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The New Battle for Central America

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COLD WAR, HOT WAR

The last time Central America received much play in the American news media was during the 1980s, when the region, one of the Cold War's hot zones, was plagued by civil war. For much of the decade, Soviet- and Cuban-backed Marxist insurgencies (and, in one case, a Soviet-backed government) fought long and bloody battles against American-supported right-wing forces. Once the Cold War ended, however, the superpowers withdrew much of their support from the region. The civil wars there sputtered out, ending in a series of peace accords: first in Nicaragua in 1990, then in El Salvador in 1992, and finally in Guatemala in 1996.

Despite high hopes, however, Central America has seen few improvements in the five years since the fighting stopped. Today the region's seven small republics, rather than exhibiting the new harmony and prosperity that were expected to come with peace, bear only the scars and open wounds of traumatized societies: rampant corruption, gang warfare, drug smuggling, intense urban poverty and overpopulation, and neglect from the international community.

And yet despite these problems, while the United States is focusing ever more attention on Colombia and the two-front war that Bogota is waging against leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries linked to the drug trade, few in Washington seem concerned with Central America. This oversight is short-sighted in the extreme. Not only do the region's many maladies and its proximity to the United States make it a major source of potential instability on America's borders, but Central America has also become a key pipeline for drug shipments from Colombia northward. According to U.S. law enforcement officials, 60 percent of the cocaine that entered the United States last year passed through Central America, concealed in small aircraft, fast boats, and trucks. This represents a threefoldincrease since 1993, and the chaos that the burgeoning drug trade has wreaked on the region has given rise to a new fear, the potential "Colombianization" of Central America.

As the drug trade has moved north, the opportunities for profit and power it provides have been rapidly exploited by many of the same groups that fought the civil wars of the 1980s. In Central America's new conflicts, profit has displaced politics as the governing ideology. The cocaine trade has created a dangerous synergy between political terror and drug trafficking, and especially in Guatemala -- the region's largest country -- the line between criminal and political violence has begun to blur. In El Salvador, where kidnapping, bank robbery, and murder have become rampant, crime experts now blame many of these offenses on former combatants. Their evidence is compelling: criminals use weapons of war (such as AK-47 assault rifles) for the simplest of crimes, and they wield them too skillfully to be mere civilians. In Nicaragua, meanwhile, many of those recently arrested for gun-running have turned out to be either former contras or members of the Sandinista army.

Crime rates have jumped throughout the region. In El Salvador, the murder rate is now 120 per 100,000 inhabitants (compared to 8 per 100,000 in the United States). Even in Costa Rica -- a country that has no army and was once known as the Switzerland of Central America -- kidnappings have become common and a journalist was recently murdered for denouncing corruption. In Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, groups of young people have fashioned American-style gangs and seized control of working-class neighborhoods and even entire hamlets. These young criminals -- some of them former U.S. residents who were forcibly repatriated after committing crimes in the United States -- have become the foot soldiers for the flourishing smuggling, car theft, and kidnapping industries.

So far, government responses to this surge in crime and violence have been totally inadequate. Most local police forces are poorly funded and equipped, utterly unable to handle the wave of common criminals and more sophisticated organizations sweeping the region. Central American police chiefs have recently begun meeting regularly to try to develop a common approach to the problem. But the hurdles facing law enforcement are daunting. In some cases, the police must confront former colleagues from the security or intelligence services who have now turned to crime. In Guatemala, for example, retired counterintelligence officials are known to run many aspects of organized crime, and although police know the identities of those involved, they are unable to do much with that knowledge; the criminals have too many powerful friends in the current government. Meanwhile, government corruption, the jungle terrain, the existence of clandestine airstrips left over from the civil wars, and the governments' lack of high-tech border controls have all allowed criminal mafias to form transnational links and operate regionally. Kidnapping rings in El Salvador are now directed from Guatemala, and vice versa.

As the regional threats grow, regional solutions become all the more necessary. So far, however, both the Bush administration and local governments have been slow to adopt broad-minded, transnational solutions. This is a tragic mistake, and unless these governments change course quickly, it may soon be too late. Central America is sliding back into the chaos and bloodshed that engulfed it during the 1980s. The promise of the recent peace accords, once expected to midwife the rebirth of Central America, is being squandered.

ARMY OF DARKNESS

The greatest fear haunting Central American officials today is that the criminal violence now plaguing the region will spiral out of control and acquire a political agenda. This worry is particularly intense when it comes to narcotics trafficking, which has already taken on a political dimension in Colombia, fueling the raging civil conflict there. The fear is most acute in Guatemala, which has a history of involvement in the drug trade and is currently suffering from the mismanagement of the peace accords of the mid-1990s. Understanding just how today's crime wave has brought Guatemala to the brink of chaos can help shed light on the problems plaguing the rest of the region.

In 1996, as a result of internationally sponsored peace talks, Guatemala ended its 36-year civil war. The left-wing guerrillas of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union (known by its Spanish acronym, URNG) were successfully demobilized and permitted to re-enter mainstream politics. As part of the deal, the government also cashiered more than 40 senior military officers on corruption and narcotics charges and reduced the size of the army by a third.

This peace process, however, created serious divisions within Guatemala's powerful military -- a military proud of its accomplishments in fighting the region's most successful (if most brutal) civil war. The small group of reformist officers who forged the peace accords along with the United Nations may have been considered heroes internationally, but the negotiations made them extremely unpopular with their colleagues at home. The changes mandated by the agreement were deeply resented by a clique of hard-line army officers, who, once forcibly retired, were left to brood.

In the four years since the accords were signed, this group has transformed itself into a highly powerful criminal cartel, one that today combines a variety of lucrative illegal enterprises with a systematic campaign of political violence. To build their operations, these rogue officers have made new allies among drug traffickers and strengthened their connections to the current government, forging strong links to customs, immigration, judicial, police, and army officials.

This new criminal class first showed its strength in 1998 with the brutal murder of Guatemalan Bishop Juan Gerardi. Gerardi was beaten to death on the street outside his home just days after the conclusion of a church-sponsored inquiry he had directed into political violence during the civil war. The commission's highly publicized report had blamed the Guatemalan army for 90 percent of the estimated 200,000 killings during the conflict -- a charge that, for obvious reasons, infuriated the army. Initial probes into Gerardi's murder were thwarted by the armed forces: officers gave investigators false leads, misplaced key evidence, and tried to clean up the crime scene. International pressure eventually forced the government to hold a trial early this year, and three intelligence officers and two civilians were ultimately convicted. The orders for the killing, however, are widely thought to have come from much higher circles.

Despite the convictions, political violence in Guatemala has grown worse since Gerardi's murder. There have been more than 150 public lynchings in the last two years. In the first four months of 2001, the country suffered more than 50 kidnappings, more than a dozen bank robberies, and several daytime murders in crowded streets. There have been numerous attacks on human rights lawyers and activists. Threats and bombs have been hurled at judges handling cases involving drug trafficking or the military. And in May, Barbara Ann Ford -- an American missionary who worked with survivors of army massacres in the remote Quiche province -- was slain in broad daylight in Guatemala City.

No one is immune from the violence. Take the case of Otto Perez Molina, who, as a high-ranking Guatemalan general, diligently fought his nation's civil war but then placed his bets on peace. As head of army intelligence in 1993, Perez Molina refused to join other hard-line military officers in backing President Jorge Serrano's attempt to grant himself dictatorial powers. And as head of the army in 1995, he led the group of reformist officers who signed the peace accords. Now retired from active duty, Perez Molina has founded a political party and writes a daily anticorruption column, often using the space to condemn abuses by the current government and the military.

In November 2000, just after Perez Molina was warned by former colleagues to tone down his critiques of the government, the general's son, an army lieutenant, was attacked in his car and his wife was wounded. Perez Molina continued writing his caustic columns, and three months later, his wife and 27-year-old daughter were almost killed in separate incidents. (The general's wife survived only because the assassins murdered the wrong woman.) The government subsequently blamed the attacks on organized crime, but Perez Molina has sent his family into exile. The husband of the woman accidentally killed in place of the general's wife, meanwhile, was also murdered. "He was asking too many questions," explains one law enforcement officer.

So far, such incidents, along with the explosive rise in violence and the criminal involvement of ex-army officers, have yet to replicate themselves in other countries in the region. This is partly because in other countries, such as El Salvador, hard-line army officers have not been sidelined to the same degree as in Guatemala and so have had less incentive to turn to crime. Moreover, many of the changes instituted in El Salvador that might otherwise have provoked a right-wing backlash, such as agrarian reform or nationalization of the country's banks, have since been rolled back. And eight years after the signing of the peace accords, the conservative Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (arena) still dominates the country's government.

STEALING THE BRIDE

El Salvador's cautious peace accords managed to avoid provoking most factions in the country's army, but only by ignoring many of the important social and economic problems that led to the fighting in the first place. When Guatemala's warring factions sat down to end their conflict, therefore, they tried to learn from El Salvador's mistakes. As well as orchestrating a cease-fire and the demobilization of the army and the guerrillas, the Guatemalan peace accords called for a number of deep institutional changes. These reforms, however, have only worsened the current public-security crisis in that country.

The accords, for example, mandated a revision of Guatemala's tax code. But attempts to increase taxes have proven almost universally unpopular. A newly instituted 11 percent value-added tax has been condemned by everyone from labor unionists to businesspersons. And suggested reforms to the penal code that would increase sanctions for tax evasion have also been widely opposed.

The new taxes are supposed to pay for two changes mandated by the peace accords: better state-financed education for the 60 percent of Guatemala's population who are of indigenous Indian descent, and formal recognition of the country's Indian languages, which number more than a dozen. These changes were meant to reflect Guatemala's new self-definition, agreed to under the peace accords, as a multiethnic, multicultural, and multilingual nation. But critics complain that such changes are far too broad. As one veteran U.N. official who served in the region argues, the Guatemalan negotiations tried to accomplish too much -- including not just the financing of a general transformation of society but also widespread land reform. The parties to the accords attempted to do all this, moreover, without first garnering widespread popular support. Although the extensive changes mandated by the peace accords may have been agreed to by the government of the day, sectors of the army, and the urng guerrillas, they were never approved by Guatemalan society. In fact, when Guatemala's public finally got a chance to voice its opinion on the reforms in a national constitutional referendum, voters rejected the measure by a two-to-one margin.

The momentum for reform in Guatemala slowed even further after national elections were held in 1999. An ultraconservative party that opposes the peace accords -- the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), led by Efrain Rios Montt, a general who had governed the country during the most brutal days of its civil war in the early 1980s -- was elected to form the new government. Rios Montt, barred from serving as president because of term limits, became head of the Guatemalan Congress, and Alfonso Portillo, a former leftist, took over as titular head of state.

The FRG's victory stunned the country's political analysts, most of whom never appreciated the extent of Rios Montt's popularity. Some pundits have tried to explain away his recent victory as a simple attempt by frustrated voters to end the crime wave by electing an authoritarian leader. Others point to Portillo's credentials as a onetime leftist and his success in whitewashing the true nature of the FRG by blending its more right-wing positions with emotional populism.

At first, Portillo showed signs of independence, promising to fully implement the peace accords and solve the Gerardi murder case -- two sensitive issues for his party's right-wing constituency. Once in office, however, the new president made a number of appointments that showed how much power Rios Montt still exercised. Several cabinet positions went to former military officers, and others were handed to the business associates who had bankrolled Portillo's campaign.

The president has since responded to international pressure by firing Communications Minister Luis Rabbe, a former television executive who used his office to smear independent journalists and government critics and to monitor the president's enemies. But Portillo has ignored calls to sack Interior Minister Byron Barrientos, a Rios Montt ally and former army officer who has been accused of human rights abuses. Barrientos, whose appointment led to the public resignation of several high-ranking police officials, has used his power to give conservative sectors in the party and the army control over the supposedly reformed national police. Creating a truly independent civilian police force and intelligence apparatus had been one of the main objectives of the 1996 peace accords, and to weaken the army's influence inside the country, it was ordered to start focusing on external defense only. But Barrientos has tried to circumvent both these requirements, and last year, the FRG-led Congress approved a decree giving the army permission to work domestically, helping the police fight common crime.

To balance his right-wing appointments, the president named to his cabinet two Catholic human rights advocates, allies of the slain Bishop Gerardi. But Portillo has ignored other important changes mandated by the peace accords, such as disbanding the Presidential General Staff -- an infamous security organization that controls intelligence information for the president and is linked to the Gerardi murder and other extrajudicial killings. Portillo's government has also been accused of widespread corruption. The president, for example, maintains close ties with a banking tycoon and suspected money launderer named Francisco Alvarado MacDonald. MacDonald financed both Portillo's unsuccessful 1995 presidential bid and his 1999 campaign and today provides the president with a bulletproof car. In exchange, Portillo orchestrated the deposit of $8 million in government funds into two struggling MacDonald-owned banks, picked a MacDonald employee as finance minister, and chose MacDonald's son as his chief of staff (although both men have subsequently been removed from office).

So prevalent are corruption and pork-barrel politics in Guatemala today that locals have made up a story to illustrate the situation to outsiders. Compare the Guatemalan government to a wedding, they say, with political parties as the guests. Previous ruling parties would be the type who steal the ashtrays. The FRG would steal the bride.

RUNNING FROM THE LAW

Yet another consequence of the last decade's peace accords is destabilizing Central America: the threat of war crimes prosecutions. Most of the peace processes that ended the civil wars included amnesties protecting those involved in the conflicts from criminal inquiries into their activities. But some of these amnesties, as in Guatemala, excluded immunity for the worst offences. And some victims, such as Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchœ, have found ways to circumvent the amnesties by bringing suit in other countries (such as Spain). Thus military and civilian officials throughout the region have grown afraid that they will eventually be prosecuted for war crimes at home and have begun taking steps to make sure that never happens.

The specter of prosecutions was first raised in October 1998, when former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was detained in London on a warrant from a Spanish magistrate, Baltasar Garzon. The Guatemalan press gave tremendous coverage to the story. And fears were heightened the next year, when Garzon was rumored to be contemplating a prosecution of former Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani for the killing of six Jesuits (three of whom were Spanish citizens) by government forces in 1989.

In order to make sure domestic prosecutions never took place, Guatemala's retired hard-liners secured the right to run a special investigating office of their own. Called la oficinita ("the little office") and headed by a retired military officer, this agency's nominal purpose was to help alleviate the workload of the government's prosecutors. But in reality, la oficinita monitored and obstructed investigations against former military officers. It was this office that initially stalled the Gerardi murder investigation, and although it has since been officially closed down and the head of the office removed, judicial sources in the country insist it is still operating.

Insecurity among Guatemala's retired military officers has increased the general sense of instability in the country. As retired officers urge their younger comrades not to cooperate with the new regime, rumors of an impending coup have spread. According to Jose Ruben Zamora, publisher of the El Peri—dico newspaper, such rumors can come only from elements in the retired army sector itself. Whether any actual insurrections have been plotted remains uncertain. But on one occasion, the Organization of American States took the rumors seriously enough to pass a resolution supporting the rule of President Portillo.

TRAFFIC

The root of Central America's many problems continues to be the drug trade. Even the Gerardi murder apparently had a narcotics connection: law enforcement officials now believe the bishop was killed in part because he had dug up links between the military and the cocaine industry. "With the end of the war we have fallen into the hands of organized Mafias," explains one Guatemalan law enforcement official. "Just like in Russia, where the KGB has gotten involved in crime, in Guatemala, it is retired military [officers] who are in control of the [drug] trade."

Such criminal networks now reach the top of Guatemalan society. Four years ago, a large group of active military figures, including the vice minister of defense, was discovered to be operating a drug smuggling and robbery ring. The group worked in tandem with Colombia's Cali cartel and specialized in using electronic goods to transfer drugs up the Pan-American Highway. Although its ringleader, a former intelligence officer named Alfredo Moreno Molina, eventually went to jail along with 16 accomplices (including several colonels), many other members of the organization escaped prosecution and continue working today.

One reason that Guatemala's military and its intelligence services have turned to crime in such numbers is that these institutions were never imbued with respect for the rule of law or civilian oversight. Many retired intelligence officials were trained by the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. But in 1977, angered by a Carter administration report criticizing Guatemala, the country rejected all further U.S. military aid and started looking instead to Israel, Chile, and Argentina for help. This experience strengthened the Guatemalan military's sense of itself as a beleaguered brotherhood and did nothing to enhance its respect for the rule of law.

Even before Guatemala rejected U.S. involvement, however, U.S. policy toward the region tended to focus exclusively on fighting left-wing insurgencies, and U.S. officials often ignored evidence of illicit activities by their local partners. "There was a lot of money to be made illegally in the region, and we were aware some of the military [officers] were involved," says one former U.S. official. But fighting the drug trade in Central America was not one of Washington's priorities at the time. Furthermore, even those U.S. agencies that focus on antidrug policy have tended to concentrate their efforts on countries where narcotics originate -- Afghanistan, Colombia, Myanmar, Nigeria, Russia, and Thailand -- while ignoring transit routes such as Central America.

Today, Washington runs several joint antinarcotics programs with Central American governments. Last year, the United States set up a forward operating location (FOL) at El Salvador's Comalapa International Airport to provide intelligence on drug trafficking in the region. Other FOLs have already been established in Aruba, Curacao, the Dutch Antilles, and Ecuador. And although last January's earthquakes in El Salvador knocked out the FOL system there for several months, it had already helped the U.S. Customs Service seize a 13-ton cocaine shipment off California's coast. But such programs remain few and far between, and they are unable to make up for years of inattention to the region.

WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE

Although primary responsibility for Central America's woes lies with local governments, the international community bears some blame as well. The U.N.-sponsored peace processes conducted in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala over the last decade were rushed, and not enough external support was provided. "These countries needed a lot of help, you had to give them a lot of financial and technical assistance, but in the case of Nicaragua and El Salvador we just went in and closed the book on them," says one U.N. official who served in the region.

In Nicaragua, for example, the U.N. initially invested billions of dollars in efforts to help stabilize the country. These programs included demobilization assistance, help in relocating and repatriating the U.S.-backed contras, and participation in several verification commissions. But soon after helping stage elections in 1990, the U.N. mission in Nicaragua closed up shop, and thanks to the subsequent lack of oversight the country has become one of the most corrupt in the region. To make matters worse, the Sandinista National Liberation Front is expected to regain the presidency this coming November. Whether the Sandinistas -- still led by Daniel Ortega, the president vilified by the United States in the 1980s -- will return to their radical ways once they regain power is uncertain. But U.S. officials are already warning that a Sandinista victory could spell trouble for relations between the two countries.

Meanwhile, the U.N. mission in Guatemala remains on the ground but is currently struggling to redefine its role. The international effort has been criticized at times for trying to function as the government's main adviser and for forcing it to carry out unpopular changes in the country. And the U.N. mission has not been very effective at addressing the country's worst problems. Some Guatemalans now argue that the mission should be closed if it is not able to come up with ways to stop the current wave of criminal and political violence.

"You cannot carry out peace accords like we have been doing," says one U.N. official. "You cannot reorganize a country, force it to carry out institutional changes and enfranchise the disenfranchised, while at the same time carry out major financial reforms. It is a policy for disaster and one we have pushed forth in Central America."

If the U.N. has mismanaged its aid to Central America, the United States has also failed to play a very helpful role. Washington should focus more intensely on the region, adopting an area-wide approach that offers both carrots and sticks and sets discrete benchmarks for local governments.

Recent U.S. policy toward Central America has been essentially limited to the issues of immigration and drugs. Assistance should be broadened to include financial and technical programs. According to Jonathan Wiener, a former State Department official who worked on Central America, "it takes ten years for a society to [build] a functioning rule of law and an administration of justice program. You need an independent judiciary, cops who are well paid, and strong oversight mechanisms that help keep the system free of corruption." Washington should lend a hand for all of these projects.

The United States must also help the region in its battle against both routine and organized crime. Assistance to some of the more promising local programs that have already been initiated would be a good start. In El Salvador, for example, a former police chief from San Jose, California, now runs a program to tackle the country's growing youth gangs. It was thanks to a combination of rigorous policing and a variety of community outreach programs that San Jose managed to prevent gangs from becoming as serious a problem as they are elsewhere in California. Now El Salvador's cops are using similar methods, including community policing, and the results are impressive. Homicides in El Salvador are down 23 percent since 1998, when the program began, and kidnappings have been reduced by a third.

To combat organized crime, Central America's various police forces should establish an integrated computer system to help them track criminals across borders. The hardware to do so already exists in most of these countries, in the form of the sophisticated eavesdropping and intelligence-gathering equipment governments purchased during the civil wars. But Central American authorities must now figure out how to use these tools for new ends, and here again the United States could provide invaluable assistance.

Washington can and should provide other intelligence help as well. For example, the United States should aid local governments in gathering information on retired military leaders and former combatants now involved with organized crime. U.S. law enforcement agencies already have a clear idea of just who the individuals involved are. They should share this information with their Central American colleagues and take measures such as revoking these individuals' visas to enter the United States.

Finally, if the United States truly hopes to slow the flood of cocaine heading northward from Colombia through Central America, Washington must expand its antidrug programs. Already there are signs that at least some in Washington have realized that a broader approach is necessary. For example, in May, the U.S. Senate's caucus on international narcotics control held a meeting to investigate the flow of cocaine through what is known as the Eastern Pacific Ocean corridor -- a region that includes Guatemala. "We were concerned that while all attention is focused on Colombia, drugs continued to flow into other areas," said one congressional source. This is a good beginning, but far more concrete steps are still necessary. Current, military-supported antidrug operations are not sufficient to address the problem. Washington must also help regional governments stem the flow of drug money into the United States and attack money-laundering operations that involve otherwise legitimate businesses and government officials.

As former U.S. Ambassador Crescencio Arcos, who served in Honduras in the early 1990s, argues, primary responsibility for the necessary changes lies with regional governments. "No amount of U.S. interest will have an impact on the region if there is no [local] political will to make it work. The United States can support changes and help the region face the challenges, but [local governments] should not expect any U.S. administration to do it all." Although this may be true, local measures have thus far been ineffective and Central America is now teetering on the brink of collapse. In the next few years, the region will either move forward and continue the halting reconstruction process, or it will fall back into a violent replay of its recent past. The right kind of international involvement, especially from the United States, could well determine which of these two fates comes to pass.

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