GUATEMALA CITY, DEC. 31 -- Three Guatemalans wanted in the United States and recently arrested in this country's biggest drug bust will be extradited promptly, a government spokesman said today.
The U.S. Embassy presented a formal request Friday for the extradition of Arnaldo Vargas Estrada, the mayor of Zacapa, an eastern provincial capital, and for two others wanted on drug trafficking charges in California and Florida, according to presidential spokesman Carlos Anleu.
The extradition "could be approved within two weeks," he said, adding that he did not expect there to be any obstacles. "We have always cooperated in fighting drug trafficking," he said, referring to the five-year-old government of President Vinicio Cerezo, which hands power over to a newly elected president on Jan. 15.
Earlier this month, Guatemalan Rufino Arriaza was extradited to Miami on drug trafficking charges, but the process took two years, said U.S. Embassy spokesman Jim Dickmeyer.
Vargas and seven other civilian suspects were arrested on Thursday and Friday in Guatemala City and Zacapa. Two days earlier, the army announced that a lieutenant colonel and two captains were discharged on Dec. 20 and accused of drug trafficking.
In the week-long operation, Guatemalan authorities arrested a total of 11 persons and said they confiscated 1 1/2 tons of cocaine, worth $3.8 billion.
"Bankers, politicians, officials and religious people are involved in drug trafficking," said Gen. Augusto Morales Villatoro, a government minister. "We wouldn't be surprised if some security element or heads of public offices were also implicated."
Guatemala has grown in importance as a transshipment point to the United States for cocaine from South America and as a producer of marijuana and poppies, which are processed into opium in Guatemala and in neighboring Mexico, according to drug enforcement officials.
A boom in construction, retail stores and restaurant openings is evidence that drug money is also being laundered through Guatemala, said Julio Rivera Claveria, director of the treasury police.
Rivera said the country's economy -- with 50 percent inflation, massive unemployment and a budget deficit that has doubled in two years -- could not support legitimately the current level of commercial activity.
The government and the U.S. Embassy said the crackdown was not intentionally aimed at any particular party or institution. But Vargas's arrest could affect the presidential election on Sunday. Vargas is a member of the National Center Union, the same party that is behind Jorges Carpo, one of the two candidates in Sunday's runoff.
The party denied immediate speculation that links existed between the party and the drug trade. "It's absolutely false and absurd that part of our party's campaign is financed with drug-trafficking dollars," said spokesman Jorge Canale Nanne.
Vargas's arrest came two days after the party made widely publicized denunciations of business fraud against the widely favored presidential contender, Jorges Serrano Elias, who has unofficially received the backing of the ruling Christian Democrat Party. The National Center Union says court documents show Serrano failed to repay bank loans amounting to $4 million and that a committee of 68 people is suing him over real estate disputes.