With increasing efforts by the Colombian and Mexican governments to crack down on the drugs gangs, smugglers have been moving their operations into other parts of Central America, taking advantage of countries ill-equipped to deal with them, such as Guatemala.
One of several developing states in the region, Guatemala is struggling to recover from years of civil war which left a weak judicial system and ineffective law enforcement. When four decades of fighting ended in 1996, the army was cut to just 17,000 soldiers. In remote border areas like the Peten rainforest, this means that just 250 young soldiers patrol the region. And with troops earning as little as 150 dollars a month, they are susceptible to bribes from the wealthy drugs cartels. Corruption is endemic in the police too and if money doesn’t work, the drugs gangs use the threat of violence against officials.
The poverty of the country also makes Guatemala an ideal breeding ground for the drugs cartels. More than 1 in 10 Guatemalans live on less than 1.25 dollars a day and with the worldwide economic recession, finding employment is becoming harder, particularly for young people. Poverty and lack of opportunities make it easy for the wealthy drugs gangs to lure youngsters into the trade.
Levels of violence in Guatemala have risen shockingly high. In 2009, there were nearly 4,000 violent deaths in the country and the murder rate is now one of the highest in the world, with 50 people killed for every 100,000 inhabitants (compared to 14 in Mexico and 5 in the USA). According to United Nations statistics, over 95 per cent of murders remain unsolved. Shootings on the buses of Guatemala City have also become a daily occurrence, as the city’s bus drivers have refused to make payments to the gangs for driving through their areas. Last year, over 170 drivers and transport workers were murdered in the city.
In December, the Guatemalan government began a military operation in the remote Alta Verapaz region and declared a “state of siege” against the drugs cartels operating in the area. President Alvaro Colom has also instituted various purges of the security forces to weed out those suspected of links with criminal organisations. But the President has admitted the huge challenge faced by his country in this new war against the powerful drugs gangs and called for assistance from the international community.