Posted on 04 Jun 2014
One of the most dangerous areas in Central America is located along the border of Guatemala with Honduras. The murder rate is among the highest in the world. The absence of effective law enforcement has allowed wealthy traffickers to become de facto authorities in some areas, dispensing jobs and humanitarian assistance but also intimidating and corrupting local officials. Increasing competition over routes and the arrest or killing of top traffickers has splintered some criminal groups, empowering new, often more violent figures. President Otto Pérez Molina has promised to bolster Guatemala’s borders with joint police/military task forces, but the government must also take immediate, comprehensive efforts to bring rule of law and economic opportunity to its long neglected periphery.
Over the past decade, drug routes through Central America have become more viciously competitive. The Mexican government’s offensive against the cartels forced traffickers to land drugs first in Central America. The entry point of choice is often Honduras, where the 2009 coup weakened already fragile institutions of law enforcement and justice. Its long Atlantic coastline and remote interior plains, with little population or infrastructure, offer the ideal environment for drug boats and small planes to operate undetected.
From Honduras, the drugs pass into Guatemala, where family trafficking networks working with Mexican cartels transport them overland toward U.S. markets. These networks have traditionally operated under the radar, corrupting government officials and co-opting popular support, but they have come under stress as a result of the struggle for routes and pressure from the government. An emboldened public prosecutors’ office, under the leadership of former Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz and with the help of the UN-sponsored International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), arrested both Mexican operatives – especially members of the hyper-violent Zetas cartel – and top Guatemalan traffickers wanted on charges in the U.S. The capture of these local drug lords has shaken once powerful organisations, allowing a new generation of sometimes more violent criminals to emerge.
The arrest of suspected drug lords can be a mixed blessing for the residents of some border communities. One of the hardest hit networks is that of the Lorenzana family in the department of Zacapa. The family patriarch, Waldemar Lorenzana, was arrested in 2011 and extradited to the U.S. in March 2014. Authorities also arrested two of his sons on U.S. charges, while a third is a fugitive with a $200,000 reward on his head. The Lorenzanas deny that cocaine smuggling is the source of their wealth, citing their legitimate businesses such as fruit-exporting. Some Zacapa residents complain that the arrests of Waldemar and his sons have cost jobs and sparked a struggle among splinter groups for dominance.
These less well-known but still powerful groups continue not only to move drugs but also to create other illegal enterprises, such as loan sharking and local retail drug sales, thus fuelling further violence. Their wealth and firepower make them de facto authorities, admired by some and feared by many. Residents of Zacapa and Chiquimula departments often assume police and local politicians have been paid off or intimidated by powerful criminals. A climate of distrust taints politics and inhibits journalists and other civic actors from holding local leaders accountable.
The Pérez Molina government has created inter-institutional task forces for border areas that include military troops, civilian police, prosecutors and customs officials. This is a first step toward bringing security to the border, provided the units are under civilian control and respect human rights. Bringing security to these regions, however, also requires building credible, democratic institutions. Local police should be vetted and held accountable, while given the resources and training to arrest powerful criminals. Local politicians should be required to report campaign contributions and also given public resources so their constituents can rely on government – not criminal bosses – for vital services and humanitarian assistance.
An urgent shift in national policy is required: the government should send not just troops and police to border regions, but also educators, community organisers, social workers, doctors and public health officials. Guatemala and Honduras should learn from regional experiences, such as the border development programs in the process of being implemented in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. Honduras, where overall levels of violence are higher and institutional capacity weaker, is in particularly dire need of assistance. Donors – especially the U.S. – should put their money, training and technical aid behind public security and violence prevention on the border rather than focusing primarily on controls and interdiction.