Roadside Rampage

In the aftermath of President Bush’s recent failed trip to Latin America, the diplomatic toll mounts:

o In closely scanning the newspapers in the region, not a single significant achievement was wracked up by the Bush trip

o Heads should roll among those in the Bush administration who planned the tour

o Of the five countries visited, only stopovers in Uruguay and Brazil could be even remotely defended as bringing some good news, while Guatemala and Colombia turned out to be total disasters, with Mexico generating a yawn.

If the trip to Guatemala was a fiasco, Colombia was no better, Bush’s arrival in Bogotá couldn’t have happened at a worse time as every moment ticked off another scandal, some of them leading in the direction ofo President Uribe’s office, and nothing that Bush or Uribe president could say concealed the fact that the Colombia phase of the U.S. anti-drug war was more dead than alive, which was even more certain when it came to extraditing Colombian suspected felons to the U.S. And for Mexico, certainly nothing that Bush said on his brief trip to the U.S. neighbor could help President Calderon deal with his deep seated problems of too many drugs and too few jobs and a stonewalled immigration policy. As for Uruguay, there were a few positive words which President Vázquez greeted guardedly, and when it came to Brazil–the centerpiece of the trip, the ethanol-soaked theme produced more bark than bite, with few concrete results coming from the deliberations.

With an irony befitting the turns of a satiric political novel, a strand of intertwined statesmanship and farce characterized President Bush’s March stopover in Guatemala. The U.S. leader was intent on highlighting Guatemala’s role as a prime recipient of Washington’s largesse and as a showcase of a Central American nation’s laudable recent record for staging free and fair elections and its commitment to free trade which in the eyes of the Bush administration forgave many of its sins. But twists in circumstances resulted in Bush arriving in Guatemala at an exceedingly unpropitious time for both parties. With Bush’s domestic poll ratings registered at near-historic lows and with the Berger administration being seriously embarrassed by a string of scandals, drug-related fiascos and, most recently, the gruesome murders of the Salvadoran as well as their own officials, the timing couldn’t have been any worse. Furthermore, the Bush-Berger meeting only momentarily captured local headlines for the two officials, along with only a daub of good commentary. But, the Bush stopover visit by no means produced enough fire power to spare a deeply wounded U.S. presidency or provide succor for a near-failed state like Guatemala, remembering that historically Guatemala has held the hemisphere’s worst human rights record and repeatedly has displayed a mandacious contempt for democracy and a reprehensible indifference to democratic values.

By his visit, Bush undoubtedly hoped to highlight Guatemala’s participation in the DR-CAFTA trade agreement zealously sponsored by the White House in spite of the opposition by U.S. trade unions as well as political activists and farm groups throughout Central America. But the presidential visit turned out to be less of a showpiece affair and much more a public relations catastrophe, causing great embarrassment to the White House planners and the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs, which bore of the responsibility of planning the fiasco.

Coincidentally, on that same day of Bush’s trip to Guatemala on March 13, two Guatemalan law enforcement administrators, Edgar Enrique Cordon Sagastume and Carlos Humberto Orellana Aroche, were prevented from leaving the country. Both were allegedly involved in the murders of three Salvadoran political figures.

The murders in Guatemala on February 19, of three well-known Salvadoran political figures, Eduardo D’Aubuisson, William Pichinte and Jose Ramon Gonzalez – all members of the rightwing ruling ARENA party – along with their Guatemalan driver, startled Central America. But the plot became even more bizarre when, immediately following these killings, the assassins themselves–Guatemalan law enforcement officials Jose Korki Lopez Arreaga, Luis Umberto Herrera, Jose Adolfo Gutierrez, and Marvin Langen Escobar Mendez, were gunned down in their jail cells by other Guatemalan officers. This series of assassinations are perhaps the most shocking and high profile political murders in recent years, quickly inflaming the two neighboring countries and producing an atmosphere of apprehension and fear throughout the region.

Even for countries like El Salvador and Guatemala, with recurrent histories of brutality and political violence, the most recent round of murders particularly stood out for their notoriety. The fact that the staging of the murders took place shortly before President Bush arrived in the country had to be hugely embarrassing to the otherwise hapless administration of President Berger. Very early in the investigation, the Guatemalan authorities concluded that organized crime was responsible for the killings; which was motivated by drug trafficking rivalries. The high status occupied by some drug lords could mean that at one moment the cartel leaders could be wearing tuxedos at official receptions, while at the next moment they were plotting the bloody elimination of their opponents. This established the fact that Mexican drug cartels had finally managed to infiltrate the highest institutional levels of both countries. The events surrounding this case, particularly those of Guatemala, should dispel any optimistic illusions that public security or even minimum standards of street safety were on their way toward being achieved or were making a meaningful recovery in both countries.

Who did the Killings?

Initial reports indicated that the Guatemalan police officers implicated in the killings of the Salvadoran officials quickly confessed to the crime but said they had been led to believe that the Salvadorans who they had killed were ‘ordinary’ drug cartel functionaries. That report, later turned out to be somewhat contrived, and most likely nothing more than speculation fueled by those who personally knew some of those who had been killed. Officially, all of those allegedly involved in the scheme refused to talk but were tied to the murder scene by the vehicle’s GPS systems.

After the charred bodies of the Salvadoran officials had been found, it appears that the Guatemalan police officers suspected of having murdered them were removed from the remote jail where they initially had been remanded, upon the instruction of some unknown higher authority. They were then moved to a maximum security facility closer to Guatemala City, where they later were murdered. Officials at this facility permitted the assassins to enter the prisoner’s cells at which time they immediately had the opportunity to kill the detained Guatemalan police officers and silence their dangerous secrets. The bare facts surrounding this shocking incident provides startling evidence of the meager law-and-order system that is found in much of Central America, as well as the largely fictional nature of the already universally condemned legal processes available in President Oscar Berger’s Guatemala.

Guatemala’s Unabated Crime

While relations between the Salvadoran and Guatemalan governments are not without issue, on the surface there appears to be no compelling reason why this series of murders should immediately have been identified as political in nature. Historically Honduras, not Guatemala, has been El Salvador’s chief adversary. Although both countries’ right-wing administrations came to power through a somewhat compromised electoral process, they are both relatively stable at this time. Since the end of their respective civil wars–in Guatemala in particular­ little has been done to prosecute war criminals; in fact, death squad members are still able to hold elevated positions in their police, military and government intelligence departments. Unreconstructed, they continue their corrupt practices through a variety of means including violence, and more recently, either in spite of or in collusion with the drug cartels. In fact, Guatemala is a spectacular example of the Aristotelian concept of the corruption of pure forms of governance, where the law givers are converted into their prime violators.

Though Salvadoran president Antonio Saca is a generation younger than Berger and lacks the latter’s ties to his country’s traditional upper class, both leaders have–disappointingly, though not surprisingly – operated more as leaders of their own faction rather than as presidents of the entire nation. Nor have they tried to reconcile with opponents on the left or seriously attend to the problems of inequality and rampant crime that assail almost all of Central America. The region’s current turmoil accurately reflects the blatant violence witnessed in all of the countries under discussion. Violence has become so rampant that its sheer magnitude no longer allows their governments to turn a blind eye to the activities of the drug cartels. As a result, much of Guatemala and Honduras, for example, are in a state of incipient anarchy, ‘controlled’ by security forces that are in many ways indistinguishable from paramilitary units that cooperate with the police and armed forces in order to suborn the legal process.

The cooperation of high level officials in both countries gives this particularly gory incident, involving the slaying of the Salvadoran and Guatemalan officers, an unusually high profile. It also raises troubling questions about the moral standing of Guatemala’s own highest ranking anti-drug police official, which is the latest of many examples in Guatemala where the fox has been assigned to guard the chicken house.

Many Central American officials have been seriously corrupted by the drug trade, and at least some of the deceased parties involved in the incident were likely to have been murdered because they worked for rival cartels.

The Impact on El Salvador

The suspected murderers of the police detainees were also assumed to be cartel–associated with its representatives being rumored to have bribed the prison officials in order to enter the jail cells and strike out against the Guatemalan prisoners who were being detained there.

An intriguing angle of the case is that one of the Salvadoran officials slain by the Guatemalans was Eduardo D’Aubuisson, the son of the infamous late right-wing paramilitary leader Roberto D’Aubuisson, as well as the younger brother of a current Salvadoran official, also named Roberto. The ARENA party honors the elder D’Aubuisson as its revered founder and the fount of its ideology. It would be useful to recall that as in the 1980s during the Reagan years, when the White House’s official line was that Washington supposedly was as nearly opposed to D’Aubuisson’s rightist movement as it was to the FMLN leftist guerrillas. Ironically, since the Bush administration came into office, the U.S. has consistently supported the ARENA party during the past two presidencies in which it has ruled the country. Ever since ARENA entered office, the White House, without proof or merit, has applied a thin rhetorical coating of democratization to ARENA, with the same being the case with Guatemala. Washington policy makers would have you believe that the flimsy veneer of democracy carried by the typical Central American country was sufficient to significantly attract American support and have it being described as “democratic.”

Several Explanations for Salvadoran Murders

In response to the nature of the younger D’Aubuisson’s involvement in the murders, theories suggest that he may have been caught up in a revenge plot orchestrated by cashiered Salvadoran officials who loathed him. Alternatively, other theories suggest it was some kind of revenge action by now turned drug lord Roberto Silvia or against Tony Saca, Washington’s favorite Latin American political poodle. Even more to the point, the incident can possibly be seen as a mere coincidence or perhaps even a case of tragic mistaken identity. Still, such an outcome would be close to pure fantasy as the involvement of El Salvador’s most prominent political family-the D’Aubuisson’s-elevates this incident well beyond the normal level of Central American violence, and highlights the increasing brutality that has become a fixture of daily life in the region.

New Drug Path

Central America’s current crisis, compounded by drugs, gangs and general lawlessness throughout the area, is coming to a head as parts of the region are now being flooded by a sea of new forms of illicit wealth resulting from the laundering of drug-related profits. The Salvadorans were killed on their way to the Central America Parliament (PARLACEN) meeting. The agenda of the meeting included a plan to develop a strategy to deal with the area’s massive drug problems. Either as the result of a well thought-out plan, because of a duplicitous ploy, the murdered Salvadorans may have met their grim fate not only from what they had talked about but from what they did as well.

In recent years, Central America has suddenly emerged as a major transport and way-station for Mexican cartels moving illicit substances from Colombia, Peru and Bolivia into the U.S. though portals like El Salvador and Guatemala. The shift in routing in large part has resulted from the relative success of local Caribbean anti-drug officials and their U.S. advisors in cutting off supplies in the earlier part of the decade and effectively curtailing the Caribbean passageway into the U.S. The vast majority of US-bound cocaine today passes through Guatemala and up Central America’s Atlantic and Pacific coastlines. A few months ago a ship carrying 1.5 tons of cocaine was intercepted along the Pacific coast of Nicaragua. As a result of that interception, the life of the anti-drug police commissioner of Nicaragua was publicly threatened.

Frustratingly, in the last several years, the US has been dealing with “turned” highly-placed Guatemalan anti-drug officials in recent months, only to discover shortly thereafter that they too were part of the corruption network, some of them being Zetas–former military personnel coming from Mexico and Guatemala, who later switched sides. Threats from the cartels have created a poisonous atmosphere characterized by an all-pervasive fear, to the point where intimidated prosecutors have been known to caution defendants when the latter chose to name alleged perpetrators–not only to protect the integrity of the trial, but also to safeguard themselves. Threats also have been made to intimidate journalists covering drug stories.

Guatemala Least Suitable Site for Presidential Stopover

As a result of the burgeoning scandal, former Guatemalan Interior Minister Carlos Vielmann was forced to resign; his ministry had been in charge of the police, and, his longtime henchman and senior policy advisor and confederate, Erwin Sperisen was the immediate commander of the police. The question now is whether these high-ranking leaders ended up being the fall guys for a much wider and deeper syndrome of Guatemalan lawlessness- an exalted level of dereliction of responsibilities brought about by the omnipresent drug factor-which cannot be uprooted by only expunging a few obviously implicated government officials.

Guatemala is now under considerable pressure from the EU and international human rights bodies to make its deeply flawed criminal justice system more normatively accountable and transparent. The government is also being called upon to be less susceptible to dark and often heedless whims. Implementing these recommendations from abroad may be difficult because of the endemic corruption and the long tradition of violence in a country where the drug trade today is Guatemala’s number-one industry. For many in the Guatemalan government, trying to control drug trafficking could risk killing the golden goose because drugs are at the core of the country’s present fitful prosperity. The Bush vision of a Central America featuring flourishing private enterprise is little better than a pipedream. Were this dream to reach fruition, it would only be in highly limited instances and based on the wrong sort of industry–namely drugs.

The fatal bushwhacking of the Salvadoran officials most likely represents a frightening escalation of an uncontrolled cycle of drugs, corrupted leaders, criminal profits, and unsheathed violence, accompanied by a chronic myopia and a delusive presentation of Guatemalan realities by a crippled White House.

NICHOLAS BIRNS is a research fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.