Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 354 | Enero 2011



War on Drugs in an Election Year?

The Mexican government’s war on the drug cartels is pushing the cartels to set up rearguard areas in Guatemala, increasing the presence they already had in the country. Mexico’s militarization strategy, which Guatemala is considering, will be ineffective. Can the army’s firepower compete with that of the cartels? Wouldn’t legalizing drugs be a more effective way to undermine the power of the drug trade?

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

It’s election year in Guatemala. In September one of the candidates—at least one of whom will be a woman if the Constitutionality Court allows her to run—will win in the first round or will go up against the runner-up in a second round in November. In what shape will the country be as it approaches the election?

In a state of siege
due to drug trafficking

Last December President Álvaro Colom had to declare a one-month state of siege in the northern department of Alta Vera Paz. The reason for this unusual decision was to more effectively combat the drug traffickers’ plans to turn this department, just southeast of Mexico, into a secure rearguard to take shelter from the all-out war against the cartels declared by the Mexican government.

At the end of the period, Colom decided to extend the state of siege there for another month. Considering that drug trafficking is present in at least four other departments—San Marcos, Huehuetenango, northern Quiché (Ixcán), Izabal and Zacapa—it’s questionable whether this measure had any chance of being effective.

Vast inequalities

Guatemala’s score has been rising in the Human Development Index, from 0.634 in 2000 to 0.704 in 2010. This has not improved its world classification, however. In 2010 Guatemala was ranked number 116, the lowest of the four Central American countries considered to have “medium human development” (countries between 86th and 127th place): El Salvador is in 90th place, Honduras in 106th and Nicaragua in 115th. The three others—Panama, Costa Rica and Belize, respectively in 54th, 62nd and 78th places—are considered to have “high development.” One of the reasons Guatemala is in last place has to do with the vast disparities of wealth. The Gini coefficient is used to measure equality of wealth, with 0 and 1 being the respective extremes of equality and inequality. Guatemala’s Gini Coefficient in 2007 was still 0.537 and according to 2005 data, 6.6 million Guatemalans, 50.9% of the population were poor. Of these, 2 million were trapped in extreme poverty, while the 20% with the highest incomes received 60.3% of the national income.

The tax reform:
Unfinished business

The 2010 United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report on Guatemala, “Hacia un Estado para el desarrollo humano” (Towards a State for human development), repeatedly stresses that the nation is strong enough to repress dissidence and impose order but is very weak on investing in development, basically because of the low tax burden on those who have more.

On January 14, 2011, in a speech summarizing his report to Congress on his third year in office, President Colom pointed out that tax reform is the major issue left pending. His government will probably not deal with it before the elections.

The President recognized that taxes have decreased dangerously since he took office from Oscar Berger in January 2008. “I want to really call your attention not only to the stagnation but also to the regression of the tax burden from 12.1% in 2007 to 9.6% in 2010.” A government this weak is incapable of moving the country toward human development. And in an election year it is utopian to think of any real tax reform.

An important success

The evaluation of 2010 must include the resistance of social forces who feared being stripped of their seeming integrity by the UN’s International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), the Myrna Mack Foundation and other Guatemalan and international institutions working for the rule of law in our country and against the impunity corroding it. They tried to undermine the basis of this initiative by Vice President Stein (in office 2004-2008).

Although not without errors of attitude and diplomacy, CICIG and its main executive, Spanish Judge Carlos Castresana, were the object of a huge smear campaign. With notable political prudence, Castresana headed off such attempts by resigning his post. Costa Rican Attorney General Francisco Dall’Annese was chosen by UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki-Moon to succeed him.

One important triumph of CICIG was to find evidence of lack of integrity in President Colom’s attorney general that obliged the President to suggest he resign and to reinitiate the whole candidate selection process, which culminated with the appointment of Claudia Paz y Paz, whose competence and integrity no one doubts. If the new Presidential Commissioner for National Civil Police Reform, Helen Mack, succeeds in fulfilling her commitment, Guatemala might have an effectively honest “holy” alliance between the attorney general and the police for the first time. Helen Mack’s appointment doesn’t make her a government official as she’s just a commission coordinator, not a Cabinet member.

Controversial social policies

In his January speech, President Colom stressed the work of the Social Cohesion Commission—especially education and public health—headed up by his wife. He said this work is “the enormous social face of my government.” He expressed his government’s social policy as follows: “We have recovered the social policy space without subordinating it absolutely and blindly to economic policy.... We have increased as never before the percentage of social investment in public spending, from 7.2% of the GNP to 8.1% in 2010.... We’re helping to close the exclusion gap in which hundreds of thousands of children, seniors and the marginalized population live …And we are making a huge investment in the country’s human capital, which will be expressed in the coming years as a more educated, healthier population that is more prepared to exercise its rights as citizens.”

This government’s social policy is one of its most controversial aspects. Just after he took office, Álvaro Colom named his wife Sandra Torres to conduct this policy. She comes from a middle class family with a strong social commitment from the southwest of the Peten area. One of her brothers, Enrique Torres Lezama, a labor lawyer, was heavily persecuted by the military regimes of the seventies and after an attempt on his life he took refuge in Canada to heal from the damages he suffered. With the restoration of successive civilian governments in the eighties he returned to Guatemala where he has been advising various trade unions.

From the beginning Sandra Torres’ appointment as head of the Social Cohesion Commission was badly received by more than a few sectors of Guatemalan society. First they alleged that Guatemala’s Constitution doesn’t provide for these inter-ministerial commissions or the inserting of a commissioner between the President and Cabinet ministers. What these sectors really feared and condemned was the First Lady’s desire to build a power base from which she aspired to be the next candidate of the United Party of Hope (UNE), which had carried her husband to the presidency. They feared some repetition of the Kirchner’s power scheme in Argentina, although here it’s speculated that she, not he, is the stronger of the two. This speculation may not be correct, however, as Colom may lack an authoritative governing style but is the one who makes the decisions after debating, even arguing, with his ministers.

The First Lady’s
political aspirations

Against this backdrop, Social Cohesion’s most important programs have been under scrutiny by various congress people, the rightwing press—particularly Prensa Libre—and other media for the past three years. The most significant incident occurred a year ago when Congresswoman Nineth Montenegro, well known for her avid audit of the Army’s budget, demanded that Education Minister Bienvenido Argueta turn over the lists of the beneficiaries of the My Family Progresses (MIFAPRO) program, including addresses, to compare the number of beneficiary families with the program’s budget.

The obvious suspicion was that major funds from this budget were being siphoned off to form a fund to finance Sandra Torres’ 2011 election campaign. When the First Lady opposed the request, the minister refused to hand over the lists, presumably out of loyalty.

The matter went as far as the Constitutionality Court, which ruled against the reasons for not submitting the lists. When the minister continued to refuse, the Court dismissed him. The loss of this specialist in education was an example of Torres’ political miscalculation. His successor had no choice but to turn over the lists, although he did so very slowly.

A response to the crisis

In his January 14 message, Colom could not avoid referring to the touchy subject of the MIFAPRO program, saying that it “needs special mention for its impact on improving the health and education coverage for poor and extremely poor families, and is already recognized nationally and internationally, including by serious and independent institutions. The program is protecting 814,890 families and 2,264,457 children and youth in their education and health.”

In addition to the objection to MIFAPRO related to Sandra Torres’ eventual election campaign is the accusation that those families who benefit from the program are allegedly being asked to return the favor by how they vote. Whatever the reality of these objections, it must be remembered that Álvaro Colom took office on January 14 the year following the outbreak in September-October 2007 of the worldwide financial crisis. Whether by luck or good planning, MIFAPRO has been an answer to the harsh effects of the crisis for hundreds of families in rural and urban Guatemala. If this program hadn’t existed, their situation would have been far worse.

The First Lady’s exit

By the end of 2010, President Colon had no other option than to dismiss his wife from running the Social Cohesion Council. Rumors abounded, including that the relationship between Colom and his wife had worsened. Others asserted that if she had any chance of a positive ruling by the Constitutionalist Court against a charge that would surely be filed against her presidential candidacy due her personal relationship with the incumbent, making the case more complicated by leaving her at the head of Social Cohesion wouldn’t help.

Few people are convinced Sandra Torres will be selected as UNE’s presidential candidate for 2012-2016. Roberto Alejos, one of the financiers of Colom’s election campaign in 2007 and current president of Guatemala’s Congress, is another candidate choice. At the start of this year, he was rumored to be fighting to be the party’s secretary general but later it was said that he gave this up.

Presidential candidates

The political panorama is not yet clear. In an extraordinary attempt to increase the probability of becoming the first incumbent party that succeeds itself, thus blocking Patriotic Party candidate retired General Otto Pérez Molina from governing, UNE has been working for several months in a congressional coalition with the GANA party, whose candidate Oscar Berger won in 2004. They have put together a National Unity Project that issued a political platform on November 8.

On another front, former President Álvaro Arzú (1996-2000) is clearly promoting himself in a public move that everyone sees as an early campaign. Posters have appeared all over the capital city saying “Let’s get back on track” with Arzú’s figure in the background, or with the terser message, “Arzú Order,” and his face.

His pre-campaign and those of other candidates are causing the Supreme Electoral Tribunal serious headaches, as it is in charge of registering candidates and parties and making sure they don’t start campaigning before the official starting date in May. Several candidates and parties have been fined, and some have responded rebelliously saying that the election law doesn’t keep them from proselytizing.

There’s a fine line between proselytizing to get people to join a party and campaigning to promote a specific candidate. In any case, Arzú, who presumably would run for the Unionist Party (PU), will surely be challenged by those who maintain that the text of the Constitution clearly prohibits a candidate who has already been President.

The new Constitutionality Court

There is no doubt about the candidate the Patriotic Party will run: it will be retired general Otto Pérez Molina. Tradition, if you can call a 20-year trend a tradition, suggest that he who loses one presidential race wins the next one, as was the case of former Presidents Arzú, Portillo and Berger as well as President Colom.

The Republican Guatemalan Front (FRG) is the party of retired General José Efraín Ríos Montt, the coup-imposed head of state in the early eighties. His daughter Zury Ríos Sosa, who succeeded her elderly father as the party’s secretary general, has already been named its presidential candidate. Her candidacy will very probably also be challenged in the Constitutionality Court for her direct relationship with the former head of state.

All of this highlights the importance of the Constitutionality Court’s upcoming selection process by its major voters: the Superior Council of the University of San Carlos, the Bar Association, the Supreme Court, the National Congress and the President through his Cabinet.

The postulating of candidates for the country’s most important institutions in processes not decided by popular vote are one of the most important objectives of institutions dedicated to promoting and protecting the rule of law, such as the Myrna Mack foundation. CICIG did a strict and demanding audit of the present makeup of the Supreme Court of Justice and the appointment of the attorney general, with important, if not complete, success. It’s no exaggeration to stress the tremendous importance of the process that will end up selecting the next Constitutionality Court, which is inaugurated in April of this year.

The other candidates:
Will Rigoberta Menchú run?

Manuel Baldizón, a long-time member of President Colom’s UNE, left the party to form the Renewed Democratic Freedom (LIDER), a new congressional political bloc. Baldizón is from a very wealthy family in the Peten department. His political bloc now has 27 congress people and he probably will be a presidential candidate. This group has already registered as a party even though it is doing poorly in the polls so far.

Harold Caballeros, an evangelical pastor, and Eduardo Suger, the chancellor of Galileo University, will also probably be presidential candidates. Suger has run at least twice before with little success. So far neither Congresswoman Nineth Montenegro nor Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú, who shared a ticket in the 2007 election and won a small percentage of the presidential votes and several congressional seats, have declared themselves. It’s tempting for Menchú since, if elected, her term would start in 2012, which is the end of an era according to one interpretation of a Mayan prophecy. Would this be a sufficient motive to attract the Mayan vote?

Faced with the “revolution”
of the drug trafficking business

The Mexican government’s war on the drug cartels has pushed them to open rearguard areas in Guatemala, increasing the presence they already have in the country. President Colom’s decision to declare a state of siege in Alta Vera Paz and the course that decision has taken pose a major problem. Can the army’s firepower compete with any probability of success with that of the drug cartels?

Guatemala is suffering the effects of a new economic power, one of the most powerful transnationals on the planet: the drug trafficking business, which is identified, intertwined and tied with other forms of illegal trafficking, especially of weaponry. We’re talking about a major revolution that’s trying to change the face of power at a world level. Robert Saviano’s groundbreaking book, Gomorrah, is useful reading to understand this situation.

This is a revolution whose driving forces work like military groups with plans to take over territories and infiltrate States, competing among themselves. Just as guerrilla insurgents were States unto themselves, so the hidden powers, especially those of drug trafficking, have the vocation of a State or of a capitalist economic power dedicated to wealth with no legal limits, and moreover, fully using violence to violate and subdue the State.

By occupying territories and challenging the State’s monopoly on violence, they place States in a situation of extreme emergency. In reality, the main issue isn’t just the violence per se. To deal with what is happening only from this perspective is to be condemned to militarize society once again. Violence is an indispensable means for building another State within the legitimate State. They also use the enormous profits from their clandestine global commercial operations to infiltrate the legitimate State by the age-old method of bribery.

As for the violence, one should not forget that many members of Zeta, one of the large drug cartels, are ex-military personnel, and some are said to be former kaibiles, the special Guatemalan army assault troops, famous for their ruthlessness.

War is apprenticeship for violence

Drug trafficking violence should be analyzed in depth. The society that today is horrified and scandalized by the violence reigning in Guatemala is the very one that overlooked the violence of war, often tolerating it in silence. In the authoritarian period (1954-1996), the Guatemalan State, often a terrorist State in the anti-democratic anti-guerrilla struggle, judged all these forms of criminal violence—kidnapping, torture, disappearances, extrajudicial executions, massacres and genocide, conducted with unusual cruelty—to be valid to defeat the revolutionary challenge to bourgeois-oligarchic capitalism. This is proven by the two million documents saved in the Police Archives and attested to by the Truth Report “Guatemala, Memory of Silence.”

In a sense, the war was an apprenticeship for intensifying a violence that was viewed as legitimate even in its most inhumane forms.

Questions about this violence

Who, then, can be surprised that the new power robbers, drug traffickers and other globalized merchants and financiers of illegal goods—weapons, children, organs, prostitutes, nuclear waste—use the same cocktail of violent methods that were legitimate for the State during the war?

What’s the difference between a hit man or a gang member who throws a firebomb into a bus whose owner has refused to pay extortion and those kaibil soldiers who set fire to a town’s small Protestant or Catholic church with the members inside to make them pay for their revolutionary sympathies?
What’s the difference between the Zetas, who killed 72 migrants in Tamaulipas, so close to their dream’s goal, because they refused to become hit men, and those kaibiles who razed entire villages because they were told the inhabitants were “the water where the guerrilla fish swam.”

A patronage system like any other

The drug cartels, like the guerrillas before them, are also potential power States, briefly stated. And like States they have their development plans for territories they already control or those they are fighting for. In the style of the famous Pablo Escobar in Envigado, a suburb of Medellin, Colombia, the drug traffickers build schools, health centers, elegant clubs and sports complexes and, of course, improve the roads or build new ones to connect the communities of their territory.

With a patronage system typical of the Central American States and governing parties, they give favors to those who support them either out of sympathy or fear and exclude those who show themselves to be their opponents.

The times of Al Capone:
Should we prohibit or tolerate them?

The issue concerns the billions of dollars estimated to be the criminal commercial capital gains, and the question is whether to face and confront this power, especially the illegal drug business, with arms or does this method simply condemn us to militarize society.

If we are willing to learn from history, at least Central American history, we must recognize that none of the large, brutal wars between the States and the guerrillas or between Nicaragua’s revolutionary State and the counterrevolution, ended with a military victory. It was necessary to negotiate and find conditions of mutual tolerance to arrive at peaceful settlements. In Nicaragua this happened in 1990, in El Salvador in 1992 and in Guatemala in 1996. Might negotiation be the way to deal with and confront the drug trafficking business?

In the United States the manufacture, sale, transport, import and export of alcoholic beverages was prohibited by the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution between 1919 and 1933. Then the 21st Amendment restored all the rights previously prohibited. Many of us have seen the movies about those times and the huge amount of illegal smuggling that Prohibition and the Dry Laws produced and the violence unleashed between the Mafia and the State. The names of Al Capone and Chicago became legendary.

In a short time it became clear that preventing contraband alcohol by the use of force cost more than permitting the manufacture, sale, transport, import and export of alcoholic beverages.

What damage do drugs cause?

An article published in the medical journal The Lancet (November 6, 2010, Volume 376) reports the findings of a research study into the damages caused by drugs, including alcohol and tobacco.

The study was conducted by David Nutt and Leslie King, advisers to the British government, and Lawrence Philips, representing the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs. For the study they used nine categories of harm to individual consumers: mortality directly caused by use, harm from consumption, dependency due to consumption, mental incapacity, loss of perception abilities, injuries and harm to personal relationships. They also used seven categories of detriments to others: crime, family conflict, damage to the surrounding environment, international damage, damage to society as a whole, economic cost and deterioration of community cohesion.

On a scale of 0 (the least damaging drug) to 100 (the most damaging), alcohol had a rating of 72 followed by heroin with 55 and crack with 54. The others were crystal methylamphetamine 33, cocaine 27, tobacco 26, amphetamines 23, cannabis 20, gamma-hydroxyambutyric acid 18, benzodiazepines 15, ketamine 15, mephedone 14, methadone 13, butane 10, khat 9, ecstasy 9, anabolic steroids 9, LSD 7, buprenorphine 6, and mushrooms 5. With these results the study’s authors stressed that alcohol is not only the most harmful drug but is fully three times more harmful than cocaine and tobacco.

The authors of the Lancet study pointed out that heroin, crack and meth were the most harmful to the individuals who took them; while alcohol, heroin and crack led the list of those most harmful to the direct surroundings.

A challenge to general views

These researchers—all academics and doctors—are challenging the formal parameters and overall perceptions. Prof. Nutt, who several months ago resigned his position as adviser to the British government on drug dependency after asserting that taking ecstasy was less dangerous than riding a horse, defended the classification model, calling it the most accurate known so far for these questions. They maintain that the best way to conduct these research processes “is based on consensus of a group of experts working together.”

The authors stressed that their conclusions support previous work done in the UK and Holland and confirm that today’s drug classification system doesn’t agree with the tests on the harm they cause.... They also support earlier reports by experts that dealing decisively with the harm caused by alcohol is a valid and needed public health strategy.

Legalize drugs?

With these conclusions an inevitable question is whether the best way to fight the illegal drug business is to absolutely prohibit drugs and militarize countries as has happened in Mexico under the Felipe Calderón government, is starting to happen in Guatemala and could extend to other Central American countries. Might it not be smarter, more effective and efficient to legalize drug consumption under certain circumstances?

What are these “certain circumstances”? One only has to remember that alcohol consumption above a certain level is absolutely prohibited when driving a car and breaking this law carries sanctions that can include loss of license and even jail.

What violence would
legalization bring?

It’s clear that a negotiated tolerance for drugs would be a big blow to the finances of drug traffickers and all those who in some way collude with them and profit from the same source. Prices would drop notably with the loss of illegality of production, transportation, sale and consumption of the drugs, especially if the tolerance were applied at the same time in Central America and the United States.

Nor can we be naive: the drug traffickers will not take the possibility of reduced profits passively and we must accept that violence might take other routes for awhile. We can guess at some of these—threats to legislators and attacks when the threats fail to stop them from moving to legalization. Before any liberalization measure we have to ask ourselves how many legislators, governors and security forces who today are in collusion with the drug traffickers and profiting to various degrees from the same illegal business would accept going back to earning a living by the sweat of their brow.

Public health strategies

The conclusion of the Nutt, King and Philips study points to the real path in the fight against the harmful effects of drugs, at least for individuals: public health strategies that address these health detriments. More than militarization, this could be the real challenge for a State committed to human development.

It’s worth reflecting on the fact that the United States, the presumed end point and final victim of much of the worldwide drug trafficking, has not adopted anything that resembles militarization or an internal war against the drug cartels in its own country, as has Mexico and as Guatemala is running the risk of doing.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ, is the envío correspondent in Guatemala.

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