I had a great opportunity to be part of group organized by the Atlas Foundation that participated in a seminar on security and economics that took place in Guatemala late in June.
Interestingly enough the focus of the conference was on the relationship between economic investment and security. Participating in the conference were academics, lawyers and businessmen from Central America as well as economic and security experts from the United States.
There were so many points presented during the conference that summarizing it in a short article is difficult. However, it is possible to have a sense of what countries like Guatemala are experiencing, and this is not good news, not for the country's citizens and not for the United States.
Guatemala is a country where insecurity prevails and the state is in disarray. Power and order are in the hands of groups and actors outside the state. The law is ineffective. The police are useless and have lost respect of the citizenry.
Indeed, Guatemalans today face a situation where their security is threatened. They can be attacked in the streets, robbed, kidnapped and extorted with minimal or no response from the authorities. Private security, local and foreign, is being hired to protect the citizens. Likewise, Guatemalans must resort to self-help to counteract the prevailing violence and criminality. At this point there is no condo, neighborhood or business that does not enjoy the protection of private security. People have lost confidence in state institutions and therefore do not even report crimes as they do not expect any response.
Likewise, the uselessness of the authorities has also lead people to take the law in their own hands. Lynching of people and criminals is very common. Talking to a resident of a predominantly indigenous town in the area of Atitlan, he told me that most recently residents of the town captured three people suspected of committing crimes in the town. Instead of handing them to the police, the residents lynched the criminals in front of the local police station by spraying them with gasoline and then setting them on fire. Upon looking at the burned up bodies the police abandoned the area immediately. In many cases local police were expelled by local residents from the town by force due to their clumsiness. These types of events do not only occur in the towns. They have occurred in the center of the capital, Guatemala City, mostly by citizens, angry with crime and criminal impunity.
I was astonished to hear decent people justify these types of actions. They claimed that in light of police ineptness they are left with no choice. As barbaric and unacceptable as this type of punishment appears, I could not avoid appreciating the sincerity and despair of the person speaking to me.
Attending Church is not only a religious act in Guatemala. I could see the people assembling in the House of Worship as if it were a shelter in time of war. The community gathers in acts of solidarity during mass and not only were the words of the priest heard. I could hear members of the community take the pulpit and denounce corruption, bad government, and criminality.
The presence of gangs is also a serious challenge. The majority of the extortion cases, kidnappings and assassinations are carried out by them. As the presence of Mexican drug traffickers increase in Guatemala due to the Mexican government's heavy pressure on them, the "narcos" hire them as paid assassins. Gangs are mostly in charge of networks of narcotic distribution. They also traffic illegal immigrants (mostly drug traffickers) across the borders.
The government of President Alvaro Colom is widely-viewed as incompetent and indifferent to the fate of Guatemalans. The people's plea for more security is ignored by the government. The institutions of government are perceived as being corrupt and easily bribed by drug traffickers. It is no surprise that The International Crisis Group reported that in Guatemala, despite the bitter memories of the bloody civil war (1960-1996), the military remains the second most popular institution after the Catholic Church. Many in Guatemala tend to believe that the military is the only institution capable of restoring order. Police are feared by society and considered corrupt. The chief of police, himself, was involved in a case of corruption and money laundering. Members of the police have joined gangs in extortion and other criminal activities. A large number of police officers, like the gangs, seem to actively cooperate with drug trafficking organizations. The chair of the United Nations-sanctioned Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CIGIG), and whose mission is to help Guatemala establish and consolidate the rule of law, resigned over the appointment of an attorney general widely perceived as being corrupt.
Against this background of chaos and anarchy, Mexican drug traffickers have inundated Guatemala, and not merely because they are being forced out of Mexico by (Mexican) President Felipe Calderon's anti-drugs policies. They are settling in Guatemala precisely because of the general corruption, the easiness with which police are bribed and co-opted, the government's weakness and the heavy presence of gangs that extend a hand to them.
But this is not just a Guatemalan problem. It is very much an American and regional problem. The collapse of state authority and the rule of thugs and criminals pose a security threat. Guatemala is not the only country facing disintegration. El Salvador and Honduras where gang activity is strong will soon follow the Guatemalan model. A chaotic environment attracts terrorist groups such as the FARC and Hezbollah.
Last but not least the chaotic Guatemalan environment has already attracted Hugo Chavez. I was told by credible sources that Venezuelan planes have been actively involved in providing transportation of drugs from Guatemala's airports. The Guatemalan government allowed this to happen. Chavez is interested in destabilizing countries in Latin America as a way to destroy any government in the region that is not pro-Chavez in order to turn it into a pro-Chavez government. This is why criminality is one of the weapons used to achieve this goal.
I was also told that Chavez's people have been seen in the palace government and he reportedly has connections to President Alvaro Colom. It will not be long until Guatemala becomes another bastion of Hugo Chavez. As we know wherever Chavez goes Iran also follows.
The U.S government needs to pay serious attention to these developments in Central America not only as a criminal problem but as a serious national security challenge. This is only the beginning of the nightmare. The worst is still to come.
Luis Fleischman is a Senior Advisor for the Menges Hemispheric Security Project, Center for Security Policy.