The heightening of violence in Guatemala, which goes hand in hand with the presence of drug trafficking and was made evident by the recent massacre of 28 people on the Los Cocos farm, is causing alarm in Mexico´s southern neighbor. This situation will make the presidential candidates who will campaign this year call for a stronger hand in a country that experienced the military abuses of the eighties, warns Marco Antonio Castillo, director of the Guatemala-based Asociación Grupo Ceiba, in this interview with the Americas Program.

The association is an NGO that strives to prevent drug consumption and youth violence. Castillo answered several questions for the Americas program.

The growing presence of drug traffickers leads many to fear that Guatemala will copy Mexico´s anti-narco strategy, which has left more than thirty thousand victims there.

In September of last year, the Americas Program reported that Guatemala was in the sights of the Zetas.

Greater Repression

When questioned about the possibility of an increase in proposals for greater repression instead of prevention against drug trafficking, Castillo shared his perspectives and appeared pessimistic.

“The panorama in Guatemala is quite difficult, we are beginning an electoral year and, unfortunately, when these kind of events take place, many politicians (political alchemists) take to the streets to fly the flag of hopelessness, the prophecy that there is no other way to respond to violence than with repression and, with that, the old guard military politics that call for a return to fascism and the militarization of the eighties.

“There won’t be more than three or four politicians and they, united with a great many satellite candidates, will distract voter opinion and proclaim that the only way to resolve the situation of chaotic violence in the country is to act with an iron fist, with repression and persecution of drug traffickers and gangs. They’ll want to make us forget about unemployment, state corruption, a collapsed education system, urban and rural communities mired in extreme poverty and hunger, and other shortages and hard realities”, he said.

For Castillo, beyond the problem of the violence that is devastating his country is the urgent need to address the poverty and the bruised economy of the region.

“The problem isn’t just the gangs, the narcos or the weapons, but the unequal social structures in a country in which every day more poor people facing lack of resources and opportunities and are stuck in a ‘geography of looting’ as author Santiago Millán calls it (Las tropas norteamericanas y la geografía del saqueo).

“…the recent turn toward open imperialism reinforced by North American military forces can be understood as a sign that its hegemony is weakening in the face of the serious threats of the recession and general devaluation in the country. Such a turn contrasts with the different attacks of devaluation inflicted previously in other places –Latin American in the eighties and the first part of the nineties and the even more serious crises that consumed east and southeast Asia in 1997 and later sunk Russia and part of Latin America.

“What we’re seeing here is a return to the past, to fascist systems where the structures of power frequently maintain the status quo through violence. We are poor countries in which one of the economic methods of compensation and social leveling is drug trafficking. Many people are connected to small scale drug trafficking because it’s the only way to acquire economic resources, even if they are illicit. The second way is, sadly, migration, which is based on remittances. We continue to depend on what our family members send us from the United States. That’s when you ask yourself, what’s the business here? It is and has been an isolated business, a business based on social abandonment and cheap labor. And every time there is an effort to raise the minimum wage and access to necessities the first thing businesses do is get people out on the street and fly the flag of decreased investment profitability.”

Drug Trafficking Goes Way Back

In addition to poverty caused by the lack of businesses, the region, which has been on the drug trafficking route since the seventies, is plagued by abandonment. Nevertheless, it seems that it will be the scene of next step in the drug war model developed by the US, then introduced in Colombia and Mexico.

“Such is the state of this misgovernment, that Central America has been abandoned in the path of drug trafficking. With the presence of drug cartels, like the Zetas of Mexico, many different expressions of violence have emerged, including armed violence and depredation. The massacre perpetrated by the Zetas in the Los Cocos farm, in the municipality of La Libertad, Petén, is one example of this. 28 farm workers were killed and their bodies decapitated. It’s a macabre event, and it led to the installation of the combined forces of the police and the army by the government for ‘an undefined period of time’.

“Unfortunately, many antidrug policies are connected to repressive systems of persecution. The narco issue is not new, nor is the presence of Mexican or Colombian cartels. Maybe today there is a greater presence of Mexican cartels because the situation of violence and executions in Mexico has led to a strategic geo mobilization of drug trafficking to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. I think it very unlikely that the drug problem will be solved through more sophisticated mechanisms of violence and of intelligence”, Castillo comments.

Social Development and Decriminalization

Finally, Castillo presents ideas on how he thinks the drug problem should be combated.

“I continue to believe that until we clearly choose to enact sustainable social development that begins with policies to decriminalize certain drugs and moves toward legalizing them it’s going to be very difficult to resolve conflicts that take us to such extremes as what happened in the Los Cocos farm.

“While this topic is the subject of much debate, it is the issue of the decade. I don’t believe that this repressive, pro-abandonment vision can be sustained in years to come. It’s necessary to generate processes that construct real alternatives for citizens and reduce social divides.

“It really scares me to think that Guatemala wants to follow in the footsteps of Mexico. In four years, 34,000 people have died in Mexico as a result of a wave of violence caused by the State’s persecution of organized crime and drug trafficking.

“It’s a complex issue, it requires reflection, but it will need to evolve through non violent mechanisms, the construction of more inclusive systems and decision making which permits dissent, not to mention more inclusive power structures that do away with abandonment and misgovernment.”

Marco Antonio Martínez García is a Mexican journalist and Americas Program collaborator.

Translated by Jenny Forsythe