Guatemala’s President: ‘Stop the War on Drugs’

As the Zeta and Mara gangs unite, can the Summit of the Americas follow suit?

A police officer guards a member of the Mara Salvatrucha street gang as another officer shows a grenade in Guatemala City. (Photo: Tomas Bravo/Reuters)

Apr 11, 2012
Allan MacDonell is TakePart’s News + Opinion editor, with a focus on social justice.

Guatemala’s President Otto Pérez Molina has a pressing motivation to call for an end to the drug war: Evidence that two of history’s most vicious and powerful narco-gangs are combining forces to take control of his country.

The Zetas, Mexico’s premier paramilitary narcotics cartel, and Central America’s vast and vicious Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang are logical partners in drug-trafficking crime.

In a mere 10 years from its ragged genesis as a squad of Mexican special forces deserters, the Zetas army has become a dominant force in the slaughter-rich production and traffic of illegal drugs for American consumption.

An alliance between the Zetas and the Mara Salvatrucha would create a criminal network extending from the United States to South America—a web of corruptors and killers disdaining international borders and governments, funded largely by American stoners.

The Mara Salvatrucha gang was formed in Los Angeles, California, during the 1980s by refugees from El Salvador’s civil war (a conflict fueled by expansive American military aid). Hundreds of MS-13 members were hardened in U.S. prisons and deported back to Central America. The returnees recruited new “cliques” from the slum-bred talent pools across El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. With an entrepreneurial zeal seeded in the USA, MS-13 has metastasized into a criminal organization of 80,000 members—many of them fearsomely tattooed—adept at kidnapping, extortion and murder.

An alliance between the war-trained Zetas and the eager manpower of the Mara Salvatrucha would create a criminal network extending from the United States to South America—a deep-reaching web of corruptors and killers disdaining international borders and governments, funded largely by American stoners.

Reports the Associated Press:

The Zetas’ ultimate goal, according to analysts, Guatemalan authorities and international officials, is to integrate the Maras into their network and become the most powerful group in Guatemala—criminal or legitimate.

“The Zetas are a paramilitary organization that wants to control all the legitimate, illegitimate and criminal activities in Guatemala,” said Antonio Mazzitelli, regional head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Organized Crime.

Eduardo Velasco, Guatemala’s point man on organized crime, believes the Zetas are giving the Maras paramilitary training and weaponry in exchange for access to local connections. The Maras are also thought to be committing “diversionary” crimes to overwhelm domestic law-enforcement personnel while Zetas set up shop. Velasco notes that the Maras have upgraded their pistols with AR-15s, M-16s, AK-47s and military fragmentation grenades—all checked out from the Zetas arsenal.

When two underworld forces as powerful as the Zetas and Maras combine their geniuses for evil, there is one proven way to fail spectacularly at stopping the alliance: Counterinsurgency warfare conducted at the proxy of America’s Drug Enforcement Administration.

Unless history is mistaken, going guerilla on the gangs will:

  • Present further opportunities to seduce Guatemalan government soldiers with the negative charisma of narco cash and power
  • Create a myth-like legitimization narrative of Maras and Zetas as tyranny-defying underdogs
  • Weaken the public will—through attrition by violence and economic disruption—to resist the ultimate designs of the Zeta-Mara combine

There has been no clear victory in fighting the War on Drugs as an actual battle, and Guatemala’s President Otto Pérez Molina has called out the entire campaign as a fraud: “The prohibition paradigm that inspires mainstream global drug policy today is based on a false premise: that global [read American] drug markets can be eradicated.”

Pérez Molina, who fought the cartels for years as head of Guatemala’s military intelligence service, issued his challenge to the prohibition paradigm in the lead up to April 14’s two-day Summit of the Americas. The Summit, which occurs every three years, will assemble 34 heads of state and government in Cartagena, Colombia, to address a theme of “Connecting the Americas: Partners for Prosperity.” United States President Barack Obama is among the prominent Americans scheduled to participate.

The Guatemalan president is the first sitting head of state to admit publicly that the War on Drugs is a losing battle. “Knowing that drugs are bad for human beings is not a compelling reason for advocating their prohibition. We would not believe such a statement if it were applied to alcoholism or tobacco addiction, but somehow we assume it’s right in the case of drugs. Why?”

Brazil’s former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and U.S. Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan George Shultz all agree that what the world needs now is “an open debate on more humane and efficient drug policies.”

The Summit of the Americas would seem to be the perfect place to launch that conversation. The most powerful leader of the free world, Barack Obama, will be there! Unfortunately, an alliance between President Obama and any pragmatic leaders of the Americas is far less likely than a collaboration of the Zetas with the Maras. The earth’s leading democracy shows no intention of surrendering its War on Drugs—which effectively guarantees keeping the Maras and Zetas in business.

Obama is in an election year. He would rather negotiate with the Taliban than suggest legalizing drugs (even though, obviously, the dope would be regulated and taxed like alcohol or cigarettes and not simply freely distributed at junior high schools and Planned Parenthood centers). Vice President Joseph R. Biden, on a recent trip through Mexico and Honduras, conceded that legalization warrants discussion, and bluntly ended that discussion by stating that the United States would not budge in opposing decriminalization.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón has suggested that the United States implement “market alternatives” to reduce the harm caused to poor, brown people internationally by America’s staggering and undiminished consumption of illegal drugs.

In the time of Drug War, more than 100,000 people have been killed across Mexico and Central America in the service of feeding the U.S. appetite for recreational substances. Try to think of a legal, regulated service industry with a comparable murder rate.

By any account that adds up, the United States is the world’s number-one market for illicit drugs. The U.S. is also more invested than any other country on the globe in militarizing the prohibition on drugs.

Unlike the aims of the Zetas and the Maras, America’s official policy and actual habits are the opposite of integrated. Can the world’s brand-name democracy shoulder this lapse in integrity? Can the U.S. go forward hoping to be followed as sane and just leaders of the free world? Is Central America doomed to a future where Zeta-Mara powerbrokers infiltrate the most mundane aspects of everyday life?

What, seriously, can be done? Sound off in comments.

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