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Guatemala, home of powerful drug runners

ASK THIS | November 20, 2005

In an article in the Texas Observer, Frank Smyth tells how the Guatemalan military and U.S.-trained anti-narcotics police have been running drugs and committing violence with impunity for more than a decade. Here he provides some background and links on this seldom-reported story.

By Frank Smyth


(202) 966-5260


Q: Guatemala is said to move 75 percent of the cocaine reaching American soil. How did it become such a major transporter?


Q: How does Guatemala compare to other Latin American nations when it comes to drug enforcement?


Q. What, if anything, is the United States doing about the problem?


Guatemala has neither prosecuted nor extradited any of its alleged drug kingpins in the more than ten years since the 1994 assassination of Epaminondas González Dubón, the Guatemalan chief justice at the time.


Since then, Guatemalan military and U.S. trained anti-drug police have become increasingly involved in the transport of cocaine to the United States—and virtually immune from prosecution. The Associated Press recently quoted an American embassy official as saying that Guatemala is a transfer point for 75 percent of the cocaine that gets into the U.S.


In 2004, after a decade of inaction by the U.S. and Guatemalan governments, DEA special agents in Mexico City helped arrest a Guatemalan drug suspect named Otto Herrera, whom then-Attorney General John Ashcroft called one of "the most significant international drug traffickers and money launderers in the world." Soon thereafter, while awaiting extradition to the United States, Herrera somehow escaped from a Mexican jail.


Herrera owned a trucking fleet in eastern Guatemala near the Caribbean where there has been  large-scale drug trafficking for at least 15 years, according to  DEA evidence. In 1990, in this same area, the DEA accused a small-town mayor and two other civilians of moving several tons of cocaine a day to New York City. The mayor was arrested but that apparently didn’t help much: After a while local farmers, despite putting themselves at peril, signed or affixed their thumbprints to a petition to the DEA saying that the Guatemalan Army had merely moved the same smuggling operation outside the town.


One of the highest ranking suspects, identified as early as 1994, was the then-recently retired Guatemalan Air Force commander, Gen. Carlos Pozuelos Villavicencio. He and the Guatemalan Defense Ministry together denied the charges, but the U.S. ambassador at the time, Marilyn McAfee, later confirmed that the Clinton administration had revoked his visa explicitly over suspected drug trafficking.


More recently, the Bush administration used the same statute to revoke the visas of Guatemala's top two former intelligence chiefs, each of whom first rose to prominence back in the 1980s. U.S. intelligence documents obtained by the private, non-profit National Security Archive at George Washington University, identify these  two men, Francisco Ortega Menaldo and Manuel Antonio Callejas y Callejas, as being among the founders of an "elite club" within the Guatemalan military known as the "la cofradia" or "the



(The National Security Archive has posted an interactive version of my Texas Observer story with embedded links to each cited document.)


The Bush administration provides no military aid to Guatemala because of its military's suspected involvement in both ongoing human rights abuses and drug trafficking, according to the 2004 report on Foreign Military Training.


Guatemala's intelligence commands are suspected of being so infiltrated by organized crime that the Bush administration is supporting a United Nations plan for Guatemala explicitly called the "Commission for the Investigation of Illegal Groups and the Clandestine Security Apparatus." Today Lebanon, where U.N. investigators are digging into the murder of a former prime minister, is the only nation to yield its sovereignty to allow the international body such a role.


Colombia and Mexico, long plagued by large-scale drug trafficking, have made notable strides of late against their known drug organizations. Recent annual State Department reports to Congress repeatedly credit each of these nations for both prosecuting alleged drug kingpins in their nations and extraditing other suspected drug lords to the United States to stand trial.


Not so Guatemala. Instead of extradition, the DEA is now luring suspects into the U.S. and then arresting them. On November 15, 2005, DEA special agents in Virginia arrested Adan Castillo, the chief of Guatemala's U.S.-trained anti-narcotics police force and two of his assistants on charges of planning to import and distribute cocaine in the U.S.


Castillo’s police force was formed as recently as 2003. Back in 1994, U.S. agencies helped establish an earlier version, the Guatemalan Department of Anti-Narcotics Operations, or DOAN. But DOAN was disbanded in 2002 after three of its four chief officers were reported to be stealing cocaine and other drugs and shooting or otherwise abusing suspects and civilians, according to U.S. State Department officials’ statements to Congress.


By all accounts, it was the then-Chairman of the House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, Cass Ballenger, a Republican from North Carolina, who, not long after he took the subcommittee's gavel, compelled the Bush administration to finally start putting U.S. agency complaints on the record. He himself complained in 2003, before he retired, that Guatemala was not doing enough "to bring drug kingpins to justice." His successor as subcommittee chairman is Dan Burton, a Republican from Indiana, who recently said through a spokesman that he wants to see the same alleged kingpins brought "to full accountability."


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