U.N.: Latin America Needs International Support to Confront Drug Cartels

Guatemala and other Central American nations need urgent international help to confront the increasingly dangerous presence of Mexican and Colombian drug cartels, the head of a U.N.-backed commission investigating organized crime in Guatemala said Tuesday.

"Latin America has no time," U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Carlos Castresana warned. "This is a situation of emergency."

Mexican drug cartels are increasingly using Central American nations to move drugs, and are dealing directly with Colombian cartels to obtain cocaine, which is also produced in Peru and Bolivia. Guatemala, with a lightly populated 950 kilometer (590 mile) border with Mexico, has become an especially important transit point for cocaine headed north to the United States.

"The presence of the Mexican cartels, the Colombian cartels, in Guatemala territory is increasingly dangerous," Castresana said.

He said countries which suffered from armed conflict like Guatemala, which was engulfed in civil war from 1960 to 1996, have "weak institutions (and) even with the best possible will of the members of the government ... they need to be helped by the international community" to confront and prosecute the drug traffickers.

"If they are left alone, clearly they are unable to do the job by themselves," Castresana said.

The situation in Guatemala is "much worse" compared to Costa Rica or Panama, he said, "but Honduras and El Salvador are in a very similar situation" because they have organized crime and juvenile gangs that are very dangerous.

What makes the situation in Guatemala worse, however, is that after the civil war ended, the peace agreement that was signed did not succeed in dismantling clandestine groups that permeated every institution in the country, Castresana said.

After 1992 peace accords ended El Salvador's bloody civil war, "those groups were, in fact, dismantled — and in Guatemala (they) were not, so they have become (involved in) organized crime," he said.

"The difference today is that in El Salvador, not being a perfect country, you have a response of the judiciary in 50 percent of cases, and in Guatemala in 2 percent of cases. So there is a difference — not in the criminal activity, but in the response of authorities," Castresana said.

The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, which he heads, began operating in January 2008 under an agreement between the U.N. and the government to investigate and dismantle violent criminal organizations believed responsible for widespread crime and paralysis of the country's justice system. It can carry out independent investigations and help Guatemalan authorities prosecute cases in their courts.

Even though Guatemala faces the worst drug problem in Central America, he said, "you could imagine that all the countries we are mentioning are candidates to have a commission to help them to (confront) organized crime."

Castresana said the Guatemala commission has about 20 investigations taking place at the moment and is proceeding with local officials to prosecute four cases, including a drug gang shootout in Zacapa, the police kidnapping of children, and corruption in the justice ministry.

What Guatemala's justice system needs most, he said, is a high-security court in Guatemala City to prosecute "transnational criminals" because witnesses and court officials need protection which is unavailable in local or national courts.

The United States and several European countries have offered to modify a building to improve security, and with recent approval from the Supreme Court, Castresana said he hopes such a court can start operating "in a few months time."