.

… In the end, Huddle managed to get Horn run out of Burma through the machinations of the State Department … but only after Horn discovered that the CIA had planted eavesdropping equipment in his private quarters in Burma.

… The intelligence game in the region, then, according to sources, involves penetrating both worlds, and using information gained to manipulate the politics and forces in the region. As a result, the CIA would have assets planted inside both the government and the major trafficking organizations – with some of those assets likely working both sides of that fence. The CIA officials handling these human assets have built their careers on the information obtained from this spying game, and in some cases may have become corruptly involved in the system itself, according to sources in the intelligence community.

“If you want to cultivate assets in the drug trade to get information, then you have to let the drug trade continue, and that’s why you don’t want a noisy DEA agent getting in the way,” explains one source who does consulting work in the intelligence field. “The reason the opium economy will not stop is that the CIA does not see a value in stopping it when they want intelligence. … We don’t have a drug policy, we have a drug pretense.”

And, given the experience of honest DEA agents like Horn, who was run out of Southeast Asia after bumping up against CIA operations in that heroin-source region, it might not be a surprise if the DEA found itself also locked out of a nation like Guatemala. That might be one possible explanation as to why, as Smyth says in his article: “DEA has been all but impotent in Guatemala.”

Now that’s just a thought, nothing more. But I don’t think we can talk about this subject without considering the “pretense” of the war on drugs.

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