It is much the same story with other crimes. In the same nine-year span kidnappings have risen from 28 to 162 per 100,000. In poor and working class neighborhoods gangs terrorize their neighbors, extorting from local businesses and the buses that provide local transportation. With disturbing regularity bus drivers are murdered if the company owners don’t pay extortion fees. Astonishingly, even for a culture soaked in violence, 120 bus drivers were killed in 2009. Recently, grenades have been added to the gangs’ arsenals and are used with increasing frequency in attacks on public busses.
Much of this violence is perpetrated by street gangs and many of the members of these street gangs are the sons and grandsons of families that fled the violence of the war in the countryside, only to encounter a different form of turf war on the steep, slum hillsides surrounding the capital. Many of their fathers are somewhere in the United States, from whence, intermittently, a remittance check may arrive. But their sons have formed new “family” alliances, often sealed with blood, financed by crime, and stoked by coke.
Guatemalan journalist Cristina Bonillo, citing the United Nations Program for Development, has said: “Although it is difficult to quantify the cost of the violence in the economy of the country, it has been estimated that in 2006 alone it had reached 7.3 % of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), double the amount assigned to the Ministries of Agriculture, Health, and Education all together.”
Moreover, the cost to the health system is enormous. In 2010, between January and May, 3,750 people had been admitted to the emergency rooms of the two primary public hospitals in Guatemala City for violence-inflicted wounds.
Most of the violence is carried out by and between gangs, but as Colom’s Interior Minister Carlos Menocal has said publicly, “The gangs are the armed wing of the clandestine groups.”
Cocaine fuels the gang violence as it enriches the clandestine groups. Guatemala, southern neighbor to Mexico, is an ideal transshipment point for cocaine from South America. Drug-war experts say that 90% of the cocaine that reaches the United States comes through the Central American corridor, of which Guatemala is an increasingly important part. And the toll for passing through Guatemala has become a cut of “el producto.”
But CICIG isn’t in Guatemala to clean up street crime. CICIG is after those who have traditionally had impunity within governmental agencies, the courts and in the clandestine groups that make up the parallel powers of this nation.
By way of example, President Colom’s government has had five different Ministers of the Interior. The Interior Ministry controls the National Police, and two of those Interior Ministers have been charged with crimes. Taking a wider perspective, since 1997 there have been 17 different National Police chiefs. The last two fired by the Colom administration were accused of seizing cocaine shipments for resale. Of the last five, four have been accused of various crimes.
Beneath the level of the chief, sub-directors have accused one another of operating death squads, and numerous criminal rings have been found within the police force across the country. Almost comically, for several months the National Police went without a chief because no suitable candidate could be found who could pass a lie-detector test. And with no sense of levity at all, Norma Cruz, Director of the Foundation of Survivors observed of the historical perspective, “Our past still weighs heavily on us. In the war the police were used to eliminate the enemy of the state, to kidnap, to torture, and to kill with impunity. This will not change overnight.”
One of the most powerful clandestine groups that CICIG is targeting has been identified by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) as La Cofradia, “the fraternity.” According to WOLA, La Cofradia, a group of former and active military intelligence officers, have turned their counterinsurgency skills into criminal riches.
La Cofradia first came to light in 1996 when the administration of President Álvaro Arzú broke a contraband ring within the customs agency that would, at first, be called the Moreno Network, after its purported head, Alfredo Moreno. But when the investigators began going through Moreno’s computer, and photos found in his home, they discovered links to many former military intelligence officers as well as to future presidential candidate, Alfonso Portillo. CICIG is convinced that La Cofradia is still in operation and they are pursuing leads.
One of the great successes of CICIG has been aiding Guatemalan law enforcement in the arrest of former President Alfonso Portillo as he was trying to flee to Belize by boat. Former President Portillo is charged with embezzling $2.5 million from a donation from Taiwan and $5.5 million in a transfer from the Ministry of Defense. Portillo is currently facing extradition to the United States to face charges of money laundering. The key to the case against Portillo was a man named Armando Llort Quinteño. Llort, a former head of the Guatemalan National Mortgage Credit bank (CHN) sought witness protection in the United States and confessed to participating in the embezzlement scheme. Further, Llort claimed that La Cofradia was behind the whole operation.
It should not be overlooked that many of the characters in these convoluted conspiracies, including members of La Cofradia, worked for many years in cooperation with the CIA and the U.S. Defense Department. In 2000 the National Security Archive, (a non-governmental group dedicated to uncovering the extent of United States involvement in questionable, often strictly illegal, overseas operations) presented declassified U.S. intelligence documents that confirmed the existence of La Cofradia. In 2002, the State Department revoked the visas of a number of military officers who had, in the past, worked closely with American Intelligence agencies. They were accused of narcotics trafficking.
Clearly, the problems of corruption and criminality in Guatemala run deep and wide.
Castresana summed it up, “What before was counterinsurgency, now is organized crime.” The arrest tally, so far, is ex-President Portillo, Armando Llort in New York, ex-Finance Minister Maza, former Defense Minister Llacas, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Army, Enrique Rios Sosa, son of one-time military dictator, Efraín Rios Montt, and the former intelligence officers Major Napoleon Rojas and Colonel Jacobo Salán Sanchez. Five other army officers from the Defense Ministry were arrested along with Rios-Sosa for the theft of $55 million from the ministry. It is a situation that never could have taken place before CICIG came to Guatemala. But while Castresana has said that former president Portillo worked for La Cofradia, not the other way around, the supposed head of La Cofradia, General Ortega Menaldo still walks free. Dr. Castresana commented with a wry smile to this writer, “Each case has its own time. The case is open. We have to gather the appropriate evidence to make a case. We don’t speak more about it for obvious reasons.”
But Castresana points out that La Cofradia is not the only clandestine organization, “Now there are many groups, not just one. There has been an evolution. It has shot up everywhere and multiplied like a contagion. Our analysis suggests that the violent crimes of today are the offspring of the violence of the past.” Some of these new groups moving in, like The Zetas, are Mexican drug traffickers. The drug traffickers are taking and holding territory all over rural Guatemala. It appears that they may be making alliances with local mayors and their communities.
The Commission has proposed various changes in the law to accelerate the judicial process, but the congress has been slow to pass the necessary legislation. Only four of fifteen suggested changes have been passed by the congress. The suggested law against illicit enrichment by people in government has been tied up in the congress since November of 2008. Also pending is the law to make it easier to bring charges against a sitting congressional representative. Currently a two-thirds vote of the congress is necessary to suspend congressional immunity from prosecution. Castresana also has implored congress to pass a law to limit the use of frivolous legal injunctions in courts that delay legal proceedings endlessly. Little has been done.