Home > civil liberties, criminal justice, foreign policy > Guatemala Looks to Continue Misguided War Against Drug Cartels

Guatemala Looks to Continue Misguided War Against Drug Cartels

The new president-elect of Guatemala, Otto Pérez Molina, is backing Mexican President Felipe Calderón by launching all-out war against the Mexican drug cartels’ presence in Guatemala. However, Pérez Molina should reconsider adopting Calderón’s militarist tactics, as evidenced by the above chart – courtesy of Juan Carlos Hidalgo.

Shortly after coming to power, Calderón launched a military offensive against the drug cartels that sent the murder rate spiraling out of control. As the chart shows, the murder rate per 100,000 inhabitants was at a ten year low just prior to Calderón’s ascent. Since then? That number increased more than two-fold thanks to greater cartel infighting as well as ever-violent confrontations between soldiers and trafficking groups.

Clearly, Calderón’s aggressive, militarist approach to fighting the cartels is antithetical to his aims – violence has significantly increased. It’s not too hard to see why. As I’ve previously written, even if drug trafficking groups and personnel are either eliminated or fractured, other criminal organizations will move quickly and violently to fill the void and reap the substantial profits enabled by prohibition. Moreover, drug cartels are set up in such a manner that most gang members’ duties are duplicative. In the event that personnel are killed or arrested, cartels continue operating without substantial reductions in their trafficking supply.

So how will such an effort against the cartels play out if, indeed, Pérez Molina launches a similar offensive? Potentially very badly, as Mr. Hidalgo points out:

Mexico’s murder rate in 2010 (21.5 killings per 100,000 inhabitants) is about half that of Guatemala (41.4 murders per 100,000 inhabitants). There are two reasons why things could get much worse in Guatemala: First, the army is ill-prepared to fight the powerful Mexican cartels that already have a presence in that country. After the peace accord of 1996, the size of the Guatemalan army went from 50,000 troops to only 16,000. If the cartels have put up a fight to the better-equipped Mexican army, one can only wonder what would happen to its smaller and poorer Guatemalan equivalent. Second, even if the army is successful in weakening the cartels, the same vacuum phenomenon that takes place in Mexico would happen in Guatemala. So far, Mexico’s two most powerful cartels, Sinaloa and Los Zetas, control different parts of Guatemala’s territory, but they haven’t engaged each other in that country yet. That could change if the army strikes a significant blow to one of them, giving an opportunity to the rival.

Guatemalans elected Otto Pérez Molina for his promise to fight crime with an iron fist. However, his strategy could certainly backfire, leaving Guatemalans much worse off than they already are.

Image via Cato Institute

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