The Dea, CIA, DoD, & Narcotrafficking


U.S. Military and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) are
at it again, this time in Guatemala. The State Department’s
recently released 2003 International Narcotics Control Strategy
Report states that Guatemala has become “the preferred Central
American staging point for cocaine shipments northwards to Mexico
and the United States.” That Guatemala is a major transport
route for illegal drugs is nothing new and neither is the DEA’s
presence here. However, what is new and troubling is the U.S. government’s
recent overtures of military aid towards Guatemala and the reimplementation
of Plan Mayan Jaguar, a joint DEA-Department of Defens

project that sets no limit on the number of U.S. military and DEA
personnel that could be deployed in Guatemala on joint anti-narcotrafficking
operations. Add to this the familiar irony that many of the drug
kingpins in the country benefited from previous trainings by either
the DEA or the CIA and all the pieces are in place for more chaos
and disaster in this latest chapter in the war on drugs. 

than two years ago, Plan Mayan Jaguar was put on ice due to what
the State Department termed “corruption in Guatemala’s
special counternarcotics force, within the National Civil Police
and…threats against human rights workers.” A month later,
Otto Reich, assistant secretary of state for Latin American Affairs,
further lambasted the government of Guatemala, pointedly stating,
“Retired military officials, linked to violent organized crime,
have significant influence within the armed forces, the police,
the Executive powers, and the Judiciary.” These criticisms
are all the more pointed, given that Otto Reich, who directed the
State Departments Office for Public Diplomacy during the height
of the Iran-contra scandal, is no liberal-leaning diplomat. Reich
also cited a report by Minugua, the United Nations presence in Guatemala,
that referred to “growing indications” of links between
the police, the Public Ministry, military intelligence, and clandestine
groups that “operate with impunity” in the country. 

human rights organizations and international analysts believe that
these clandestine groups work at the behest of a hidden power structure,
made up of former military, business leaders, drug tycoons, and
politicians. According to a report by the Washington Office on Latin
Affairs, this power structure uses the appearance of democracy within
Guatemala as a façade behind which to order the intimidation
and occasional execution of journalists, activists, and other members
of civil society. Amnesty International put it best when they referred
to Guatemala as a Corporate Mafia State. Terrorizing activists and
buying the judiciary accomplishes their goal of total impunity and
allows this group of people to make a fortune while, according to
the United Nations, over 80 percent of the population lives in poverty. 

role does the DEA and the U.S. military have to play in this debacle?
During the 1980s, the U.S. military and the CIA played an active
support role in Guatemala’s transition from military to civilian
rule. This transition was orchestrated by the Guatemalan military
seeking to maintain power behind the scenes while creating a sense
of legitimacy for the Guatemalan government through the appearance
of democracy. The Guatemalan military was aided in this project
by U.S. agencies whose main objective was not to do anything about
the Guatemalan military’s continuing human rights abuses, but
rather to “professionalize” the force. This idea of creating
an efficient, though not necessarily just, military apparatus and
later police force, was taken up by the DEA in its attempts to control
the flow of drugs through the country. This desire for efficiency
led the DEA, the CIA, and the DoD to collaborate with the country’s
military intelligence, a move that proved to be the equivalent of
striking a deal with the devil. The criminal element in the country’s
military intelligence—a Guatemalan institution that has excelled
in the art of forced disappearance, torture, and assassination—used
the support of these U.S. agencies to their own benefit, becoming
heads of narcotrafficking cartels and key players in the hidden
network that is the real power in Guatemala. 

power dynamic had become so entrenched and the government’s
relationship with narcotrafficking so obvious that at the beginning
of 2003 the U.S. government decertified Guatemala as a country active
in the fight against drug trafficking. Plan Mayan Jaguar appeared
to be suspended indefinitely and even the continuation of a type
of military aid known as Expanded IMET seemed to be in jeopardy.
Guatemalan human rights activists cheered the move as a condemnation
of the country’s rampant corruption and deteriorating human
rights situation. But the decertification lasted less than a year.
By September 2003, Plan Mayan Jaguar was back on track. By February
2004, the Guatemalan Congress broadened the mandate of Plan Mayan
Jaguar to allow more U.S. troops in Guatemala to conduct joint counternarcotraffic
patrols with Guatemalan officials, a move that was opposed by some
Guatemalan politicians who see the plan as a threat to Guatemalan

what changed in Guatemala to drastically alter the U.S. government’s
official stance? Not much. Sure, there was an election that replaced
pro-military President Portillo with pro-business President Berger.
But this change is in many ways cosmetic, as the behind-the-scenes
power structure in Guatemala remains in place. Also, Guatemala’s
re-certification and the re-implementation of Plan Mayan Jaguar
happened before the Portillo regime left office. The explanation
lies in Guatemala’s strategic position in the larger war on

Mayan Jaguar fits in the strategy of Operation Central Skies. Coupled
with Plan Colombia, a billion dollar program designed to stop drug
production “at the source” (i.e., in the South American
Andes region), Operation Central Skies, with a smaller, though still
significant, operating budget, is an attempt to stop the inflow
of these same South American drugs through Central America, Mexico,
and on into the United States. Operation Central Skies, administered
by the U.S. Department of Defense, began in 1998 as a means to provide
military aid, primarily in the form of helicopters and personnel,
to various Central American governments for use in anti-narcotrafficking
operations. Guatemala has participated in Operation Central Skies
“deployments,” as have security forces from Costa Rica,
Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras. Several officers have been trained
under the auspices of Operation Central Skies, many in the School
of the Americas. 

security forces have been denied full admission to the School of
the Americas due to their atrocious human rights records and indices
of corruption. This is highly ironic, as, during the Cold War, administrators
of the School of the Americas trained the Guatemalan military intelligence
in the polarizing “us- against-them” mind-set that served
as a justification for Guatemala’s notorious record of human
rights abuse. However, Guatemalans can still attend partial U.S.
military training through a program called Expanded International
Military Education and Training program (E-IMET). Officials at the
U.S. Department of Defense justifiy their actions by saying that
these training courses will create a more professional military,
thus strengthening Guatemala’s democracy. This claim is doubtful. 

CIA was involved in attempts in the late 1980s and early 1990s to
“professionalize” the military intelligence apparatus,
which is believed to be responsible for the majority of human rights
abuses throughout the civil war and up to the present day. CIA support
enabled Guatemala to construct a new military intelligence academy
in the capital and provide intelligence gathering technology to
intelligence services. The goal of these attempts at professionalization
was not to confront the atrocious human rights abuses and criminal
mentality possessed by the military intelligence services, but to
increase their efficiency. This was a dangerous policy, as, even
at that time, Guatemalan Minister of Defense Gramajo acknowledged
that the intelligence services were “out of control,”
operating with their own mandate often against the wishes of the
military hierarchy or the civilian government. 

that time, the situation has only grown worse, as key players in
the intelligence services have allegedly become the heads of organized
crime. One example is retired General Luis Francisco Ortega Menaldo,
who has been described as “the most powerful man in Guatemala.”
Ortega Menaldo had an illustrious history in military intelligence
during the Lucas regime in Guatemala (1978-1982). Working in a military
intelligence office within the Ministry of Public Finance, Ortega
Menaldo was responsible for detecting suspicious shipments likely
meant for the left-wing guerrillas. In this capacity he allegedly
held shipment containers hostage at the borders, forcing the owners
to pay an informal “tax” to release their goods. By the
time he was appointed as head of the elite military intelligence
unit in the country, the Estado Mayor Presidencial (EMP) in 1991,
he was already involved in narcotics trafficking and was in the
center of a highly evolved criminal network. At this point in his
career, he came into contact with the DEA, which was working closely
with military intelligence officials to coordinate anti-narcotrafficking
operations. According to Jose Reubén Zamora, a Guatemalan journalist,
Ortega Menaldo and his associates were able to use this contact
to their own benefit, expanding their criminal network with impunity. 

Menaldo retired in 1996, when a close colleague of his, Alfredo
Moreno Molina, long suspected of being involved in drug trafficking,
was arrested for tax fraud, falsification of documents, and illicit
enrichment. Ortega Menaldo was himself investigated for possible
links to organized crime two weeks after the United States government
suspended his visa in 2002 on the grounds of his suspected links
to narcotics trafficking. Also under investigation for involvement
in narcotics trafficking was retired Colonel Jacobo Esdras Salán
Sanchez, another member of Guatemala’s military intelligence
and a graduate of the School of the Americas. Salán Sanchez
also worked closely with the DEA, a relationship that ended badly
when the DEA accused him of stealing confiscated drugs. Despite
their now rocky relationship with the U.S. government, Ortega Menaldo
and Salán Sanchez apparently continue to profit from their
one-time patrons, the CIA and DEA. Guatemalan media reports speculate
that much of the fancy gadgetry the CIA provided the Guatemalan
military intelligence in the early 1990s has been used by Ortega
Menaldo and his colleagues to spy on rival cartels and intimidate
the judges and prosecutors who were charged with bringing them to

the corrupt nature of the Guatemalan judiciary system, Moreno Molino,
Salán Sanchez, and Ortega Menaldo have been cleared of any
wrong doing. Moreno Molino was absolved by Judge Ruiz Wong of the
Tenth Court of Appeals, who had himself been implicated in Moreno
Molino’s criminal network. The investigation of Ortega Menaldo
was called a “clown show” by Iduvina Hernandez of the
Guatemalan NGO SEDEM. She stated, “This trial seems like a
show that will only put at risk whatever judge seeks to follow through
on the case.” After a year of haphazard investigation, during
which the chief prosecutor was shot at by unknown assailants, Ortega
Menaldo was also cleared of any links to organized crime. By the
mid-1990s, the DEA must have realized that using Guatemala’s
military intelligence services to uphold the law was impossible.
The DEA shifted its focus to developing an anti-narcotics squad
within the National Civil Police. In a fact sheet prepared by the
U.S. Embassy in Guatemala, the DEA is said to be training and financing
Guatemala’s anti-narcotics programs. The DEA “provided
the impetus for the establishment of the elite counternarcotics
force, the Department of Antinarcotics Operations (DOAN). Today
(1996), the DOAN has various specialized counter- narcotics units
that are equipped and trained” by the DEA. Unfortunately, though
not surprisingly, the DOAN had to be completely disbanded in 2002
due to rampant corruption and cooperation with the drug cartels
they were supposed to be investigating. 

of the blame for the continued miscalculation of the DEA, in concert
with the DoD and the CIA, is a flawed oversight system and the overt
optimistic, often misleading reports that these organizations make
to themselves. In the 1999 International Narcotics Control Strategy
Report, the State Department commends the government of Guatemala
for “working, with USG (United States Government) assistance
to develop effective integrated law enforcement and counternarcotics
training programs to improve the quality of this small elite force
(the DOAN).” The 2003 report skips over the complete failure
of the DOAN and credits the formation of the Antinarcotics Information
and Analysis Service (SAIS) as one of the greatest advances in the
Guatemalan war on drugs. The report overlooks the fact that the
SAIS is beset by the exact same corruption and abuse of authority
problems as its predecessor. One of Guatemala’s national newspapers,



, reports that in its one year of existence,
the SAIA has been accused of torture, illegal detentions, robbery
of drugs, and assassination. 

State Department isn’t the only federal department analyzing
Central America through rose-tinted glasses. In his 2000 testimony
before the House Appropriations Committee, James Bodner, principal
deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, makes the extraordinary
claim that full IMET funding should be extended to Guatemala because
of the “Guatemalan military’s vigorous efforts to comply
with the Peace Accords” and the “strong support”
President Portillo had demonstrated for “respecting human rights.”
There aren’t enough words in the English language to convey
the utter falseness of these two claims. The Peace Accords were
signed in 1996 between representatives of the Guatemalan government
and leftist guerrilla groups. They were a comprehensive agreement
outlining plans for everything from civilian control of the military
to land reform to indigenous language rights. The Peace Accords
remain unimplemented and human rights activists, international observers,
and even representatives of the State Department lay the blame with
certain members of the Guatemalan military. As for Bodner’s
analysis of the Portillo regime, perhaps he can be forgiven, since
at the time of his testimony Portillo’s government had not
yet proven itself to be the most corrupt in the modern history of
Guatemala, sponsoring a wave of political violence that would rip
through the country in 2002 and 2003. 

these destructively optimistic reviews of the political reality
in Guatemala, the United States does possess the correct intelligence
on the area. In an interview with the Guatemalan press in 2002,
Stephen MacFarland, business attaché to the U.S. Embassy in
Guatemala, stated, “We (the United States) are preoccupied
by the existence of parallel powers in this country and their links
with narcotrafficking…we are preoccupied by the influence they
can have in this country, especially over certain aspects of the
armed forces.” But it looks like the State Department analysis
has once again fallen on deaf ears, as the Guatemalan government
now courts the Bush Jr. administration for an end to the 1977 congressional
embargo against military aid. The DEA, CIA, and DoD have been able
to side step this prohibition through an accounting loophole, however,
the Bush Jr. administration is contemplating renewing official military
aid in June of this year. “During his visit to Washington,
George W. Bush offered Guatemalan President Óscar Berger helicopters,
planes, and communication equipment to modernize Guatemala’s
army,” stated



. Berger told the press
that “a team of experts will be coming here (at the end of
May) to analyze what help the United States can give to modernize
the Army.”

the current administration hopes that this latest round of “modernization”
of arguably the most corrupt and brutal armed forces in Latin America
will lead to a victory in the Central American front of the “war
on drugs.” Likely the team of experts they are sending to Guatemala
will gloss over the dense politics of this Central American country,
equating a “professional” army with one that follows the
rule of law and has an understanding of human rights. This is a
dangerous assumption, given that past and continuing actions of
the CIA, DEA, and DoD have only succeeded in the creation of an
efficient criminal apparatus that masquerades as the forces of law
and order. So it looks like we’re in for another round of lunacy
in the war on drugs. Operation Mayan Jaguar will be in effect for
at least the next two years—during which time the DEA can expect
to play a part in strengthening the drug network in Guatemala. Seminars
on professionalism and a couple of CH-47 Chinook helicopters won’t
be able to change the economic and political realities that give
rise to rampant corruption in Guatemala. Initiatives by U.S. agencies
won’t be able to tackle the legions of corrupt and underpaid
police officers, the manipulative intelligence service that honed
its criminal capacities with equipment and training by the CIA or
the 80 percent of the population that lives in poverty and could
use a few extra dollars by transporting drugs from one end of their
country to the other. Even if Operation Central Skies does somehow
manage to limit the flow of drugs through Central America, the victory
would be questionable. The drugs aren’t going to stay in South
America. Another “preferred staging point” will be found,
possibly a return to transporting cocaine through the Caribbean,
as was the case in the 1980s. 

to decipher the purposes of all these code named anti-narcotrafficking
joint operations has become impossible, especially from the perspective
of the host country. But there is something telling about the attitudes
of the DoD and the DEA blithely writing their optimistic annual
country reports, asking for more money. 

war on drugs is not about drugs, but about self-justification. The
more corrupt the security forces are in Guatemala, the more apparent
the need to have some U.S. personnel down there, keeping an eye
on things. The continuing failures to get the Guatemalan police
to stop stealing cocaine from drug busts works fine for the DEA,
as long as they get more funding to professionalize the force. Meanwhile,
the U.S. military can maintain a presence, protecting any U.S. interests
that need protecting. Daniel Lazare’s analysis in the

Report on the Americas

is astute: “The goal (of the drug
war) has not been to stamp out drugs per se, but to create a war-time
atmosphere of hysteria in which the government would feel justified
in using extraordinary measures to counter an extraordinary threat.
Rather than eradication, the purpose of the drug war is…war
itself.” Using this analysis, Operation Central Skies makes
perfect sense and the people in the DEA and the DoD are doing a
fine job.


Cathy Inouye
lives in Guatemala City and volunteers for the human rights NGO SEDEM
(Seguridad en Democracia). SEDEM monitors the continuing role of the
military, police, and intelligence forces in Guatemala.