Bush's Brush with Latin America's Drug Lords
George W. Bush has embarked on the longest trip of his presidency to Latin America this week, a junket to Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico that purports to advance social justice. His journey comes at a time when oil-rich Venezuela, under the radical populist President Hugo Chávez, has eclipsed the United States in bankrolling health and education programs to help the poor in Venezuela and other nations in the region.
But Bush's trip also comes in the wake of evidence that organized crime has infiltrated the top law enforcement agencies of two nations on his travel itinerary. Each one, moreover, is playing a separate role in moving most of the cocaine reaching the United States. Last week the Bush Administration blamed Venezuela and Bolivia--another Andean country under another leftist president--for lacking the political will to combat drug traffickers. But the Administration has said little or nothing about the lack of political will to combat drug traffickers on the rightist side of the political spectrum in Colombia and, especially, Guatemala.
Fortunately, many drug suspects elsewhere in the region have already been held to account. Last month Mexico extradited fifteen fugitives, including one alleged kingpin, in what the US Drug Enforcement Administration said was an "unprecedented" and "priceless" step. Recently Colombia, too, has made what the DEA heralded as "record numbers" of extraditions, including that of a leftist guerrilla financier who was recently convicted of smuggling to our nation at least five kilograms of cocaine.
But Colombian President Álvaro Uribe has decided not to extradite rightist paramilitaries responsible for mass murders in Colombia and for trafficking tons of cocaine to the United States, saying he must offer the paramilitaries an amnesty to entice them to lay down their arms--even those belonging to what the State Department identifies as a paramilitary terrorist group. Why is Uribe so soft on paramilitaries? Last month two of his top officials fell from office over their alleged paramilitary ties, including the Colombian foreign minister, who resigned on February 19, and the nation's top law enforcement intelligence director, who is now in jail.
The nation with the worst extradition record in the region, however, is Guatemala. This small republic just south of Mexico--"in our own backyard," as the late President Ronald Reagan used to say--has recently become the trafficking conduit for between two-thirds and three-fourths of all the cocaine being trafficked to the United States from Colombia and other Andean nations, according to US agency estimates recently quoted in the New York Times and the Associated Press, respectively.
Guatemala has further failed to extradite even one Guatemalan on drug charges in more than a decade since the first Clinton Administration. Of course, no one would glean that from reading the State Department's annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report to Congress. Somehow Foggy Bottom has failed to tell Capitol Hill that even though Guatemala has extradited several Guatemalans in recent years, the suspects in each case were wanted for isolated murder charges in different US states and not for international drug trafficking.
On March 7, I asked State Department spokesman Sean McCormack on camera if he could explain why the Bush Administration speaks so loudly about the good news on Mexican extraditions and not at all about the ongoing bad news on Guatemalan extraditions. A day later, in a lengthy statement, the State Department sidestepped the question, and then spun it, merely pointing out that last year one Guatemalan was extradited on "a narcotics-related murder." Indeed, this suspect now faces a murder trial over a botched drug deal in California, US officials with knowledge of the case say, but this extradition has nothing to do with international trafficking.
The State Department's misleading statement confirms an undeniable fact: The United States gave up trying to extradite Guatemalan drug suspects back in 1994 after the assassination of the Guatemalan chief justice. The State Department during the Clinton Administration inexplicably waited four years before finally acknowledging the motive behind his murder in a few lines buried in a thick report to Congress. DEA officials shamefully waited eleven years before finally acknowledging under pressure to The Texas Observer that "the judge deserves to be remembered and honored for trying to help establish democracy in Guatemala."
Guatemalan Chief Justice Epaminondas González Dubon was gunned down in Guatemala City in front of his surviving wife and youngest child shortly after he stood up for DEA evidence in a US extradition case. The suspect was a Guatemalan Army lieutenant colonel accused of smuggling 500 kilograms of cocaine to Florida. On March 23, 1994, Guatemala's Constitutional Court, led by Judge Dubon, ruled to extradite the accused Army officer. Nine days later the judge was murdered behind the wheel of his own car. Soon after the surviving justices, with a new court president, denied the extradition, changing the date and verdict but not the case number, as was first reported by the Costa Rican daily La Nacion to copy over the original ruling.
Since then drug trafficking through Guatemala has ballooned. In 2002, under pressure from its Republican allies in Congress, the Bush Administration finally told the House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee the bad news. "Intelligence indicates that large amounts of cocaine are being transshipped through Guatemala with almost complete impunity," former Reagan Administration official Otto Reich testified on behalf of the Bush Administration. "Few high-level figures are ever charged or even formally investigated for corruption, and fewer go to trial."
The same year, the Bush Administration identified two suspects, Francisco Ortega Menaldo and Manual Antonio Callejas y Callejas. Each of these men is a former Guatemalan Army intelligence commander, and each one also briefly trained at the US School of the Americas, in 1976 and 1970, respectively. Both are credited in declassified US intelligence reports with "engineering" bloody counterinsurgency methods back in the early 1980s that a United Nations Truth Commission later said included "acts of genocide." In 1996 a White House Intelligence Oversight Board report identified Ortega Menaldo as having a longstanding relationship with the CIA, although the Clinton Administration oversight board declined to say whether the Guatemalan general was merely an institutional liaison or a paid asset.
The State Department revoked the US entry visas of both these retired intelligence chiefs in 2002 over their suspected ties to drug trafficking. Ortega Menaldo publicly denied the accusations, while Callejas y Callejas never made any public comment. They are hardly Guatemala's only drug suspects. Human rights groups maintain that a shadowy network of former intelligence operatives involved in various crimes has infiltrated the nation's law enforcement institutions. In 2005 Guatemala's top two US-trained antidrug police were arrested on drug charges after the DEA lured them to Virginia to get around the need to extradite them.
In February Guatemalan authorities arrested the commander and three other officers from Guatemala's top anti-organized crime agency over the brutal murders of three Salvadoran legislators and their driver in what Guatemalan President Oscar Berger said was a drug-related massacre. One week later the same four Guatemalan special policemen had their throats slit in their jail cells before each received a tiro de gracias--a final gunshot--to insure that they were dead. While midlevel Guatemalan authorities now say they suspect jailed youth gang members of having murdered the policemen, President Berger originally blamed organized crime hit men who somehow entered the prison.
It's long been easy for US officials to blame drug trafficking on leftists of one kind or another. But both Colombia and Guatemala show organized crime is hardly exclusive to any particular cold war-era ideology. Still, one may well argue that the so-called war on drugs is a futile effort bound to fail over time. But there is no doubt that organized crime, if left untouched, only continues to shred the fabric of its own nation. Murders per capita in Guatemala are now higher than in Colombia, according to the United Nations Development Program. Guatemala--flush with drug thugs--has also seen thousands of organized rapes and murders of young women in recent years, at a level higher than even northern Mexico.
President Bush is visiting Colombia and Guatemala at a time when drug corruption and corresponding violence in each nation is spilling over. If Bush wants to demonstrate the values of social justice that this nation purports to stand for, he can begin by demanding extradition for all suspects implicated in not only mass murders in their own nations but in running tons of drugs led by cocaine to ours. It's also time for Congress, which purports to help oversee US drug control policies, to finally ask why rightist drug suspects in both Colombia and Guatemala were ignored for so long.