Drugs without borders: Regional Integration and ways forward for Guatemala and Mexico - Razón y Palabra

Razón y Palabra




DRUGS WITHOUT borders: regional integration and ways forward for guatemala and mexico



Artículo elaborado por Miguel Angel Lara Otaola y Mathieu Tromme, miembros del Consejo Directivo de PRIAD (Partnership for Reseach in International Affairs and Development)

Sin Nombre’ is a movie that tells the story of a Honduran migrant family who travels through Guatemala onto Mexico in their quest to reach the United States. Upon crossing the Usumacinta River on a lifeboat and arriving in Mexico, they are intercepted by the border patrol who strip them naked. This scene reflects more widely the deprivation of many citizens’ sense of integrity along with the prevalent lack of opportunities and lawlessness in the region. Drug trafficking leverages on porous borders, which means that unlike Sayra’s family, many migrants actually manage to avoid the Mexican border patrol. Drug trafficking also affects the lives of many Central American citizens, whether migrants and urban or rural dwellers. This is the starting point of the article in which we investigate the structural issues that not only determine, but facilitate drug trafficking and organised crime.  Drug cartels thrive where there is an important, yet idle youth, significant unemployment, poverty, corruption and impunity. Our analysis takes a transnational focus, as we consider the case of Mexico, for long a heaven for drugs transiting to the U.S, and Guatemala, an up-and-coming hotspot for drug lords. Thus, issues such as governance, corruption, accountability and the rule of law are discussed before highlighting the main challenges facing the two countries today 

A number of structural causes both determine and foster drug trafficking, and most importantly, organised crime. Latin America is a region marked by poverty and high inequality. This entails lack of opportunities for most of its population, which, consequently, becomes potential inputs for the drug trade. On average, 40% of the population in the continent lives under the poverty line and the richest quintile of the population concentrates around 55% of the national income (ECLAC, 2010: 65). Mexico and Guatemala are no exception . Historical legacies of colonial structures, economic crises, failed policies and the implementation of neoliberal reforms have all contributed to this. The results are poverty traps and stagnant societies, high unemployment, a growing informal sector, low educational levels and almost no social security. This means that for many among the poor the main global economic enterprises that they can seriously consider joining are the drugs trade and organised crime (Panizza, 2009:103). Reduced social mobility and lack of economic and social opportunities mean that the professional prospects of young people are probably lower than those of their parents. Escaping poverty seems inevitable and, as a result, they become the raw materials needed to feed organised crime. 

By many accounts, modern democracy is characterised by a system that consists not only of free and fair elections but also of the rule of law. However, Latin American regimes are characterised by a lack of accountability and disrespect for the rule of law (Lara Otaola, 2010:2).  This is why many democratic regimes in the region are considered to be ‘partial’ at best, given that democracy coexists with various combinations of old traits such as clientelism, corruption, ineffective implementation of the rule of law and authoritarianism (Sznajder, Roniger, 2003:324). The rule of law consists in the respect of legal rules that are applied fairly, consistently and predictably across equivalent cases, irrespective of the class, status, or power of those subject to the rules (Diamond, 1999: xi). Nevertheless, in countries such as Mexico and Guatemala, the law is only applied intermittently and selectively and there are not enough checks and balances to the exercise of power, which results in widespread impunity and corruption. In fact, Latin American democracies need a ‘second transition’ in order to become liberal, constitutional democracies (Lara Otaola, 2010:2)

Thus, the authorities are faced with a dual challenge:  they must both succeed “in their battle against drug trafficking whilst [win] the battle to re-instate the rule of law” (Tromme, 2011). However, doing so is compounded by problems within the very institutions that are first in line to tackle these issues, such as the police, the judiciary and the legislature. In Guatemala, for example, State corruption is not always subject to investigations, and when it is, the process is often lengthy and convoluted (it takes two years on average). There are few whistleblowing mechanisms that allow bringing MPs and civil servants to trial, not least because they benefit from political immunity (‘derecho de antejuicio’). Clientelistic relationships among and collusion between members of government and the legislature also help ease the pressure. Moreover, most cases get discovered by audits long after the mandates of public servants ended (Gonzales, 2011).

Further, impunity and corruption mean that state agencies and officers are either not able or unwilling to take action when laws are broken. Police and judicial systems are subject to interests and threats and are scared to act or even end up providing security and support for criminals themselves.“ Police [officers] are corrupt and allied with traffickers, and sometimes even provide them escort. Some judges and prosecutors are too frightened to do their jobs properly; others are in league with the traffickers” (United States Embassy – Guatemala, 2009) This collusion is well illustrated by the events that took place in 2009 in Cobán, North-West Guatemala, where members from the Mexican ‘Zetas’ Cartel stopped two National Police officers to inform them about their own imminent narcotrafficking operation (i.e. sell and/or trade of drugs) and offered them to silently go on their way, unless, that is, “either of [them were] dissatisfied with [their] salaries, in which case [they] should [join the Cartel]” (US Embassy in Guatemala, 2009). In that same region, family members of one key trafficker were captured by the counternarcotics service but were soon after released as the trafficker in question threatened to blow up the local mall (US Embassy in Guatemala, 2009). At the same time, in Mexico thousands of idle youths along with Maras and former Kaibiles (i.e. disgruntled, yet well-trained elements of the Guatemalan Special Forces) in Guatemala constitute organised crime’s reserve army. In Ciudad Juárez, México a mother was told by her child “Mom, when I grow up I want to be like them [i.e. drug lords]; they have a lot of money” (Imparcial, 2010).

These brief accounts reflect how a weak rule of law and poverty can combine to entice institutions and people into corrupt actions as well as undermine governance and weaken society as a whole. About a year after the above incidents in Cobán, due to deteriorating conditions and the inability to control the situation, the government declared a state of siege in the region. Through this measure, security forces were granted extraordinary powers to capture criminals and their assets, though it went hand in hand with flouting the rule of law and human rights (Siza, 2011). As this shows, when there is State weakness, it is very tempting to assert its power through despotic ways. It is therefore important to strengthen the rule of law apparatus and reduce poverty and inequality before it is too late. In practice, however, other solutions seem to be privileged.

Finding solutions:

The depth of corruption, clientelism and cronyism undermines State institutions from within, especially their ability to engage with the issue of drug trafficking. It is therefore of little surprise that, as in other countries in Latin America, Government turns to the Army. Whilst there are allegations of collusion between the Guatemalan military and drug lords (Agencia EFE), it nevertheless benefits from higher esteem in the eyes of the population than other law-enforcement bodies (Aznarez, 2011). Perhaps this is because, despite a growing state of fear, the Army since the rise to power of Alvaro Colom in 2007 is no longer the central piece of the puzzle in the fight against the Cartels. As a leader of the Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (National Unity of Hope), Colom ran and won his campaign on a social-democratic platform. Rather than using a ‘mano dura’, or iron fist, he laid emphasis on fighting the country’s ills through pro-poor, social policies (Tromme, 2011). Pitted against Colom is this year’s favourite to win the presidential election, former general Otto Perez Molina. Unlike his political adversary, he brandishes an iron fistas a way tofight corruption, drug trafficking and crime. As a former army general who negotiated the 1996 peace agreements, Guatemalans trust he is the right man for the job. Should he be elected, however, this would also confirm an almost irrepressible need in Latin America to meet violence with more violence (e.g. in Colombia, where the Army has been very adept at quashing the FARC). To some, like Perez Molina himself, this is because the country is not yet fully mature and is not ‘institutionally ready’ to tackle insecurity caused by the spread of drug trafficking, corruption and crime (Aznarez, 2011). But, as the case of Guatemala’s northern neighbour shows, there is a fine line between over-relying on the Army, and failing to implement socio-economic policies.

For the past five years, and even long before that, a right right-wing politician, President Felipe Calderon, has spearheaded Mexico’s response to the Narcos. Central within this is his reliance on the Army, not the Police, to wage war against drug traffickers and enforce public order -- this has caused a corollary rise in human right abuses and deaths (Myers, Walter, 2011) (El Universal, 2011). Despite growing dissent with this approach expressed both by the U.N and in the streets (El Universal, 2011) (Nación, 2011), Calderon sees the Army, with all the collateral damage it creates, as a sort of necessary evil. Quoting the famed Benito Juarez , his view is one in which it is necessary to fight and soldier on, as this ultimately brings greater rewards through the establishment of the rule of law (Nación, 2011). In his defence, however, he has also undertaken to tackle corruption head-on, for example through the Operación Limpieza. In 2008, the Mexican Government also introduced a Constitutional amendment allowing for the penal justice system to migrate from an inquisitorial and written system to an adversarial one based on oral judgments, a move which is credited with improving transparency and integrity in the Justice system (Perkins, Placido, 2010).

Yet, his over-reliance on the Army need not be the only solution (Llana, 2010) (Chabat, 2011). Some argue, for instance, that drug trafficking has become parasitical and predatory, and that corruption must be tackled at its root so as to help undermine the Narcos (Chabat, 2011). According to former President Vicente Fox, a problem within Mexico has been its reluctance to accept it is ‘at war’ with drug trafficking and crime, and its inability to move towards a new type of ‘paradigm’. In coded words, this is a call to reflect on the legalisation and decriminalisation of drugs in the U.S. (Myers, Walter, 2011) (see Kilmer et al, 2011 for a study of the economic impacts of legalising marijuana in California). In addition to implementing repressive measures targeting the whole span of the supply-and-demand chain (e.g. arms trade) Fox’s view underscores the wider need for a coordinated and regional approach (Nación, 2011). A reloaded version of the Plan Puebla Panamá would be a good solution, since a regional plan that helps countries build stronger law enforcement institutions and promotes development through education, infrastructure and employment could solve many of the underlying structural causes behind organised crime. The Mérida and the Central American Regional Security (CARSI) Initiatives, aid packages destined to help Mexico and countries in Central America fight drug trafficking and poverty, constitute another type of regional initiatives that could, if correctly planned-out, help lower levels of violence and insecurity  (Llana, 2010).

As with Mérida and CARSI, many initiatives would not even lift-off without full support of the U.S.. Nowadays, the country increasingly recognises help is needed on different fronts, for example in job creation. It therefore cooperates with countries in training the police and border patrols, and in building capacity in the Justice sector and for programmes in charge of prosecuting money laundering and fraud (Lugo, 2011). Rather than seeing drug trafficking, crime and corruption as a problem related to security only, the U.S is arguably changing its’ stance towards an understanding it is an issue within society as a whole. As an example, within its multi-pronged approach, the U.S has begun emphasising the importance of community-based approaches (Llana, 2010).

Solutions have also been put forth to strengthen the rule of Law, increase transparency and accountability and penalise offenders. In Guatemala, this has given way to discussions about the re-instatement of the death penalty as a way to deter drug traffickers and criminals. Whilst Congress voted through the Bill, president Colom stopped it dead in its tracks by fear of rekindling old tensions (Tromme, 2011). Analysts suggest another solution would be to abolish political immunity (derecho de antejuicio) in Guatemala (Gonzales, 2011). However, a change such as this, if implemented, would be meaningless inasmuch as impunity continues. Institutions must be strengthened so the law is applied effectively and equally among cases. Furthermore, inequality and poverty must be overcome so that the population has other options than joining the Zetas or that border patrols do not always strip families such as Sayra’s of their possessions.  Whilst this is the most probable solution, ultimately, its’ success is underpinned by the ‘chicken or egg’ paradox, since some might see violence as a necessity to end organised crime, at least in the short term, whilst others might argue that violence is altogether detrimental to development. There is a fine line in choosing between one or the other, but perhaps the lowest denominator in fighting drugs and organised crime is the necessity to adopt a concerted approach, something which might be easier said than done.


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According to ECLAC’s 2010 statistical yearbook 34.8% and 54.8% of the population in Mexico and Guatemala  respectively  live under the poverty line while the richest quintile of the population concentrates 56.5% and 62.6% of the national income for Mexico and Guatemala respectively.

    “Es verdad que todavía habrá necesidad de luchar porque hay dificultades que vencer. Pero las dificultades no harán más que aumentar la gloria del triunfo porque es indudable que acabará por triunfar la causa del derecho, que es la causa de la humanidad” (Nacion, 2011)

Originally intended to promote infrastructure, education and development from the central Mexican state of Puebla to Panamá, the plan was short-lived and did not deliver on its promises.






Miguel Angel Lara Otaola

Especialista en democracia, gobernabilidad, Reforma del Estado, medios de comunicación y temas electorales. Maestro en Política Comparada por la London School of Economics, donde fue Presidente de la Sociedad de Alumnos Mexicanos y en Políticas Públicas por el Tecnológico de Monterrey. Licenciado en Relaciones Internacionales por la misma institución. Ha colaborado en el Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo, el Instituto Federal Electoral y el Overseas Development Institute, en Reino Unido. Actualmente, colabora en la Asociación Mexicana de Impartidores de Justicia como coordinador del programa televisivo 'AMIJ Punto de Encuentro'.  

Correo: motaola@hotmail.com






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