Genocide, and drug-trafficking too

The Guatemalan military's war against the Mayans has finally been documented, but the story of its role in the cocaine trade has yet to be fully told.

Published March 5, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

WASHINGTON -- Last week a United Nations report confirmed that the Guatemalan military committed genocide against its own Mayan people during the country's four-decade civil war. But the impunity the military has long enjoyed for war crimes extends as well to drug trafficking. Many officers responsible for the human rights abuses documented by the U.N. have also been implicated in Guatemala's thriving drug-transshipping trade, but to date there has been no such public accounting of those activities.

Guatemala in this decade has been the staging ground for more air, sea and land transshipments of Colombian cocaine to the United States than any other country besides Mexico. The trend is only rising. This year the State Department reports that Guatemala now transships between 200 and 300 metric tons of cocaine annually -- or well over half of all the cocaine reaching the United States. The Guatemalan military has been responsible for much of the cocaine transshipping, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. But the Clinton administration has looked away from the scandal, even trying to cover up the murder of Guatemala's top judge in 1994, which only established the Guatemalan military's impunity from American prosecution.

U.S. complicity with the Guatemalan military has a long history, of course. The CIA has enjoyed especially close ties. Back in 1954, the agency did everything but hold Col. Carlos Castillo Armas' hand as he deposed Jacobo Arbenz, the country's democratically elected president. The CIA-backed 1954 coup not only killed Guatemalan democracy, it established the country's military as its most powerful institution, accountable to no law. When leftist guerrillas began to emerge in the early 1960s, the CIA helped drive back the insurgency. When it resurfaced with surprising force in the early 1980s, the CIA too played an integral role in shaping the country's brutal response. Under both the Reagan and Bush administrations, the CIA provided substantial covert aid to Guatemala when Congress, largely over human rights objections, refused to overtly fund its counterinsurgency.

The United Nations Historical Clarification Commission found the Guatemalan military responsible for more than 90 percent of the country's war crimes including kidnapping, torture and murder, resulting in the death or disappearance of more than 200,000 civilians from 1960 to 1996. Most of the repression focused on Mayans in the Guatemalan highlands.

The killings peaked in the early 1980s, though massacres continued to occur. By 1990, however, the military was no longer just killing for politics. It began killing for greed too. A scramble for drug profits within the Guatemalan military was under way. Guatemala, like Mexico, with which it shares its northern border, was never a major drug transshipment route before the early 1990s, when Colombians established transit operations across the entire northern isthmus. First the Medellin and then the Cali cartel came to Guatemala "because it is near Mexico, which is an obvious entrance point to the U.S., and because the Mexicans have a long-established mafia," said one Colombian drug enforcement official. "It is also a better transit and storage country than El Salvador because it offers more stability and was easier to control."

Guatemala's stability and control was achieved through cruelty that was unmatched anywhere in the region. Guatemala's counterinsurgency campaign was far more severe than El Salvador's, for instance. "The idea was to make the innocent pay for the guilty," a former Guatemalan army sergeant from Quiche once told me. The difference was that in El Salvador, military intelligence units might target a handful of young men to kill to ensure that they killed at least one guerrilla, while in Guatemala, military intelligence units frequently killed innocent people like children or seniors to punish an entire village for supporting the guerrillas.

Finally, in 1995, the Clinton administration announced that it was cutting off CIA aid to Guatemala over human rights violations. It did so after then-Rep. Robert Torricelli revealed that a paid agency informant, Guatemalan army Col. Julio Roberto Alpirez, was involved in the torture and murder of a captured guerrilla commandante, Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, who was married to an American lawyer, Jennifer Harbury. But Clinton didn't cut off all CIA aid, only CIA counterinsurgency aid, which was no longer really needed as the country's protracted civil war would finally end the next year. The president allowed CIA counterdrug aid to Guatemala to continue.

President Clinton's own Intelligence Oversight Board claims the CIA is helping the DEA catch drug traffickers in Guatemala. But DEA special agents have collected enough evidence to formally accuse no fewer than 31 Guatemalan military officers of multi-ton drug trafficking over the past decade. It is unclear what, if anything, the CIA has done to help prosecute the officers. So far, only four former military officers have been tried. DEA suspects include many high-ranking officials, including generals and a former air force commander.

Lt. Col. Carlos Ochoa Ruiz, for instance, aka "Charlie," according to a U.S. federal grand jury indictment against him, was the kind of military officer with blood on one hand and white powder on the other. "Charlie" was a captain in Uspantan, Quiche, in late 1979 when the military carried out a number of abuses there against the civilian population. By 1990, according to the DEA, "Charlie" was also a multi-ton drug trafficker.

At the same time that Lt. Col. "Charlie" was, according to the DEA, loading a half metric ton of cocaine -- enough to fill a few million pipes with crack -- on board a small plane en route to Tampa, Fla., Arnoldo Vargas Estrada, also known as "Archie," says the DEA, was transshipping "several tons of cocaine to the U.S. each month in tractor-trailers" overland through Mexico.

While "Charlie" was working near Guatemala's Pacific coast, "Archie" was the mayor of Zacapa, near the Atlantic coast. "Archie" was close to military officers in Zacapa and had a ranch house right across the street from the army base. A Guatemalan expert said that "Archie" had been a member of the Mano Blanca death squad since he was 19. "He was a real big fish," said one U.S. official. "The kind of guy who could order a guy killed." By 1990, the DEA had placed "Archie" under surveillance for his smuggling operation. But somebody tipped him off, and soon "Archie" and his confederates rushed to move it 35 miles away across a state line to a rural area of five hamlets known as Los Amates. After "Archie" was arrested in December, his confederates speeded up the move.

According to former subsistence farmers from Los Amates, 32 of whom affixed their thumbprints along with their signatures or marks to a complaint addressed to the DEA, "Archie," along with four Guatemalan army colonels, began threatening people and ordering them to abandon plots of land. Thousands of families lived among the five hamlets of Los Amates, however, and most had roots there going back generations. Many farmers like Celedonio Perez and two other men stubbornly resisted leaving. The three men were captured "by the commander and seven soldiers from the Los Amates military detachment" on Nov. 18, 1990, according to the complaint, and tortured. I later saw a photograph of one victim with a pencil-thin laceration from a wire tourniquet around his neck.

The next month, the DEA arrested "Archie" but none of the above-named military personnel. His arrest gave new urgency to their need to move the operation. On Jan. 19, 1991, Perez was found murdered. The farmers who signed the 1992 complaint say the military killed eight more people, including a mother and son, over the next year. While the military was trying to compel farmers like Perez to flee the land so they could use it, they killed others to cover up what they were planning to use it for.

The complaint to the DEA identifies 67 suspects led by "Archie" and the four army colonels, who, according to the complaint, have built so many clandestine runways throughout Los Amates that they have "converted its five hamlets into warehouses for drugs." At the same time, DEA special agents were beginning to identify Guatemala as the new "bodega" or warehouse of Colombian drug cartels. Colombian law enforcement officials say processed cocaine was arriving by sea as well as by air.

The United States managed to extradite "Archie" to stand trial in U.S. federal court in New York where he was later convicted on the DEA's evidence. But "Archie's" military confederates remained free, part of a pattern of impunity enjoyed by the entire officer corps. "Guatemalan military officers strongly suspected of trafficking in narcotics rarely face criminal prosecution," reported the State Department in 1994. "In most cases, the officers continue on with their suspicious activities."

Take Lt. Col. "Charlie." The military gave him a dishonorable discharge over the DEA's accusations against him, in order to put distance between his name and the institution. But that didn't stop a military tribunal from reclaiming jurisdiction over "Charlie" later and ruling to dismiss the charges for lack of evidence. Rather than try him in Guatemala, the State Department was hoping to extradite him to Florida to be tried. The United States lost the extradition case against "Charlie" three times in Guatemalan courts and appealed it all the way to Guatemala's highest judicial authority, its Constitutional Court.

State Department officials at the time were sanguine that they would win, as the Constitutional Court president, Epaminondas Gonzalez Dubon, was a judge who had already established his independence. In May 1993, when then-President Jorge Serrano declared a "self-coup" and imposed martial law, Judge Gonzalez promptly declared it unconstitutional. The ruling helped galvanize both domestic and White House opposition to the coup. One week later Seranno fled the country and the country's constitutional order was restored.

In March 1994, Judge Gonzalez made an equally independent ruling and signed a Constitutional Court decision declaring "Charlie's" extradition constitutional and circulated it to the court's other judges for their concurring signatures. On April 1, Judge Gonzalez left Guatemala City with his family for an Easter day trip to nearby Antigua. Upon the family's return, four men in a car shot and killed Gonzalez in front of his wife and son. Eleven days later, the surviving judges secretly ruled that "Charlie's" extradition was unconstitutional, and he went free.

His was the DEA's most important test case in Guatemala. DEA special agents, however, learned the hard way that the CIA-backed Guatemalan military was above the law. How did the Clinton administration react to the judge's murder? U.S. Ambassador Marilyn McAfee accepted the Guatemalan government's claim that the judge had been killed in an attempted car-jacking, even though no one tried to steal anything.

American authorities helped Guatemalan authorities cover up any link between the judge's murder and the court's subsequent decision. Only later in the year would Human Rights Watch report that Gonzalez had signed an extradition order for "Charlie" shortly before his murder. Later still, in 1995, I reported that the surviving judges secretly denied his extradition 11 days after it occurred. After I accused Ambassador McAfee, who has long held specialty posts within the U.S. Information Agency, of dropping "Charlie's" case, she issued a press release that finally made the extradition denial public, but made no mention of Judge Gonzalez or his murder.

"Charlie," who was never extradited, went on running drugs. He was arrested again in 1997 in a Guatemalan sting operation, this time with 30 kilos of cocaine. But "Charlie" managed to get off free yet again in Guatemala, even though he remains wanted by a U.S. federal grand jury in Tampa, Fla., over 500 kilograms of DEA-seized cocaine.

By Frank Smyth

Freelance journalist Frank Smyth covered the post-Gulf War Kurdish rebellion from northern Iraq for the Village Voice, the Economist and CBS News.

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Crime Drugs Latin America United Nations U.s. Military