Mexican drug cartels have made inroads in Guatemala, a fact highlighted last month by initial reports, ultimately false, that one of Mexico’s most wanted drug traffickers had been killed there. In an email interview, Christine Zaino, program associate in the Latin America program at the Wilson Center, and Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America program, discussed Guatemala’s role in the drug trade and recent security reforms.

WPR: How has Guatemala's security situation changed since Otto Pérez Molina became president?

Christine Zaino and Cynthia Arnson: Pérez Molina’s first year as president has shown mixed results; the country continues to struggle with deep-rooted problems of poverty, weak and corrupt institutions and high rates of violence. The good news is that Guatemala’s homicide rate is decreasing -- down from nearly 39 per 100,000 in 2011 to 34.5 per 100,000 in 2012, according to the U.N. -- but it is still one of the world’s highest. The government has launched an ambitious effort to reform security institutions: More than 200 members of the police have been purged, and there are programs to improve training and vetting procedures. But resource constraints and continued involvement of the military in police operations -- tragically revealed in the October 2012 murder of six indigenous activists and the wounding of more than 30 others in the town of Totonicapán -- show that there is still a long way to go. Meanwhile, Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz continues to provide courageous leadership in human rights investigations and prosecutions and the effort to break up criminal networks.

WPR: What does the possibility that a major Mexican cartel leader could have been killed in a shootout in Guatemala -- ultimately false in this case -- indicate about the strength of drug traffickers in Guatemala?

Zaino and Arnson: According to Pérez Molina, Mexican organized crime groups, especially the Sinaloa cartel and the Zetas, are continuing to expand their presence in the country. Analysts of organized crime indicate that while the Sinaloa cartel has operated by creating connections to established, local organized crime groups, the Zetas have taken a more aggressive approach to controlling the primary drug-trafficking arteries across Guatemala. According to research by InSight Crime, the Zetas have been active in Guatemala since 2007 and have recruited members from the Kaibiles (special forces). Guatemalan authorities have blamed members of the Zetas for ordering and carrying out the massacre of 27 peasants in the Petén region in May 2011. There have also been reports of increased ties between local gangs and Mexican trafficking groups. Guatemalan officials have stated that organized crime is a factor in up to 45 percent of homicides, though these figures are disputed due to weak investigative capacity and reporting inconsistencies.

WPR: What role is there for the U.S. and other regional actors in improving security in Guatemala?

Zaino and Arnson: According to the State Department’s 2013 “International Narcotics Control Strategy Report,” more than 80 percent of cocaine trafficked to the United States passes through Central America. U.S. funding has focused heavily on counternarcotics assistance to reduce drug trafficking, including resources and technical assistance for aerial interdiction, coastal counternarcotics operations, police reform and increasing prosecutorial capacity, among other things. Through the Central American Regional Security Initiative, the United States has also pushed for increased regional cooperation, including strengthened border enforcement between Guatemala and Mexico. The U.S. Congress has continued to limit security assistance to the Guatemalan military because of human rights concerns. At the same time, Pérez Molina has joined with other Latin American leaders in calling for a new approach to combating drugs, although the immediate effect of Guatemala’s strategy on anti-narcotics cooperation with the United States is difficult to discern.

Photo: Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, Feb. 13, 2012 (photo by Flickr user Minex Guatemala, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license).

Original post here.