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.