The recent history of Guatemala is in many ways the tale of a country being gradually overwhelmed by crime, but in February Guatemala was rocked by a crime sensational even by its standards. Three prominent Salvadoran legislators–including Eduardo D’Aubuisson, son of the infamous rightist Roberto D’Aubuisson–were on their way to Guatemala City for a meeting of the Central American Parliament, a legislative body created in 1986 to try to heal the rifts that run through this fractious region. Not far from Guatemala City, the luxury SUV carrying the legislators was ambushed and diverted to a rural farm, where the three Salvadorans–along with their chauffeur–were riddled with bullets and then torched inside their vehicle.
A transponder soon revealed the kidnappers to be members of the Guatemalan National Police, including the head of its organized crime division. The accused cops were locked up in El Boquerón, a maximum-security prison forty miles outside Guatemala City.
A few days later, all visitors to the prison were asked to leave, and in full view of a public already riveted by the initial crime, a team of assassins passed unimpeded through a series of locked gates, shot the police in their cells, slit their throats and promptly disappeared. According to the Los Angeles Times, a group of FBI investigators sent to help Guatemala with the subsequent investigation were “appalled” by the conduct of their Guatemalan counterparts and found the crime scenes compromised and obvious leads not followed up. A Central American intelligence official told the LA Times‘s Héctor Tobar that Guatemalan investigators “simply and intentionally refused to pass information to the FBI.”
This double crime is unlikely ever to be solved, and to many observers it offers further proof of the degree to which organized crime has penetrated, perhaps even come to dominate, the structures of the Guatemalan state. Somewhere between 60 and 90 percent of the cocaine destined for the United States is estimated to pass through Guatemala, and narco-traffickers reportedly make regular payments of up to $5,000 a month to well-connected law enforcement officials.
“It’s not that organized crime has penetrated the police force or the Interior Ministry,” Luis Ramírez, an analyst at the Guatemalan Institute of Comparative Studies of Penal Science, told Nancy San Martin of the Miami Herald. “Organized crime is directing the police, the ministry, and the military.”
Guatemala is not the world’s only crime-dominated state, but what distinguishes its predicament is how the crime wave came about. For the country’s lawlessness is, in many ways, the logical outcome of the peace accords that ended its brutal, long-running internal war. That war came to a close in 1996, when the United Nations brokered an ambitious peace treaty between the state’s armed forces–sustained by overt and covert support from the United States–and leftist guerrillas who had fought them for decades. An integral part of the treaty was the plan to create strong civil institutions, including police and a judiciary, to guide Guatemala back to democratic life. But while the fighting between the guerrillas and the army has come to an end, the violence has not. At the time of the peace negotiations, the guerrillas held the weak hand. The police and other security forces were never purged or rebuilt, and the feeling of many observers is that the security forces, having discovered the efficacy of torture and assassination during the long war, are now using these same techniques, to greater effect, to promote criminal cartels.