It was National Armed Forces Day, a holiday in Guatemala, and I was standing on the field of the Mariscal Sabala Military Base in Guatemala City talking to a high-ranking member of the government as we watched a show of aerial skill put on by the air force and special forces commandos.
The exhibition began with a large US made Bell UH1H military helicopter, similar to the kind used in the Vietnam War, from which a half dozen or so soldiers jumped out.
“That helicopter was confiscated from drug traffickers in Izabal, on our Caribbean coast,” I was told. “The Guaremalan military only has two old helicopters of its own and only a handful of planes.”
Guatemala’s President Alvaro Colom told me, proudly, that his government has arrested more drug lords, like Waldemar Lorenzana Lima – one of the most sought by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) – and Juan Alberto Ortiz, alias Chamale, than any other previous administration.
A former president, Alfonso Portillo, is in prison on charges of massive corruption. Scores of police chiefs and senior military commanders, along with four former defense ministers, have been purged in an attempt to clean up security forces with drug-trafficking ties.
“We seriously underestimated just how deep the infiltration of organised crime was in our institutions”, he said. “We have done as much as possible our resources allow, but there is a limit to what the State can do. The drug traffickers are much better armed and financed than our military and our government.”
One gets the distinct impression that he is struggling just to keep the drug cartels at bay, without any illusion that he can turn back the attack on the Guatemalan state.
For as long as I can remember, Guatemala has been wracked by corruption and weak institutions. It has always been a transit country for drugs en route to the United States.
But with Mexican drug cartels now controlling the bulk of the trafficking into the world’s number one consumer country, Guatemala – which shares a border with Mexico – has become far more saturated by organised crime.
“We have confiscated $11.5bn from the traffickers. Imagine how much money they have at their disposal. $11.5bn is one and a half times our national budget!”, says Colom.
Colom is worried, and with good reason: it is election season and in Guatemala that means it is time for organised crime to use its money and influence to elect municipal, state and national officials that will defend its interests.
The leading presidential candidate for the September 11 elections, Otto Perez, from the opposition Patriotic Party, told me he believes drug traffickers have a presence in nearly 40 per cent of the country, and that they have infiltrated practically every institution.
Like Colom, he believes that Guatemala has to strengthen its institutions, end widespread impunity (which some claim is as high as 99 per cent) and above all tackle poverty.
More than 56 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, and Guatemala has the highest rate of chronic malnutrition in children of any country in the western hemisphere.
Fixing all this, even if the next government really wanted to, would take a very long time.
Meanwhile, the world’s richest and most wanted drug trafficker, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, has been spotted coming in and out of Guatemala numerous times.
According to the interior minister, he spent the Easter holidays in the Peten region.
When I asked why they had not captured him, my high-ranking government source simply shrugged: “Because we couldn’t. Guatemala is the weakest link in the regional-trafficking chain. We have a broken state.”