Guatemala’s Otto Pérez Molina Fights Back Against Mexican Drug Cartels

By Dialogo
January 30, 2013

GUATEMALA CITY — When Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina first came to power just over a year ago, he promised to govern the country with a mano dura, an iron fist.
After years of Mexican drug cartels muscling their way across the border into Guatemala and Central America, it seemed as though the former army general had inherited a nation on its knees. The word on voters’ lips was “security” and Pérez Molina assured them he would deliver, by empowering the army to fight drug trafficking and secure the country’s borders.
About 90 per cent of the cocaine entering North America every year passes through Central America, according to the United Nations’ International Narcotics Control Board, costing Guatemala billions of dollars and thousands of lives each year.
However, it wasn’t always this way. Until fairly recently, most South American-grown drug shipments traveled to the United States by plane or boat. But a crackdown on this route shifted the problem inland, which left Guatemala caught in the crossfire between illegal narcotics-producing countries in the south and illegal narcotic consumers in the north.
Col. Mario Mérida, a member of the Guatemalan Democratic Security Network, says three fundamental factors make Guatemala’s coastline ideal for drug traffickers.
“The first is its geographical positioning, which doesn’t present any major difficulties for marine navigation,” he said. “The second is the lack of government resources to maintain maritime and aerial control over the sea, and the third is the absence of a continued state presence like the police. Add to this the poverty, which encourages residents and fishermen to become complicit [in drug trafficking].”
President no stranger to drug war
Thanks to his previous job as head of military intelligence, Pérez Molina has been at the forefront of his country’s drug war for more than 20 years. Now, after a year in power, has his Partido Patriota government has had some success in reducing drug trafficking and fighting back against the Mexican drug cartels.
“Otto Pérez Molina has prevented further expansion of [the Mexican drug cartels], yes. He’s halted the effect but not reversed it,” says local security analyst Samuel Logan. “For drug shipment interdiction, 2012 was wholly successful and Pérez Molina allowed an unprecedented level of international access.”
Soon after taking office in January 2012, the Guatemalan president approved the creation of two new military bases in the country, upgraded a third and made it a priority to reinstate U.S. military aid to Guatemala — a request which the United States promptly answered.
In late August, about 200 U.S. Marines arrived in Guatemala as part of Operation Martillo, an international mission aimed at intercepting illegal narcotics, bulk cash and weapons being transported along Central America’s isthmus.
With the full support of Pérez Molina and the Guatemalan Ministry of Defense, the Marines provided local soldiers with essential technology and training aimed at combating organized crime and controlling the flow of narcotics from Central America.
“The U.S. Army has the technological resources to help with identifying aircraft, ships and submarines used by the drug cartels, which facilitates aerial and maritime interventions,” said Merida. “Guatemala’s relationship with the U.S. Army is also important for training purposes, and to exchange experiences related to prevention and intervention strategies.”
Operation Martillo is a multinational effort
As well as sending its Marines, the Pentagon also dispatched Navy and Coast Guard vessels and aircraft to help military and law enforcement units from other nations involved in the mission.
Countries from Europe, Latin America and North America are working together as part of Operation Martillo, leading many to consider it one of the most successful coalition efforts ever mounted to tackle this kind of threat.
The mission made fighting drug trafficking its top priority and results were soon forthcoming.
“Participating nations have interdicted about 127 metric tons of cocaine, which is a huge quantity of cocaine, most of that policed up in the air or on the water before even getting to the land masses of Central America where traffickers create the corruption, crime and gang problems that are associated with illicit trafficking,” Rear Adm. Charles D. Michel, director of the Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF-S), told Diálogo in early January.
“In addition, we have been able to take down 56 go-fast boats — typically those go-fast boats carry about a metric ton of cocaine each — six pangas, two motor vessels, two semi-submersible vessels, two sailing vessels, six vehicles, seven fishing vessels and 12 aircraft.”
It's evident that, for drug trafficking control, the three observations made by Col. Mario Mérida are decisive, related to limited presence at state level and insufficient equipment, both marine and aerial; but the subject of poverty affects the entire country, therefore anyone ends up being a candidate to cooperate in drug trafficking. Let's remember that Guatemala borders 4 countries, and with Mexico we are united to by 968 kilometers of borderline.