Hillary Clinton urges Latin America to fight drug corruption

By Anne-Marie O'Connor
Saturday, March 6, 2010; A08

MEXICO CITY -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called for Latin America to fight drug corruption in a regional swing that ended Friday in Guatemala, days after that country's drug czar and national police chief were jailed on suspicion of leading a police ring that stole cocaine from drug traffickers.

The arrests underscored Guatemala's vulnerability to traffickers, whose billions of dollars in profits and bribes are undermining a fragile country still recovering from years of military rule and civil war.

"Organized crime has infiltrated all aspects of the Guatemalan state, and now rivals it in terms of power and influence," said Andrew Hudson, senior associate at Human Rights First in New York.

Drug czar Nelly Bonilla was arrested Tuesday, along with Police Chief Baltazar Gómez. They were accused of leading a criminal police gang that stole 1,500 pounds of cocaine.

They were the latest in a string of police officers alleged to have crumbled before the lure of drug profits.

The previous national police chief was jailed in 2009on suspicion of stealing $300,000 from drug traffickers. A previous drug czar, Adan Castillo, was caught on tape accepting $25,000 from a Drug Enforcement Administration informant as payment for overseeing narcotics shipments through Guatemala. He was invited to a DEA meeting in 2005 and arrested when he arrived in Virginia.

Clinton has said that despite increased cooperation in the region against drug traffickers, the Obama administration wants governments there to work harder to confront corruption.

Upon arriving in Guatemala, she praised the arrests and called on officials to "weed out corruption." Congress has authorized $1.6 billion for fighting drug trafficking in Mexico, Central America, the Dominican Republic and Haiti under the three-year Merida Initiative.

"We're going to be asking more of a lot of our friends," Clinton said earlier during a stop in Costa Rica. "A number of them are not respecting democratic institutions. A number of them are not taking strong enough stands against the erosion of the rule of law because of the pressure from drug traffickers."

Guatemala has one of the highest rates of violent crime in the world. Drug traffickers and gangs have revived insecurities in the impoverished people, who are recovering from a 36-year civil war that killed 200,000 people, most of them civilians.

A United Nations crime-fighting team, the International Commission Against Impunity, spearheaded the investigation that led to the arrest of the police officers. The team was created in 2007 to compensate for the inability of the Guatemalan judicial system to solve crimes often found to be committed by moonlighting members of the security forces.

The task force helped unravel the mystery behind the grisly killings of three Salvadoran congressmen who were stopped on the highway in 2007 and burned to death. Guatemalan police detectives who were working for a drug gang were found to be the perpetrators.

"Should we reform the National Police, or would it make more sense to simply disband it, and found another?" asked a widely read opinion piece in Guatemala's El Periodico newspaper. When corrupt police are purged, "the most likely thing is that they, too, will participate in other crimes almost as lucrative as drug transshipments: kidnappings, extortion and assault."

Carlos Castresana, head of the U.N. task force, said at a news conference that investigators learned of Bonilla's and Gómez's alleged roles after an ambush last year of police officers who were trying to steal 770 pounds of cocaine from a warehouse in scenic Amatitlan. He said prosecutors were not allowed to investigate the crime scene, raising suspicion.

Both officers denied involvement.

"We did not lend ourselves to organized crime," Gómez told reporters. "Talk is cheap, and it's easy to jail someone. We did nothing."

Bonilla said she was "working for God and the law by going after drug traffickers, and this is a nice way to get rid of us."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company