GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Drug gangs in Guatemala are paying runners and hitmen with cocaine, driving a growing local market and leaving a trail of home-grown addicts in a country already wracked with poverty and crime gangs.
Dozens of drug rehab centers have sprung up in Guatemala City in recent years, their beds packed with teenagers hooked on cocaine and other illegal drugs being sold ever more freely on the street by cartel middlemen.
One, the Espiritu Santo drug center, had around 20 resident patients when it opened five years ago, but as the number of addicts in the capital balloons it is expanding its facilities to hold 250 patients.
“In Guatemala it’s a question of ‘where can’t you get drugs?’ because it’s so easy. You could get some three blocks from here,” said Hugo Monton, 46, who began smoking marijuana at age 12 and was on crack cocaine by his early twenties.
Mexico’s powerful drug cartels have moved deep into Guatemalan territory in the last few years as a Mexican army crackdown has pushed them to seek new smuggling routes between South America and the United States.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA, reckons three-quarters of South American cocaine smuggled north passes through Central America. Guatemalan officials say cartels are paying local traffickers in drugs as it is harder to trace than cash.
“Drug use has increased as a result of a change in the way the cartels are paying. Ten years ago they paid 75 percent in cash and 25 percent in drugs, now it’s almost 100 percent drugs,” said interior ministry spokesman Nery Morales.
The same pattern has been seen in neighboring Mexico, where the government is fighting a war against drug gangs whose turf wars have killed nearly 4,000 people this year alone.
With big cash transfers under scrutiny, cartels there use drugs and guns to top up the fees they pay the people who run their errands, drive their cars, launder their money, carry out hits and keep watch for police.
The trend puts more drugs in circulation in regions that used to be purely transit zones as drug gang members sell their cocaine wages on the street to recoup some cash.
“Transferring large amounts of money is more difficult because it is easy for the authorities to detect,” said Edgar Camargo, head of a Guatemalan government commission on drugs.
There is no official survey in Guatemala on numbers of drug users, but the local division of Narcotics Anonymous says it has seen a big jump in people attending its meetings.
“We’ve seen a change in the last few years. The number of young people coming now who are 15, 18 or 19 is incredible. It’s frightening because they’re just children,” a representative of the organization in Guatemala said.
Addicts say drugs are getting cheaper. A small bag of crack costs just over $4, down from about $6 five years ago.
A rise in drug users will likely worsen already rampant crime. Guatemala is one of Latin America’s most violent countries with more than 6,000 murders in 2008 in a population of 13 million, due largely to a problem with street gangs.
The interior ministry’s Morales said higher drug use would push more young people to join the street gangs that assault, extort businesses and kidnap people to get cash.
A 35-year-old patient at Espiritu Santo called Jose said he was imprisoned four times for armed robbery in a 12-year period as he turned to crime to fuel his drug habit.
Editing by Catherine Bremer and Kieran Murray