From the archives: Guatemala Seen Slipping Into a Haven for Drugs

GUATEMALA CITY -- Late in the afternoon of Aug. 1, a car carrying two men and a large green canvas suitcase was waved through security checkpoints directly onto the tarmac of La Aurora airport, where a commercial jet was being loaded for a flight to Miami. The men worked for the chief of Guatemala's anti-corruption office--but the suitcase contained 55 pounds of cocaine.

Acting with the assurance that comes naturally to high-level government officials, the men ordered the baggage crew to load the suitcase onto the plane.

However, a nearby airline official alerted members of an American-trained anti-drug unit stationed at the airport, who halted the loading, confiscated the cocaine and arrested one man. The other escaped.

On the surface, it was a victory--albeit a small one--in the effort to prevent Guatemala from slipping into the morass of drug-related corruption and violence.

"It's very scary," said one foreign drug expert, who requested anonymity. "It wouldn't take much to buy some of these people (Guatemalan officials). It is something that could happen very easily."

Moreover, a Western diplomat added, "All the elements of Colombia are here: violence, instability, an alienated population, poverty."

In fact, the aftermath of the seizure indicates that Central America's largest country already is suffering from the narcotics rot that is engulfing Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Panama.

American and Guatemalan officials say well over 4,500 acres in the country's mountains and jungles are planted in amapola, as the poppies used to produce heroin are called here. That figure is twice last year's estimate and continues to grow so fast that opium production outstrips the production of marijuana, Guatemala's traditional drug crop. The American street value of Guatemalan-produced heroin ranges from $2 billion to $5 billion, experts estimate.

"As it stands, 60% of the American demand for heroin could be supplied from here," one diplomat observed.

Beyond the home-grown production of opium, Guatemala is now a major transshipment point for South American-produced cocaine destined for the United States.

Each week, up to 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds) of cocaine is shipped through Guatemala, nearly all to the United States, according to foreign diplomats and drug experts.

And while 4,000 kilos of the drug have been seized here this year by Guatemalan police and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, "obviously most get through," conceded one expert, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Foreign drug experts say that until now, nearly all the production and shipment of Guatemalan cocaine have been controlled by the drug cartels operating out of the Colombian cities of Medellin and Cali. "The Colombians know where to invest money," one drug specialist said.

However, he says, Guatemalans increasingly are getting into the business.

The incident at La Aurora is cited as an example of that growth and as a measure of how high the resulting corruption has reached into the government.

The man arrested was Jose Fernando Minero Navas, a close associate of Col. Hugo Francisco Moran Carranza, at the time director of the Administrative Control Department, President Vinicio Cerezo's anti-corruption office.

Although Moran told local journalists that the airport arrest would be investigated, he defended Minero Navas as "one of the most efficient employees of this office, and I give him total confidence."

Later, the investigation was stopped, and Moran resigned. But he remains a close associate of Cerezo, according to some sources.

More alarming than the aborted investigation have been the actions taken against the Guatemalan police who carried out the arrest and seizure. One was shot and killed on the street, while the others received death threats and have gone into hiding.

In spite of the statistics, the seizures and the reputed involvement of ranking military and government officials in drug trafficking, some diplomats and others say corruption is still limited to individuals and has not yet infested national institutions.

Guatemalan military intelligence officers are described as working fully and closely with the local U.S. DEA office, a small, underfinanced operation of four Americans who have to cover Belize and El Salvador as well as Guatemala.

"We have done a lot of things here that couldn't have been done without (Guatemalan) military intelligence," said one source, adding, "Military police have been very cooperative and really do have an interest in getting to these people (drug traffickers)."

Nonetheless, the signs indicate that the narcotics problem has reached serious proportions.

The same source who praised military intelligence and police cooperation said that "the army is very vulnerable to corruption, particularly zone commanders."

Associate of Candidate

One commander alleged by Guatemalan sources to be involved is Gen. Roberto Matta, a close associate of Alfonso Cabrera Hidalgo, the odds-on favorite to be elected president in next year's election and a protege of Gen. Hector Alejandro Gramajo, the army chief of staff.

Although diplomats and drug enforcement experts consider Gramajo a major asset in the anti-drug effort, he is expected to support Matta as his successor as head of the military.

Accusations of trafficking have even reached into the highest levels of government and politics. Cabrera is the subject of constant rumors and charges of involvement in the cocaine business.

He denies the charges and says a DEA investigation has cleared him, but drug agency sources in Washington said Cabrera has not been investigated directly. When asked if the potential president was considered clean of any drug involvement, one source replied, "We haven't cleared him."

Even diplomats who say there is no evidence that Cabrera is personally immersed in narcotic trafficking said that his image is poor. "He hangs around with known rotten apples," one diplomat said.

And while no one has produced evidence of any connection with cocaine trafficking, two Guatemalan police sources and other experts indicated that Cabrera used his authority to cover up the drug activity of one of his brothers.

One brother, Vinicio Cabrera, was convicted in 1984 of possession of 10 kilos of cocaine when arrested in January of that year at the Miami airport. Cabrera acknowledged Vinicio's guilt but says there is no truth to charges that another brother, Carlos, was involved in a June, 1988, plot to transship 54 kilos of cocaine from Panama to the United States.

Local and foreign sources say Carlos Cabrera had given a man named Eric A. Ralda baggage claim checks to recover two suitcases containing the cocaine. Ralda was arrested when he tried to pick up the bags, which had been monitored on their flight from Panama.

The sources said Ralda confessed and implicated Carlos Cabrera, who also allegedly was seen by a witness standing on a balcony overlooking the baggage claim area when the suitcases arrived.

According to the sources, Ralda was released two days after his arrest, the investigation was canceled and Cerezo's aides deny the incident ever took place.

Sources said the apparent reason for the acceptance by otherwise uninvolved government and military officials was to shore up the increasingly unstable Cerezo administration.

"The airport incident took place six weeks after the coup attempt," said one congressional deputy, referring to a May 9 attempt by some army units to overthrow the Cerezo regime. "There apparently was concern that an investigation into the brother of the foreign minister would destroy what little support existed for the government, so the investigation was called off and, for all intents and purposes, we pretend it didn't happen."