Positioned at the midpoint between narcotics producers in South America and U.S. consumers, Guatemala has become a major hub for overland drug trafficking. Violence and corruption, byproducts of the drug trade, pose a major challenge to Guatemala's nascent democratic institutions, and call into question the government's capacity to protect its citizens.
The torrent of narcotics, weapons and foreign money flowing through Guatemala's borders complicates the ongoing process of democratic state-building. Wealthy and well-armed cartels take advantage of Guatemala's weak police and judiciary systems, bribing and threatening judges, prosecutors, bureaucrats and police officers. Cartels also influence electoral outcomes via campaign contributions to pliable candidates. In a recent report, Drug Trafficking and Violence, Crisis Group reported that at least some government officials have cooperated with organized crime, particularly on the local level.
Widespread poverty and marginalization among Guatemala's indigenous communities exacerbates the country's vulnerability to traffickers. High unemployment and poor social services create an ample pool of cheap, disposable labor for gangs and cartels. While Guatemala's economy is expanding steadily, the state must intervene to ensure that the benefits of this growth reach people in rural areas, especially youth.
Guatemala has taken some recent steps to shore up its institutions against the influence of traffickers, including prosecuting corrupt officials with the help of the International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG). Most of Guatemala's major politicians pay lip service to anti-trafficking reforms, but fundamental reforms have yet to take place. Whoever wins the 6 November second round of the presidential race, a first test will be whether they support the anti-corruption efforts of Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, the work of Helen Mack and national police reform and the CICIG. Guatemala must act more vigorously to strengthen its law enforcement and legal institutions to combat the corrupt and violent influence of drug cartels and organized crime. The more time they have to deepen their social roots, the harder cartels will be to eradicate and the greater danger they will pose to Guatemala's future.
But the onus does not lie only with Guatemala. As the primary market for narcotics trafficked through Central America, the United States must do more to combat domestic drug consumption, and offer serious assistance to the Guatemalan government in its efforts to keep the drug trade at bay.
I spoke with Mark Schneider, Crisis Group's Senior Vice President and Special Advisor on Latin America, about how Guatemala can roll back the growing threat of drug-related violence and corruption. Listen to our conversation below.