Image: Guatemala's chief of national police arrested
Presidency Of Guatemala Via Epa  /  EPA
Director of the Civil National Police, Baltazar Gomez, is escorted by two police officers after his arrest in Guatemala City, Guatemala, on March 2. Gomez is accused of several crimes, including links with drug traffickers.
updated 3/3/2010 5:07:21 PM ET 2010-03-03T22:07:21

The arrests of Guatemala's drug czar and national police chief underscore how deeply the world's multibillion-dollar drug industry can corrupt small countries with weak institutions — a trend the Obama administration warned Wednesday threatens global security.

As U.S.-funded wars pressure cartels in Mexico and Colombia, drug gangs are increasingly infiltrating vulnerable countries, particularly in Latin America and Africa. Drug profits total about $394 billion a year, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime — dwarfing the gross domestic products of many nations and making them easy prey for cartels.

"Violent traffickers are relocating to take advantage of these permissive environments and importing their own brand of justice," the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's intelligence chief Anthony Placido said Wednesday in testimony before a U.S. House subcommittee.

Areas with limited or poor governance become breeding grounds for other types of crime, Placido added, noting that 18 of 44 designated terrorist groups also have links to the international drug trade.

Clinton to visit on Friday
Few countries exemplify the corruption more than Guatemala, where the current government's drug czar and the national police chief were arrested Tuesday as the alleged leaders of a gang of police who stole more than 1,500 pounds of cocaine from traffickers. Nelly Bonilla and National Police Chief Baltazar Gomez were the latest in a string of top law enforcement jailed for drug-related corruption in recent years.

"That the national police chief from 2009 is in jail and now the national police chief from 2010 is also in jail is certainly not good news. It gives an idea of an institution gravely infiltrated by criminal networks and shaken by corruption," said Carlos Castresana, the top investigator of a United Nation's investigative commission that helped build the case against Bonilla and Gomez.

The latest embarrassment for Guatemala's U.S.-funded drug war came only days before the arrival of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who will wind up her tour of Latin America in Guatemala on Friday.

Clinton will make clear that the Obama administration wants Latin American countries to do more to root out corruption.

"A number of them are not taking strong enough stands against the erosion of the rule of law because of the pressure from drug traffickers," Clinton told reporters during her trip.

It's a weakness powerful criminal networks know well. Mexican cartels are under pressure in their own country, with the military and police killing or arresting three drug lords in just the past few months. They have increasingly moved their operations south of the border — turning Guatemala into a major transit country for U.S.-bound cocaine.

Bribes for customs officials
In Peru, the world's No. 2 cocaine-producing country after Colombia, Mexican traffickers have bribed customs officials at airports and seaports. In Argentina, court papers say Mexico's Sinaloa cartel has exploited its lax financial oversight and plodding judiciary to set up shell companies that import banned chemicals used to make methamphetamine.

Former Suriname dictator Desi Bouterse, who was convicted in absentia in the Netherlands of drug smuggling, remains free and one of that country's most powerful politicians. A former justice minister is now serving a year in prison after being convicted of laundering drug money while in office.

The problem extends all the way to Africa, where cocaine-laden planes from Latin America land at airports in small countries with total impunity and often the help of local officials. From there, the drugs have been sent to Europe in diplomatic pouches — the logistics arranged in presidential VIP salons.

Guatemala is one of the only countries in the world where the U.N. investigates government officials involved in organized crime. The U.N. created the independent International Commission Against Impunity in 2007 at the request of Guatemalan authorities overwhelmed by the scope of the problem.

Unable to control the situation
Even with U.N. help, Guatemala still has been unable to control the situation.

In August 2009, the national police chief was arrested for allegedly stealing $300,000 from traffickers. In 2007, three Salvadoran congressmen visiting Guatemala were kidnapped and burned to death by detectives linked to a local drug gang. In 2005, then-drug czar Adan Castillo was caught on tape accepting a $25,000 bribe from a DEA informant in exchange for protecting U.S.-bound cocaine shipments. He was arrested in Virginia after being invited by the DEA to an anti-narcotics course.

Investigators discovered the latest alleged scam by Bonilla and Gomez when gangsters ambushed police agents trying to steal 770 pounds (350 kilograms) of cocaine from a warehouse outside Guatemala City last year. Five officers died in the gunbattle.

Castresana, the U.N. investigator, said authorities became suspicious of the slain officers after learning anti-narcotics agents blocked federal prosecutors from the crime scene. The national police also did not open an investigation into their deaths.

Bonilla and Gomez deny the accusations. Bonilla said her arrest was orchestrated by cartels, but she stopped short of saying they control the government.

"I have enemies and I was in their way. I was working for God and the law by going after drug traffickers, and this is a nice way to get rid of us," she said shortly after being detained.

Former Interior Minister Raul Velasquez said gangs plotted his removal after he was fired Sunday by President Alvaro Colom for alleged irregularities in a government contract. He has not been charged.

"This cartel, whose name I'm not saying, celebrated my dismissal. They said that it had cost them a lot of money getting me removed from office and that it was going to be cheaper then having me killed," Velasquez told the local newspaper Siglo XXI.

Ronaldo Robles, presidential spokesman, called the claims absurd.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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