Thursday, February 19, 2009

menace spreads in guatemala

Reuters | Guatemala, scarred by years of civil war and rampant street gang crime, is suffering a new scourge as violent Mexican drug traffickers put down deep roots in the country.

A Mexican army crackdown has driven some cartels to seek a haven for their operations across the border in Guatemala, attracted by endemic corruption, weak policing and its position on the overland smuggling route north for Colombian cocaine.

That is a headache for President Alvaro Colom as the cartels employ the same violent tactics that have sown terror in Mexico.

"They are moving in because Guatemala is a paradise for drug traffickers. It's a poor country with a lot of corruption and the judicial system is very weak," Guatemalan Vice President Rafael Espada told Reuters in a recent interview.

Scores of Mexican traffickers are operating in Guatemala, including members of the Sinaloa cartel run by top fugitive Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman and the rival Gulf cartel's armed "Zetas" wing, officials say.

"It's the biggest challenge for Colom's government," said Guatemalan political analyst Manuel Villacorta.

Colom's security forces lack money, recruits, equipment, guns and intelligence to face the Mexicans, he said. "It's impossible for Guatemala, with the resources it has, to be able to address the problem."

As in Mexico, where about 6,000 people were murdered in the drugs war last year, the cartels buy off Guatemalan police and army officers as well as judges and politicians to protect their business, and pose a long-term threat to its democracy.

Guatemala's 1960-96 civil war left more than 200,000 dead, and street gangs that sprang up after the conflict have pushed the murder rate to among the highest in the Americas.

Colom was elected a year ago on a crime-fighting platform but 2008 was one of the most violent years on record with more than 6,000 murders out of a population of just 13 million.