Central America: On the Brink of a New War?

01 April 1997

The possibilities of a lasting peace in the region are placed in doubt by a new and silent war: one unleashed against drug trafficking, and in which the role of the region's armed forces remains unclear.

When the government of Guatemala and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) signed the Firm and Lasting Peace Accord on December 29 Central America formally entered a postwar era that was first envisioned 10 years ago with the signing of the regional accord known as Esquipulas II. Nevertheless, the possibilities of a lasting peace in the region are placed in doubt by a new and silent war: one unleashed against drug trafficking, and in which the role of the region's armed forces remains unclear.

The drums of the new conflict

One can get a sense of this new conflict by reading the local newspapers. Entire pages are dedicated to news and feature articles regarding drug arrests, seizures and large-scale, anti-narcotics police operations. Up until now, few have paused to consider the implications of the new conflict in terms of efforts at demilitarization, a process that began in the isthmus in 1987 with Esquipulas II. However, public concerns regarding the issue are beginning to surface. An example of this is a column published on January 10 in the Guatemalan daily Siglo Veintiuno, written by Mario Roberto Morales.

In his column, Morales comments on an article written by New York Times correspondent Larry Rohter, published 10 days earlier. Both writers go to the heart of the matter, and even though their opinions regard Guatemala, their argument can be extended to the rest of the region: With the conclusion of the internal armed conflict, the country is faced with the possibility of involvement in yet another war inspired by the United States.

The major achievement of having disarmed the guerrillas and having removed the army from the State should not be put at risk by diving into this new North American war, warns Morales, who suggests that the Central American countries can condition and limit their collabration in this {war}, in order to avoid placing in danger the still weak civil power and the democratic achievements reached after the debacle of the 1980s.

Rohter considers that the signing of the peace accords in Guatemala ended one of the most ignominious chapters in US foreign policy. However, while the Guatemalans were celebrating the end of their national tragedy, the Drug Enforcement Agency was apparently recruiting the country's leaders for another campaign inspired by the US.

In spite of the US authorities' full knowledge of the involvement of Guatemalan military in the assassination of US citizens, the US government persists in the idea of using the country's armed forces in the new crusade.

The short-sightedness of the US government during the Cold War brought to an end Guatemalan democracy in 1954, and this mistake is being repeated in 1996, warns scholar Jennifer Schirmer, cited by Rohter regarding the involvement of the military in combatting drug trafficking.

The US foreign policy advisers, says Schirmer, in the end do not understand that their presence, demands and pressures continue undermining... this fragile and incipient democracy.

A mission in crisis.

A principal component in the effort to achieve regional involvement in the US crusade against drug trafficking is the well-known geo-political fatalism, in which the foreign policy agendas of the region's governments must dovetail with those determined in Washington D.C. This is a key part of the story, but not the only one. There are also the crises facing the Central American armies, following the end of the Cold War and the conclusion of the peace accords in those countries in which the East-West confrontation was expressed with low-intensity conflicts.

In Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, a central theme of discussion is the new roles of the armed forces, accompanied by an extensive citizen interest in making sure that civilian control prevails over military institutions.

The Guatemalan case is paradigmatic: The mission of the Guatemalan Army is defined as the defense of the country's sovereignty and the integrity of its territory; it will not be assigned other functions and its participation in other fields will be limited to tasks of cooperation, reads the Accord on Strengthening Civil Power and the Role of the Army in a Democratic Society, signed by the government of President Alvaro Arzú and the URNG on September 19, 1996.

Between this conceptual definition and its application in practice, however, exists a broad margin for interpretation that could include, if chosen, the combat against drug trafficking as part of the defense of sovereignty.

In fact, this is the broad interpretation given by President Arzú, during a graduation ceremony for the Kaibil Special Forces last December 5, when he described the battle against drug activity as one of the army's tasks.

Today, this new army of peace will face a new enemy probably much more powerful than that which we faced during these years, since we are dealing with drug traffickers and delinquents who want to desetroy this country, said Arzú at El Infierno (Hell Camp) counterinsurgency training base in the northern Petén department, before dozens of officer and recently graduated Kaibil soldiers.

The new enemy, which is no longer defined as either foreign or domestic, as in the terminology of the recent past, is better armed, equipped and trained, than the guerrilla forces of the URNG.

It could be argued that the language used by the president was adapted to the nature of his audience, as is often the case. What cannot be denied, however, is the fact that, in the words of the president, a position is now being taken regarding a theme whose debate will become increasingly heated in the near future. In fact, the above-cited accord between the URNG and the government left pending the definition of a new doctrine for the armed forces.

A new military doctrine must be formulated, according to the reforms foreseen in the current Accord. The doctrine will be oriented toward the respect of the Political Constitution of the Republic, human rights, international instruments ratified by Gutemala in military matters, to the defense of sovereignty and national independence, to the integrity of the country's territory, and to the spirit of the Firm and Lasting Peace Accords, reads the accord concerning the military's future role.

The president's speech reflects what is being discussed in the upper echelons: what will the army's mission be in the post-war era? Will the war against drug trafficking be part of its mission? From his statements, it can be deduced that the president is in favor of an affirmative answer to the second question, and in fact is moving forward in resolving the first.

Nevertheless, the issues have yet to be resolved, and their outcome will depend on the government's interpretation of the spirit of the accords, above all since in the recent past the very military apparatus used in counterinsurgency efforts constituted a substantial source of support for the operations in Guatemala carried out by the DEA. (1)

Meanwhile, the redefinition of the role of the army in Guatemala, including its eventual involvement in the war against drug trafficking, takes place in a new context, following the end of the armed conflict. During 1997 a reduction of 16,000 members is scheduled and there is even discussion of the possibility of naming a civilian to head the ministry of Defense.

Beyond historic barriers

In Arzú's speech to the Kaibils, an underlying assumption justifies the employment of the military in the battle against drugtrafficking: the enemy is a force more powerful than the leftist insurgency. This is an argument that seeks justification, in Guatemala as in the rest of Central America, in the increase in drug trafficking, reflected increasingly in press reports.

Nicaragua is a good case in point. (2) More than in any other country on the isthmus, in Nicaragua the armed forces' role in the war against drug trafficking is considered a natural function. Thus, in the debate regarding the creation of a Defense Ministry, headed by a civilian under the new government presided by ArnoldoAlemán, the head of the National Army, Gen. Joaquin Cuadra, did not hesitate to mention that the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua is increasingly being used by international drug traffickers, and that therefore sufficient resources are required by the Armed Forces for combating this crime.

But there is more. In what would have been unthinkable only a few years ago, the ex-Sandinista Army works in close cooperation with the DEA, carrying out a major joint operation in late 1996 along the Atlantic coast. Operations such as that one seek to exert control over Colombian drug traffickers who use the San Andrés islands - between Colombia and Nicaragua - for transshipping drugs toward the United States.

The Nicaraguan military has obviously found in the drug war an argument that justifies the institution, in a country where, as a result of its recent history, conservative expressions of civilian power have aimed at suppressing the armed institution, which was considered a bastion of Sandinismo in the State. Paradoxically, the military's efficincy in this new mission is supported by a US agency: the DEA.

In this way, the new antinarcotics crusade brings together those who not very long ago were at odds, and sets aside the historic barriers, all in benefit of the geopolitical interests of one and the need to overcome the crisis of mission of the others.

From bridge to warehouse to consumer

Judging from the press reports, both the civilian and the military authorities in the region have had little success in fighting drug trafficking, especially in the area of interdiction. According to a report by the AFP news agency, published in the major newspapers in the region late last year, Central America is a consolidated bridge for drugs between South America and the United States and Europe.

Utilizing figures from the Central American police agencies as a source, AFP reports that last year more than 50 tons of marijuana and almost 20 tons of cocaine were seized in six countries in the region.

The report reveals also that the region, aside from becoming a bridge, has also become a warehouse and a growing local market 2for narcotics.

In response to the military and police efforts, the traffickers constantly innovate their methods of transporting drugs. Drugs are shipped in trailers, boats, vehicles with double linings, as well as in light-weight, high-powered motor boats, and luxury planes and the so-called human mules who transport the drug inside or on their bodies.

According to the AFP report, Panama is the principal center of operations for narcotraffickers, corroborated by the large amount of drugs seized there in 1996. As a drug center, Panama is followed, in order of importance, by Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Among the other drug-related phenomena is the growing infiltration of narco-dollars in politics, and the laundering of drug money by means of private businesses.

Nevertheless, these are only some of the most notable problems facing authorities in each country. There is also the leaking of information from the agencies in charge of coordinating raids against drug trafficking bands. In Guatemala, these leaks are common, according to authorities from the Treasury Police, whose Department of Anti-narcotics Operations (DOAN in Spanish), has been affected by recurring cases of failed raids throughout the country.

For example, on November 14, an operation was carried out in the El Gallito neighborhood in the capital, although not one important drug distributor in the area were captured. Two weeks later, on November 29, the DEA carried out an operation in the southern town of Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa, without DOAN's participation, and captured 200 kilograms of cocaine that were being transported in a hidden compartment in a tractor-trailer.

The rise of local drug trafficking organizations, has coincided with the increase in local drug consumption, especially cocaine, which has become a new challenge for authorities in charge of combatting drug trafficking as well as for those concerned with the impact of drug use on the region's societies.

The sources consulted for this report coincide in pointing out that to a certain degree, the increase in cocaine consumption in the region is linked to the payment in kind by the drug cartels, in which cocaine is paid to transporters for their services, thus promoting the drug in the regional market.

The effects of regional coordination

The meager results obtained in battling narcotrafficking in recent years have led authorities to conclude that a key obstacle to their efforts is the lack of effective legislation, and the differences in drug-related laws from one country to another in the region. In El Salvador and Nicaragua, for example, money laundering is not a crime, while it is considered an offense in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama and Honduras.

Nevertheless, efforts are underway to unify drug-related legislation. These regional initiatives include meeings of attorney generals, congressional deputies, executive branch authorities and regional authorities, who are seeking ways to define and promote a plan to respond to the crimes of drug trafficking and vehicle robberies, among other criminal activities.

In December of 1996 vice chancellors, police chiefs and directors of police academies, members of the Central American Security Commission, all met in San José, Costa Rica, to promote the creation of the Central American Institute for Advanced Police Studies. This center aims at achieving the professionalization and training of police forces in the region.

Members of the commission requested that the Council of Central American foreign ministers pressure their presidents to seek means of coordinating initiatives in security matters. According to the meeting's participants, this is considered critical to eradicating the impunity in which international drug trafficking operates in the region.

At the same time, Guatemalan Vice President Luis Flores Asturias publicly proposed that drugs confiscated in Guatemala be handed over to the US in return for funds to combat drug trafficking. The proposal was well received by some but also was seriously criticized by those who believe that the initiative would be illegal, since the transaction of drugs even between governments would be illegal trade. They recommend other means of seeking US support for combatting the drug trade.

Flores Asturias is in charge of national policy in combatting drug trafficking. His proposal may soon be considered before the National Congress, where the official Party of National Advancement (PAN) has a majority.

America: Drug seizures (in kilograms) and arrests, 1996





















Costa Rica










El Salvador










Source: AFP.


1. The ties between the DEA and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the high-level officers in the Guatemalan military involved in the dirty war is an important chapter in the recent history of the Guatemalan conflict. Details of this history have only begun to be made public, largely from the revelations by Celerino Castillo III, an ex-agent of the DEA based in Guatemala between 1985 and 1990. The DEA has worked specifically with theD-2 (military intelligence) in the majority of operations in Guatemala, says a report sent by Castillo in June 1996 to the US government Intelligence Oversight Board. In the document Castillo says that this collaboration was agreed to by the US embassy in Guatemala and the DEA, due to the fact that the D-2 (known also in Guatemala as the G-2), controls all of the surveillance apparatus in Guatemala.
2. According to a preliminary report of the Nicaraguan National Army, in 1996 the military's principal missions were: the protection of natural resources, civil defense in disasters provoked by natural phenomena, protection of the communications infrastructure, and the detention of those who violate borders, a category that included, without distinction, drug traffickers and undocumented migrants.