Pubdate: Tue, 06 Mar 2007
Source: Star-News (NC)
Copyright: 2007 Wilmington Morning Star
Author: Juan Carlos Llorca, Associated Press
Bookmark: (Corruption - Outside U.S.)


Murder Of Politicians By Police Just Latest Indication Of Challenge

Guatemala City (AP) - 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 U.S.

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.

Asks Bush for aid

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.

Police purged

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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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom