Pubdate: Fri, 5 Mar 1999
Source: Salon Magazine (US)
Copyright: 1999 Salon Internet Inc
Author: Frank Smyth



WASHINGTON -- Last week a United Nations report confirmed that the
Guatemalan military committed genocide against its own Mayan people during
the country's four-decade civil war. But the impunity the military has long
enjoyed for war crimes extends as well to drug trafficking. Many officers
responsible for the human rights abuses documented by the U.N. have also
been implicated in Guatemala's thriving drug-transshipping trade, but to
date there has been no such public accounting of those activities.

Guatemala in this decade has been the staging ground for more air, sea and
land transshipments of Colombian cocaine to the United States than any other
country besides Mexico. The trend is only rising. This year the State
Department reports that Guatemala now transships between 200 and 300 metric
tons of cocaine annually -- or well over half of all the cocaine reaching
the United States. The Guatemalan military has been responsible for much of
the cocaine transshipping, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement
Administration. But the Clinton administration has looked away from the
scandal, even trying to cover up the murder of Guatemala's top judge in
1994, which only established the Guatemalan military's impunity from
American prosecution.

U.S. complicity with the Guatemalan military has a long history, of course.
The CIA has enjoyed especially close ties. Back in 1954, the agency did
everything but hold Col. Carlos Castillo Armas' hand as he deposed Jacobo
Arbenz, the country's democratically elected president. The CIA-backed 1954
coup not only killed Guatemalan democracy, it established the country's
military as its most powerful institution, accountable to no law. When
leftist guerrillas began to emerge in the early 1960s, the CIA helped drive
back the insurgency. When it resurfaced with surprising force in the early
1980s, the CIA too played an integral role in shaping the country's brutal
response. Under both the Reagan and Bush administrations, the CIA provided
substantial covert aid to Guatemala when Congress, largely over human rights
objections, refused to overtly fund its counterinsurgency.

The United Nations Historical Clarification Commission found the Guatemalan
military responsible for more than 90 percent of the country's war crimes
including kidnapping, torture and murder, resulting in the death or
disappearance of more than 200,000 civilians from 1960 to 1996. Most of the
repression focused on Mayans in the Guatemalan highlands.

The killings peaked in the early 1980s, though massacres continued to occur.
By 1990, however, the military was no longer just killing for politics. It
began killing for greed too. A scramble for drug profits within the
Guatemalan military was under way. Guatemala, like Mexico, with which it
shares its northern border, was never a major drug transshipment route
before the early 1990s, when Colombians established transit operations
across the entire northern isthmus. First the Medellin and then the Cali
cartel came to Guatemala "because it is near Mexico, which is an obvious
entrance point to the U.S., and because the Mexicans have a long-established
mafia," said one Colombian drug enforcement official. "It is also a better
transit and storage country than El Salvador because it offers more
stability and was easier to control."

Guatemala's stability and control was achieved through cruelty that was
unmatched anywhere in the region. Guatemala's counterinsurgency campaign was
far more severe than El Salvador's, for instance. "The idea was to make the
innocent pay for the guilty," a former Guatemalan army sergeant from Quiche
once told me. The difference was that in El Salvador, military intelligence
units might target a handful of young men to kill to ensure that they killed
at least one guerrilla, while in Guatemala, military intelligence units
frequently killed innocent people like children or seniors to punish an
entire village for supporting the guerrillas.

Finally, in 1995, the Clinton administration announced that it was cutting
off CIA aid to Guatemala over human rights violations. It did so after
then-Rep. Robert Torricelli revealed that a paid agency informant,
Guatemalan army Col. Julio Roberto Alpirez, was involved in the torture and
murder of a captured guerrilla commandante, Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, who was
married to an American lawyer, Jennifer Harbury. But Clinton didn't cut off
all CIA aid, only CIA counterinsurgency aid, which was no longer really
needed as the country's protracted civil war would finally end the next
year. The president allowed CIA counterdrug aid to Guatemala to continue.

President Clinton's own Intelligence Oversight Board claims the CIA is
helping the DEA catch drug traffickers in Guatemala. But DEA special agents
have collected enough evidence to formally accuse no fewer than 31
Guatemalan military officers of multi-ton drug trafficking over the past
decade. It is unclear what, if anything, the CIA has done to help prosecute
the officers. So far, only four former military officers have been tried.
DEA suspects include many high-ranking officials, including generals and a
former air force commander.

Lt. Col. Carlos Ochoa Ruiz, for instance, aka "Charlie," according to a U.S.
federal grand jury indictment against him, was the kind of military officer
with blood on one hand and white powder on the other. "Charlie" was a
captain in Uspantan, Quiche, in late 1979 when the military carried out a
number of abuses there against the civilian population. By 1990, according
to the DEA, "Charlie" was also a multi-ton drug trafficker.

At the same time that Lt. Col. "Charlie" was, according to the DEA, loading
a half metric ton of cocaine -- enough to fill a few million pipes with
crack -- on board a small plane en route to Tampa, Fla., Arnoldo Vargas
Estrada, also known as "Archie," says the DEA, was transshipping "several
tons of cocaine to the U.S. each month in tractor-trailers" overland through

While "Charlie" was working near Guatemala's Pacific coast, "Archie" was the
mayor of Zacapa, near the Atlantic coast. "Archie" was close to military
officers in Zacapa and had a ranch house right across the street from the
army base. A Guatemalan expert said that "Archie" had been a member of the
Mano Blanca death squad since he was 19. "He was a real big fish," said one
U.S. official. "The kind of guy who could order a guy killed." By 1990, the
DEA had placed "Archie" under surveillance for his smuggling operation. But
somebody tipped him off, and soon "Archie" and his confederates rushed to
move it 35 miles away across a state line to a rural area of five hamlets
known as Los Amates. After "Archie" was arrested in December, his
confederates speeded up the move.

According to former subsistence farmers from Los Amates, 32 of whom affixed
their thumbprints along with their signatures or marks to a complaint
addressed to the DEA, "Archie," along with four Guatemalan army colonels,
began threatening people and ordering them to abandon plots of land.
Thousands of families lived among the five hamlets of Los Amates, however,
and most had roots there going back generations. Many farmers like Celedonio
Perez and two other men stubbornly resisted leaving. The three men were
captured "by the commander and seven soldiers from the Los Amates military
detachment" on Nov. 18, 1990, according to the complaint, and tortured. I
later saw a photograph of one victim with a pencil-thin laceration from a
wire tourniquet around his neck.

The next month, the DEA arrested "Archie" but none of the above-named
military personnel. His arrest gave new urgency to their need to move the
operation. On Jan. 19, 1991, Perez was found murdered. The farmers who
signed the 1992 complaint say the military killed eight more people,
including a mother and son, over the next year. While the military was
trying to compel farmers like Perez to flee the land so they could use it,
they killed others to cover up what they were planning to use it for.

The complaint to the DEA identifies 67 suspects led by "Archie" and the four
army colonels, who, according to the complaint, have built so many
clandestine runways throughout Los Amates that they have "converted its five
hamlets into warehouses for drugs." At the same time, DEA special agents
were beginning to identify Guatemala as the new "bodega" or warehouse of
Colombian drug cartels. Colombian law enforcement officials say processed
cocaine was arriving by sea as well as by air.

The United States managed to extradite "Archie" to stand trial in U.S.
federal court in New York where he was later convicted on the DEA's
evidence. But "Archie's" military confederates remained free, part of a
pattern of impunity enjoyed by the entire officer corps. "Guatemalan
military officers strongly suspected of trafficking in narcotics rarely face
criminal prosecution," reported the State Department in 1994. "In most
cases, the officers continue on with their suspicious activities."

Take Lt. Col. "Charlie." The military gave him a dishonorable discharge over
the DEA's accusations against him, in order to put distance between his name
and the institution. But that didn't stop a military tribunal from
reclaiming jurisdiction over "Charlie" later and ruling to dismiss the
charges for lack of evidence. Rather than try him in Guatemala, the State
Department was hoping to extradite him to Florida to be tried. The United
States lost the extradition case against "Charlie" three times in Guatemalan
courts and appealed it all the way to Guatemala's highest judicial
authority, its Constitutional Court.

State Department officials at the time were sanguine that they would win, as
the Constitutional Court president, Epaminondas Gonzalez Dubon, was a judge
who had already established his independence. In May 1993, when
then-President Jorge Serrano declared a "self-coup" and imposed martial law,
Judge Gonzalez promptly declared it unconstitutional. The ruling helped
galvanize both domestic and White House opposition to the coup. One week
later Seranno fled the country and the country's constitutional order was

In March 1994, Judge Gonzalez made an equally independent ruling and signed
a Constitutional Court decision declaring "Charlie's" extradition
constitutional and circulated it to the court's other judges for their
concurring signatures. On April 1, Judge Gonzalez left Guatemala City with
his family for an Easter day trip to nearby Antigua. Upon the family's
return, four men in a car shot and killed Gonzalez in front of his wife and
son. Eleven days later, the surviving judges secretly ruled that "Charlie's"
extradition was unconstitutional, and he went free.

His was the DEA's most important test case in Guatemala. DEA special agents,
however, learned the hard way that the CIA-backed Guatemalan military was
above the law. How did the Clinton administration react to the judge's
murder? U.S. Ambassador Marilyn McAfee accepted the Guatemalan government's
claim that the judge had been killed in an attempted car-jacking, even
though no one tried to steal anything.

American authorities helped Guatemalan authorities cover up any link between
the judge's murder and the court's subsequent decision. Only later in the
year would Human Rights Watch report that Gonzalez had signed an extradition
order for "Charlie" shortly before his murder. Later still, in 1995, I
reported that the surviving judges secretly denied his extradition 11 days
after it occurred. After I accused Ambassador McAfee, who has long held
specialty posts within the U.S. Information Agency, of dropping "Charlie's"
case, she issued a press release that finally made the extradition denial
public, but made no mention of Judge Gonzalez or his murder.

"Charlie," who was never extradited, went on running drugs. He was arrested
again in 1997 in a Guatemalan sting operation, this time with 30 kilos of
cocaine. But "Charlie" managed to get off free yet again in Guatemala, even
though he remains wanted by a U.S. federal grand jury in Tampa, Fla., over
500 kilograms of DEA-seized cocaine.

Frank Smyth has written about the Guatemalan military's role in cocaine
trafficking in the Washington Post, the Village Voice and the Wall Street

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