President-Elect Otto Pérez Molina Vows Crackdown on Drug Cartels in Guatemala

By Dialogo
December 05, 2011

Guatemala’s incoming president, former Gen. Otto Pérez Molina, says he won’t waste time fulfilling his campaign promises — and that he intends to emulate Mexican President Felipe Calderón in taking the fight to organized crime, drug cartels and street gangs.
In interviews since his Nov. 6 runoff election victory, Pérez has outlined in more detail the war on crime he plans to wage. “We have to fight them head-on, I say,” he told the Mexico City newspaper El Universal, adding that he would consider using special army units to combat Mexican cartels that have been making inroads into Guatemala and their allies among powerful street gangs such as MS-13 and Calle 18.
Pérez, 61, obtained 54 percent of the popular vote on the basis of promising a crackdown on corruption and crime — particularly the gang violence that has worsened since the arrival of Mexican drug cartels vying to control trafficking routes.
A report released in October by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime ranked Guatemala seventh in world homicide rates, with 41.4 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2010.
Skyrocketing crime and violence were key issues in the elections, and Pérez has raised public expectations about confronting crime, said Adrián Zapata, director of the Institute of Research and Analysis on National Problems at the University of San Carlos.
“It is essential for the government to seek a national consensus on these priority issues,” said Zapata. Pérez appears likely to heed such advice and to build up cross-party support. Speaking to lawmakers following his electoral win, he urged them to put their differences aside. 

In the interview with El Universal, the former general and intelligence director said he plans to engage drug cartels in a “full frontal assault” as soon as he takes up his duties next year. He said he will use Guatemala’s elite military forces, known as Los Kaibiles, to combat the cartels and he cited specifically the “war on drugs” strategy adopted by the Mexican government since 2006.
“To those groups of drug traffickers, I say they will encounter a president who has made his mind up to take back control of the territory,” he said, vowing to devote 60 to 65 percent of his time on security issues — and that his plan involves not just turning more to the military but also strengthening the police and justice systems.
Zapata said that will put pressure on the national budget, and that Pérez “will have to increase state revenue,” which currently is around 11 percent of GDP.
Pérez suggested in a post-election press conference that he may need to boost tax collection to 14 percent of GDP.
Even so, security consultancy Stratfor concluded in a recent report that a full-fledged confrontation with organized crime “will require significant help, most likely from the United States,” which last summer announced that it would donate more than $300 million in security-related aid to Central American countries to combat the expansion of major Mexican organized crime groups.
Los Zetas has been more aggressive than any other drug cartel in expanding to Guatemala and other countries, where their path is made easier by underfunded and ill-equipped armed forces when compared to the Mexican military.
The increasing presence of Los Zetas and the rival Sinaloa cartel is so strong that it has triggered alarm across the region. In late June, Central American leaders met in Guatemala City for a two-day conference to develop a coordinated security plan to stem the cartels’ growing influence in Central America.
None of the leaders at the conference doubted the challenges they face. Guatemala’s harsh reality was underscored in May when 27 people were massacred — most of them beheaded — on a ranch in the department of El Petén.
In an effort to counter the Zetas, Guatemalan authorities took a leaf out of Mexico’s current anti-drug playbook — namely, turning to the military for help.
Last December, the government imposed military law in the department of Alta Verapaz for several months and had some success in halting cartel advances. President Álvaro Colom, who hands over power to Pérez on Jan. 14, told The Economist magazine that since then, only drug flights have landed in Alta Verapaz, where “before it was like an international airport.”
But in El Petén, which abuts the border with Mexico. It has been more difficult to take back what the Zetas have seized; in short, prevention has better success than dislodging once a foothold has been gained.
El Petén, which covers one-third of Guatemala, is difficult terrain for counter-narcotics. It is thinly populated with only 500,000 people and is undeveloped. The northern part of the department has long been home to smugglers, and dense tropical forest cover makes clandestine runways hard to locate.
Guatemala’s formal land crossings with Mexico have rudimentary migration controls, and many border crossing are unpatrolled by law-enforcement agencies, making it easy to cross vast tracts of land. In fact, Guatemala has only one helicopter and five pickup trucks to patrol its entire 871-kilometer border with Mexico. Los Zetas has seized on these weaknesses, co-opting domestic criminal groups in the process.
“The financial rewards are great and resistance can result in harsh consequences,” said Col. Rony Urizar, a spokesman for Guatemala’s military.
Urizar noted that the Zetas have taken a particularly aggressive approach in its expansion into Guatemala, and that it employs the same levels of violence there that it uses in Mexico. The Sinaloa cartel, meanwhile, has been more focused on controlling routes through allies than directly dominating territory.
Although Guatemalan officials are aware of links between the interloping cartels and gangs such as MS-13 and Calle 18, they say the ties are murky and are stronger in some localities than others. But firmer alliances are something they work to prevent.