Pubdate: Mon, 05 Mar 2007
Source: Miami Herald (FL)
Copyright: 2007 The Miami Herald
Author: Juan Carlos Llorca, Ap Writer


Guatemala knows it is losing the battle against drug trafficking - its
police, military and justice system are beholden to traffickers who
use the country as a way station for Colombian drug shipments to the

In a case that has laid bare the extent of corruption in the Central
American nation, FBI agents are trying to help discover who ordered
the murders of three Salvadoran politicians and the Guatemalan police
officers who said they were told to kill them.

The killings and apparent cover-up has exposed the seemingly
insurmountable challenges President Oscar Berger faces as he tries to
regain control of a defiant and even criminal police force.

"We were shocked by the brutality of the killings, but it was really
no surprise to us that organized crime has infiltrated the
government," Vice President Eduardo Stein said.

FBI officials met with Guatemalan and Salvadoran authorities last week
to discuss the case of the three slain politicians and to offer the
help of six forensic scientists, who are to arrive this week. They
"will help us in every aspect of the investigation, from crime scene
evidence collection to the tests that we need to run," lead prosecutor
Alvaro Matus said.

Many suspect the nation's powerful drug gangs are behind the Feb. 19
killings of three Salvadoran members of the Central American
Parliament and their driver, whose charred bodies were dumped just
outside the capital.

Four police officers, including the head of the Guatemalan National
Police, confessed to the killings after a satellite transponder in
their unmarked squad car put them at the scene of the crime. But
before they could testify against anyone else, they were killed inside
their cells.

Witnesses said masked gunmen from outside the prison stormed the high-
security facility; another theory is that imprisoned gang members
carried out the slayings using weapons hidden inside their cells.

Guatemalan officials have detained two dozen guards and the prison's
director for questioning, fired the head of the criminal
investigations unit and forced the country's second-highest police
official to resign. But they appear no closer to identifying who
ordered the string of killings.

Berger says he needs more help in fighting organized crime and will
ask President Bush when he visits March 12 to provide U.S.
helicopters, planes and radar equipment.

The U.S. government complains that three-quarters of the cocaine
reaching U.S. consumers moves through Guatemala. Traffickers use speed
boats and planes to carry tons of drugs along the narrow Central
American isthmus, dropping off shipments in the Guatemalan jungle
before sneaking them into Mexico and up across the U.S. border.

Guatemala relies on a U.S. system of radar-equipped planes to track
these drug shipments, but much of those resources have been redirected
to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And even when radar does
detect traffickers, Guatemala lacks planes and helicopters to
intercept the drugs.

Berger took office three years ago promising to reverse the drug
policies of his predecessor, Alfonso Portillo, whose lack of action
against smuggling prompted Washington to drop Guatemala from its list
of anti-narcotics allies. But interdictions fell sharply last year to
620 pounds of cocaine, compared with more than nine tons in 2003 and
four tons in 2004.

Guatemalan authorities argue that seizures are not a good measure of
their anti-drug efforts because in the past, traffickers have offered
corrupt authorities huge amounts of cocaine to stage busts.

Guatemala has tried to change that by purging police forces -
including its elite anti-narcotics unit. In 2005, the group's
director, Adan Castillo, was arrested in Virginia for conspiring to
import cocaine to the U.S. and his 401 agents were given drug and lie
detectors tests. Only 50 passed.

Part of the problem is a culture of violence, fueled in part by youth
gangs that flourished here after their members were deported from Los
Angeles, and a brutal civil war that ended 10 years ago and claimed
more than 200,000 lives, mostly civilian. Many allege the death squads
during the nearly four-decade conflict live on, inside the nation's
police forces.

National Police director Erwin Sperissen says anti-corruption efforts
are further complicated because judges often reinstate police officers
who have been fired, creating a revolving door of impunity.

In an attempt to counteract that, Guatemala and the United Nations are
working to create an International Commission Against Impunity in
Guatemala, an independent office that would use foreign investigators
to investigate organized crime and police agencies corrupted by
criminal organizations. Guatamala's Congress must still approve the
U.S.-backed proposal.

At the U.S. government's request, the Guatemalan Congress has passed
laws to strengthen law enforcement's investigative abilities, such as
allowing undercover agents and phone taps. Guatemala's Interior
Ministry has yet to implement the measures, however.
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