- The Washington Times - Monday, January 20, 2003

Federal authorities are considering whether to decertify Guatemala as a partner in the international war on drugs because of its growing involvement as a major transshipment point for cocaine and heroin bound for the United States.
Law-enforcement authorities and others say the Bush administration also has focused on rising corruption within Guatemala, including the government, and on President Alfonso Portillo's reported friendship with reputed criminals.
A "decertification" of Guatemala by President Bush and the State Department in the war on drugs would result in a costly suspension of almost all U.S. aid and the denial of support for efforts to win loans from multinational banks.
The matter has been under review by federal officials for about six months, law-enforcement sources said.
Last year, Mr. Portillo was accused of opening bank accounts in Panama to embezzle state funds. He denied the accusations. A top Guatemalan official, Francisco Ortega Menaldo, a close adviser to Mr. Portillo, had his visa revoked last year by the U.S. government on suspicion of his involvement in smuggling and drug trafficking.
A report by the U.S.-based research organization Hemisphere Initiatives also cited links between the Guatemalan government and organized crime, saying a clandestine network involving members of the judiciary and security forces has blocked criminal investigations and pressured judges.
Paul E. Simons, the State Department's acting assistant secretary for international narcotics and law-enforcement affairs, recently told a House committee that Guatemala had become an important transit point for South American drugs en route to the United States and Europe.
Mr. Simons said Guatemalan corruption had, by most accounts, increased significantly under the Portillo administration and that narcotics trafficking, alien smuggling and money laundering were on the rise.
He said many people involved in criminal activity in Guatemala had "close ties to high-level government officials" and that they reportedly had influenced decisions with respect to personnel nominations for critical positions in the military and government ministries.
Of major concern to the administration are reports of widespread corruption within the Guatemalan law-enforcement community, which has experienced a 75 percent reduction in the number of officers assigned to the country's anti-narcotics police unit.
Several former members of the Guatemalan military also have been implicated in drug trafficking.
The United States sends about $3.5 million a year to Guatemala for its anti-narcotics unit. The State Department is reviewing the situation and has taken steps to withhold commodities and funding to send a message that anti-drug efforts by the police need to be reformed.
Rogelio E. Guevara, the Drug Enforcement Administration's chief of operations, also testified that Guatemala served as an important transshipment and storage point for Colombian heroin, as well as cocaine en route to the United States.
Mr. Guevara said widespread corruption within Guatemala had a major effect in all areas of the government and that while high-ranking Guatemalan officials had pledged to engage the counterdrug effort, they had been unable to affect what he described as the "entrenched culture of corruption."
He said judges and prosecutors were routinely bribed and police officers were mistrustful of their peers because of the pervasive corruption. He said the DEA has since shifted its operational strategy and that new and significant drug investigations are now conducted with the intent of obtaining indictments in the United States.
No decision has been made on the decertification of Guatemala, the sources said, although a review is under way and recommendations will be made to the secretary of state for a final decision by the president.
Since 1987, Washington has certified annually whether countries are cooperating in the war on drugs. The certification process offers what the State Department has called a means of forcing corruption to the surface, giving the United States "the legislative equivalent of an international spotlight to shine on corruption."
The Foreign Assistance Act requires the president to certify annually that each major drug-producing or drug-transit country has cooperated fully or has taken adequate steps to root out public corruption.


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