Sunday, January 15, 2012

"Almost bankrupt" Guatemala calls for U.S. help in combatting drug cartels, forced labor, sex trafficking

New president was accused of human rights violations during brutal civil war

*Updates below*
Otto Pérez Molina, a 61 year old former military officer who was accused of torture and human rights abuses in the 1980s, was sworn in yesterday as the president of Guatemala. Pérez Molina was elected last November with 54% of the vote.

In his inauguration speech before a crowd of about 5,000, the new president promised to confront aggressively the narcotics and human trafficking which he said had brought Guatemala to the brink of "economic and moral bankruptcy." He called upon Mexico, Colombia and "especially the United States to assume a greater degree of responsibility in the fight against international drug cartels."

Guatemala, on Mexico's southern border, is a desperately impoverished nation of 14 million where half live below the poverty line, and 40% of children under five suffer from chronic malnutrition.

Pérez Molina's clarion call for assistance from his more powerful Latin neighbors, and from the U.S., came just days after nearby Honduras said that it was being "invaded by drug traffickers" who are shipping 100 tons of cocaine annually to the United States, "where the consumers are".

Calling for international cooperation, especially regionally, in the "prevention of and fight against drug trafficking," Pérez Molina added, "we can't and we don't want to be on the battlefield alone." The new president did not specify what type of assistance he might request from his partners in the drug war. Honduras is seeking military aid from Washington, similar to that awarded to Mexico in the Mérida Initiative, a $1.6 billion joint security and intelligence sharing agreement forged by former president George W. Bush and Mexican president Felipe Calderón in 2007, and approved by Congress the following year. As of December 31, about $900 million in equipment, technology and training had been delivered to Mexico through the deal.

Speaking of those exploited for sex and forced labor, Pérez Molina said, "We're fully prepared to undertake our responsibilities. Guatemala promises to fight vigorously to eradicate human trafficking, and to confront with the law criminals who are the scourge of society." He said the new government would create police and military task forces and courts focused upon the protection of human rights. Pérez Molina campaigned during the 2007 presidential election (which he lost) and again in 2011 under strong law enforcement themes of mano dura, cabeza y corazón - " a firm hand, head and heart."

Pérez Molina's military career spanned 34 years, from 1966 until 1990, when he retired with the rank of general. He firmly denies human rights violations which have been levied against him, which allegedly occurred during decades of a horrific civil war that wracked Guatemala from 1960-1996, resulting in 200,000 deaths or disappearances. Pérez Molina promised "respect for the rights of all persons," and acknowledged that the country suffers from a "generalized corruption."

Mexico's president Felipe Calderón was one of several regional leaders in attendance at Pérez Molina's inauguration. The two spoke privately before the ceremony, to discuss common issues of narcotics trafficking and migration. The Calderón administration has been under heavy criticism in recent years for the alleged mistreatment of undocumented Guatemalans moving north through Mexico in route to the United States. Hundreds of those undocumenteds have been pressed into forced service by Mexican drug cartels, and many have been killed or disappeared along the way.

Dec. 16 - Guatemala's National Civil Police (PNC) has graduated its first class of agents who will focus exclusively on cases involving human trafficking, especially women and minors recruited for sex. The class of 108 investigators includes 58 women and 50 men. In 2012 PNC received almost 1,800 complaints of minors exploited for sexual purposes.

Dec. 26 - Drug traffickers have completely infiltrated the nation's judicial and prosecutorial systems, according to Guatemala's attorney general. In public statements she placed primary responsibility on the Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas, which has significantly shifted operations southward to escape Mexican military forces. "Organized crime has the power to corrupt, because it has so much money," said Claudia Paz, the nation's top prosecutor, in an interview published today.

U.S. rejects Guatemala's proposal to "open a dialog" on possible drug legalization
Guatemalan army joins drug war - "We have to neutralize organized crime," says new president
Does the 1950s "domino theory" have contemporary relevance to Central America?
Mexican drug cartels expand operations to Peru and Bolivia

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