‘Guatemalastan’: How to Prevent a Failed State in our Midst

Kevin Casas-Zamora
Kevin Casas-Zamora Former Brookings Expert, Director, Programa Estado de Derecho, Diálogo Interamericano

May 22, 2009

When policy makers in Washington labeled Mexico a “failing” state, the Mexican authorities were rightly annoyed by the claim. In fact, the experts may have missed their target by little, for the term would have been better employed in describing neighboring Guatemala.

Guatemala has long been a crucial transit point for north-bound narcotics. In this role the country has been helped by both geography and institutional make up. The thick unpopulated forests of Petén, in Northern Guatemala, offer a haven to drug trafficking activities, often carried out under the complacent gaze, when not the active participation, of the only institution with effective presence throughout the Guatemalan territory: a military establishment riddled with corruption. Indeed, outside the military, the Guatemalan state is a feeble entity by almost any indicator. Tax revenue in the country stands at 12% of GDP, one of lowest figures in Latin America.

Earlier this year, U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Stephen McFarland reckoned in an interview with a local newspaper that approximately 300-400 tons of cocaine per year were passing through the country. Yet, according to figures of the U.S. government, in 2007 cocaine seizures in Guatemala were a paltry 730 kilograms (compared to 13 and 27 metric tons in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, respectively). The few doubts that remained about the penetration of organized crime in Guatemala’s institutions were removed in early 2007 when 3 Salvadoran members of the Central American Parliament were murdered on their way to Guatemala City, in what clearly looked like a drug-related crime. Worse was to come a few days later, when the 4 Guatemalan police officers suspected of committing the crime were, in turn, murdered while on custody in a maximum security jail. At that point, faced with an international outcry, then President Oscar Berger publicly acknowledged his inability to guarantee the safety of any detainee in a Guatemalan prison. Berger’s admission clearly implied that Guatemalan law enforcement agencies could hardly be trusted. In fact, they are not. According to Iberobarómetro 2008, a regional survey, only 25% of the Guatemalan population has any confidence in the police, while only 15% trusts the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court, in both cases amongst the lowest figures in the region.

The penetration of organized crime in Guatemala adds a particularly combustive fuel to a mix that includes exceptionally high levels of inequality, very limited opportunities for a large marginalized youth, and the troubling inheritance of a four-decade long civil war. Predictably, Guatemala exhibits some of the world’s worst violence indicators. The homicide rate doubled from 23 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 1999 to 45 in 2006, reaching 108 in Guatemala City, nearly 3 times as high as Baghdad’s current rate. As a point of comparison, the murder rate in the United States is currently 5.9 per 100,000 people.

Despite the efforts of the current President Alvaro Colom—now himself under investigation for his alleged role in the murder of a local businessman—Guatemala is faced with an increasingly intractable lawlessness syndrome. The weakness of the state, the pervasive violence, the widespread corruption, and the country’s strategic location for drug trafficking are creating a very dangerous cocktail. Moreover, the prognosis is not favorable. The situation on the ground in Central America is bound to deteriorate if the offensive of the Mexican government against the drug cartels succeeds in reclaiming control over Northern Mexico for the state. Evidence of increased activity by Mexican crime syndicates, including turf wars between them, is rife throughout Central America these days. The big difference, of course, is that the capacities of the Central American states, and of the Guatemalan state in particular, to enforce the law and exert effective control over their territory are well below those of Mexico and certainly below what is needed to face up to the dire security challenge that is being foisted upon them.

Guatemala is experiencing a silent institutional collapse. Unlike Afghanistan or Somalia, its institutions seem to be failing slowly, in a non-conspicuous way, unnoticed by the headlines. The United States and the neighboring countries, which are certain to be affected by the anomie that seems to be engulfing Guatemala, would do well to pay attention and commit resources to prevent this outcome. The approximately $10-20 million that have been allotted to Guatemala under the Merida Initiative to combat organized crime are grossly insufficient to have any visible impact on the problem. Given the extent of corruption in the institutions that are entrusted with upholding the rule of law in Guatemala, any effort to reform them faces heavy odds. But the alternative is too dire to contemplate