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Pit Stop on the Cocaine Highway

No U.S. government aircraft are based permanently in Guatemala, though U.S. anti-drug officials said they were occasionally able to borrow a U.S. military plane or helicopter from a base in neighboring Honduras.

Hamilton, the ambassador, said a sign of the limitations facing Guatemala's anti-drug force is aircraft with such old windshields that they are difficult to see out of. "I think it would make sense for us to put a modest amount of money into spare parts and into enhancing their maintenance capabilities for their intercept aircraft," he said.

Traffickers have abandoned scores of planes in Guatemala's Laguna del Tigre rain forest after smuggling flights. (Courtesy Of Tropico Verde)

"I think that Washington is taking a fresh look at the possibility," Hamilton added. "It's a combination of our own interest and a feeling that we have a moral obligation to help a government that is really trying hard."

Florido said Guatemala needs far more from the United States than spare parts.

A case that has focused attention on the trafficking problem here is that of Otto Herrera, a Guatemalan citizen who is accused of being a key Central American connection between Colombian drug cartels and distributors in the United States. Herrera, 39, who is married to a woman from the United States, was arrested at the Mexico City airport in April, a year after officials raided his house in an affluent Guatemala City neighborhood and found $14 million in cash and two grenade launchers. He currently is in jail in Mexico on drug trafficking charges. The United States had offered a $2 million reward for his arrest, and the Mexican attorney general called his apprehension "great news for the hemisphere."

Social conditions here have also aided the drug traffickers. The overwhelming majority of Guatemala's 12 million people live in poverty, and 30 percent cannot read or write. Hugo Beteta, an academic who is now a top government planning official, said that half of Guatemala's population is younger than 18 and that most of those people have no hope of getting a job. He said poor, idle youths see two choices: migrate to the United States or get involved in the drug trade.

"And if you get tough on migration, what is left for them?" he said.

Officials here say Guatemala's weak judicial system is another attraction for international drug traffickers. In the rare instance that traffickers are caught in Guatemala, they have been known to bribe their way out of jail. U.S. officials were outraged and suspected corruption recently when a known associate of Herrera's was suddenly freed.

Drug trafficking experts say Colombian cartels appear to have found the same fertile ground in Guatemala that they found a decade ago in Mexico. Before he died in 1997, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, one of Mexico's most notorious traffickers, pioneered the use of Boeing 727 jets to fly huge shipments of cocaine from Colombia to Mexico. Now it is Guatemala's turn, the experts say.

"They have changed their strategy, and it's bad news for everyone," Florido said.

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