Guatemala: A Losing Battle in the War on Drugs?

Last month U.S. Marines hit the ground in Guatemala to help the government fight narcotraffickers. But is it all for naught? Mac Margolis reports.

U.S. Marine Corps / AP Photo

When 200 U.S. Marines hit the ground in Guatemala late last month, analysts from across the political spectrum suddenly became shrill. In the U.S., conservatives denounced the move as unconstitutional, arguing that President Obama neglected to seek proper congressional authorization for intervention. Meanwhile, Guatemalan civic groups worry that the presence of U.S. troops could once again stoke repression at home.

Officially the Marines were part of Operation Hammer, a surgical action designed to help a hemispheric ally fight a losing battle in war on drugs. But who could forget one of the last times the U.S. stuck its boots in that Central American tar pit? That was 1954, when democratically elected President Jacobo Árbenz was overthrown by the military, with a push from the CIA. The coup ushered in decades of strife and eventually a civil war that would last 36 years and leave 200,000 dead.

Half a century on, it’s not Cold War ideology but organized crime that’s driving Washington’s return to Guatemala, and the mission is every bit as dire. In recent years, drug traffickers have spread their franchises throughout Central America, turning this narrow neck of land between North and South America into a killing ground.

Reportedly at the request of Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, a former Army commander who made his name fighting Marxist guerrillas, the U.S. troops will provide surveillance on land and sea, while four Marine choppers will scour the Guatemalan coastline for outlaws. Though limited to a noncombatant role, the Marines arrived in Guatemala fully armed. Whether their presence will make a difference or signals a major shift in Washington’s strategy to combat crime and cocaine in the Western Hemisphere are still very large open questions.

Clearly, however, something had to be done. As the drug cartels from Mexico have widened their reach, violence and drugs have swept the Central American isthmus, the corridor for nearly 90 percent of the 700 metric tons of cocaine entering the United States, according to a U.S. State Department report. This drug corridor has turned Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala into some of the most violent places on earth. In 2010, the last year for which reliable statistics are available, Guatemala logged 41 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants, the third-worst murder rate in Central America.

“Guatemala has become a paradise for criminals, who have little to fear from prosecutors owing to high levels of impunity,” warned the International Crisis Group, an independent research and policy advocacy organization, in a June 2010 report.

Enter Operation Hammer, which is being led by U.S. Southern Command. “Thousands of their citizens are being murdered,” Coast Guard Rear Adm. Charles D. Michel, the task-force commander, recently said in an interview with the official Armed Forces press service. “Government officials are being corrupted. Institutions are being rotted from the inside out. Portions of their territory are no longer effectively under their control. That is instability ... And that is a national-security threat, right in our backyard.”

Pressing as the mission sounds, U.S. boots on the ground in yet another foreign venue have provoked partisan criticism in the U.S. “With the elections approaching, it’s inevitable that this initiative will be seen through the lens of electoral politics,” says Michael Shifter, an analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue, a D.C.-based think tank. “The Obama administration is trying to show that the government is tough on crime and drugs while the Republicans complain that the White House is not respecting the norms.”

But the more pressing doubt hovering over the Marines in Guatemala may be drawing fewer soundbites. Is this an example of a clearly defined change in U.S. strategy to fight crime and drugs in its hemisphere? Or is it one more improvisation in a script of neglect and attention deficit in Washington?

“Sometimes these operations can be successful, but they have to be well thought out and part of an overall strategy, coordinated with regional allies,” says Shifter. “So far I don’t see that this is happening.”

With the Middle East in flames, the crisis in Europe continuing, and the sluggish global economy showing little sign of improvement, it might be folly to expect a game-changing plan in the war on drugs. It wouldn’t be the first time Latin America has befallen Washington’s policy drift—and once again the narcos may the ones who benefit.