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US Drug War Picks Up in Central America

As cocaine traffickers carve new routes via Guatemala, security net is cast wider

WITH the success of drug-interdiction efforts in the Caribbean, the battle lines in the drug war are being extended further south, along the ``Western pipeline.'' Colombia's cocaine traffickers are redirecting half or more of their illicit cargo north to the United States through Central America and Mexico. And Guatemala and southern Mexico are becoming major refueling and stash points for cocaine destined for the United States, say law enforcement officials interviewed in the three countries.

``Belize and Costa Rica are also being used. But right now the real focus is Guatemala,'' says a US official.

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Cocaine seizures in Guatemala soared to 15.5 metric tons in 1990, up from four tons in 1989, according to the US State Department. ``We predict well over 20 tons will be seized this year in Guatemala,'' says another US government source.

Mexican police made one of their biggest hauls earlier this month, when they captured a twin-engine plane loaded with 4.5 tons of cocaine. Registered to Avensa de Colombia, a Colombian company, the aircraft landed after midnight at an old airstrip in Tapchula, Mexico, just across the Guatemala border. In the last 30 days, almost 12 tons of cocaine have been seized in southern and central Mexico. In 1990, total Mexican seizures hit a record 48.5 metric tons.

US officials estimate 300 to 450 tons - as much as 7O percent of the cocaine sold in the US - passes through the ``Western pipeline'' now. But University of Miami drug expert Bruce Bagley puts this flow at 40 to 50 percent of the total, as do Florida law enforcement agents.

Florida has lost ``market share,'' Mr. Bagley says, though the total volume of cocaine passing through hasn't dropped. Interdiction, he says, has simply made the problem ``messier'' by spreading it over new routes. ``The proliferation of routes has forced the Colombian and Mexican cartels into greater collaboration. It's strengthened the ties between the organizations,'' he says.

Guatemala's main attraction for traffickers, US officials say, is its location - exactly halfway between Colombia and the US. Smugglers can carry bigger loads by stopping here to top off fuel tanks. ``One of the advantages we had when they were flying directly to northern Mexico was that they were almost out of gas when they got here,'' says a US official in Mexico.

Officials in Guatemala have noted the recent arrival here of at least seven ``transport service groups'' associated with major Colombian drug cartels. These tend to be Colombian nationals who contract with locals for the receipt, warehousing, and forward shipment of cocaine to the US.

Another advantage for traffickers is that Guatemala has no radar coverage. ``Anybody can fly in or out without detection. And the country is loaded with secluded airstrips,'' another official says.

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Guatemala, as the largest economy in Central America, also offers smugglers plenty of options for hiding drugs on commercial trucks, ships, and aircraft taking products north.

In December, US and Guatemalan agents broke up the biggest smuggling operation yet discovered here. They arrested Arnoldo Vargas Estrada, the mayor of Zacapa, a provincial capital, and two Guatemalan businessmen who have been accused of shipping several tons of cocaine a month to the US. In March, 3.5 tons of cocaine were discovered in a tunnel on Mr. Vargas's property. According to court documents, Vargas was paid $50,000 per load of cocaine landed on his ranch airstrip and then shipped to the US by tr actor-trailer truck.

US officials describe the Guatemala government's cooperation in fighting the drug trade as ``outstanding.'' A spokesperson for President Jorge Serrano Elias says, ``We see this as a real threat to our society, to our economic and political structure.''

Privately, Guatemalan officials worry that the drug trade (Guatemala is a major heroin producer) is corrupting the military, considered the most powerful institution in this emerging democracy.

Most Latin American nations, sensitive to the perception of bowing to US wishes, are loathe to allow extraditions. But in December, Guatemala agreed to extradite one national to stand trial on drug charges. And requests are likely to be granted for three more Guatemalans, including Vargas, US officials say.

The US Drug Enforcement Administration works with Guatemala's Army (cases are developed by the military intelligence service) as well as the National and Treasury Police (which handle surveillance and arrests). But Guatemala's government, in dire financial straits, is woefully unprepared to handle the surge in cocaine trade, US officials say.

What Guatemala needs, officials from both countries say, is the kind of rapid-response teams being successfully employed in Mexico. Cocaine-laden planes are picked up by radar on US ships or aircraft patrolling international waters off Colombia. Flight information is passed to Mexican police who pursue the smugglers with high-speed aircraft. Once they land, helicopters are scrambled to the location before the traffickers can get away.

But a history of human rights abuses by the security forces here, means the US isn't likely to provide the helicopters and aircraft for a rapid-response program.

``Guatemala is being denied the opportunity to address the growing narcotics problem here,'' says Robert Stia, head of US DEA operations in Guatemala. ``The US Congress thinks that the government will take the helicopters and use them to gun down civilians. That's ludicrous.''

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