November 5, 2007 / 9:23 PM / 10 years ago

Guatemala's Colom to attack drug gangs

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By Frank Jack Daniel and Mica Rosenberg

GUATEMALA CITY, Nov 5 (Reuters) - Guatemalan President-elect Alvaro Colom vowed on Monday to send troops to win back lawless jungle and border areas controlled by heavily armed drug gangs.

Colom, a businessman and center-left politician who won election on Sunday over a hard-line retired general, blamed official collusion for the growth of drug cartels in Guatemala, a key stop-off point for cocaine on its way to the United States.

He told Reuters in an interview he would use troops to attack powerful drug gangs that control large parts of rural Guatemala, particularly in remote areas near the Mexican border.

"It’s a fact. It’s not just that it could happen; it will happen," Colom said. "There are cartels that have their own armies.

"You can’t go in there with the police alone; you have to go in with the army like a war operation if you really want to get the territory back."

The bookish Colom, who takes office on Jan. 14, beat Gen. Otto Perez Molina, who based his election campaign on a pledge to deploy the military to fight rampant crime in the Central American nation.

Drug cartels have grown in influence since Guatemala’s 36-year civil war ended a decade ago and are now in charge of swathes of territory.

Colom said past governments had turned a blind eye to organized crime and that he was prepared to impose temporary emergency powers in specific areas to fight the drug traffickers.

But Colom will also need to weed out drug gangsters in his own National Unity For Hope party. The president-elect has admitted that traffickers have infiltrated his party as they seek political power to dominate Central American drug smuggling routes.

Guatemala suffered often-brutal military rule for decades until the 1980s. It cut back the top-heavy army after 1996 peace agreements, reducing military influence in civilian affairs but leaving some rural areas without security forces.

"The demobilization left corridors from the Caribbean to the border with Mexico completely uncontrolled. I believe it was planned," Colom said.

He also blamed Guatemala’s poor radar coverage and limited air and sea patrols on official collusion with the cartels.


Next door, Mexico has deployed thousands of troops to win back territory from drug gangs in a tactic that appears to be bearing fruit as U.S. cocaine prices rise due to lack of supplies from south of the border.

Earlier, Colom told reporters the drug fight could only be won with the help of the United States, but stopped short of calling for a Colombian-style plan for U.S. counternarcotics aid, which includes U.S. military trainers and advisers.

A former deputy economy minister, Colom has vowed to cut Guatemala’s extreme levels of poverty by creating jobs with government-led infrastructure and housing projects.

He plans to switch Guatemalan local currency debt into cheaper foreign bonds to help finance his poverty schemes.

Guatemala’s chronic child malnutrition rate, the highest in the hemisphere, contrasts with the wealth of the coffee-growing country’s landowning elite.

Colom said he would negotiate with companies to freeze or cut prices on staple products like cooking gas, flour, meat and poultry that have risen sharply in price in recent years.

"Some products are controlled by a really small group of businessmen; we could reach an agreement but without ... being confrontational with companies," he said.

Colom, whose victory on Sunday came on his third bid for the top job, said he would also talk to unions and firms about increasing salaries.

The current president, Oscar Berger, has blocked increases in the minimum wage.

(Additional reporting by Anahi Rama; Editing by Eric Beech)

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