Guatemala appeals for more U.S. help to combat drug trafficking

PORT OF SAN JOSE, Guatemala (Reuters) - Guatemala appealed to the United States on Thursday for more equipment and training to tackle drug trafficking as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley visited the Central American country to see how effective their efforts have been.

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Stemming a flow of drugs and migrants into the United States has become a key focus for President Donald Trump, who wants to build a wall on the country’s southern border and has called for a halt to aid for countries failing to stop trafficking.

While Trump’s remarks came after a U.S. official told him cocaine was mainly coming from Colombia and Peru via Mexico and Central America, Guatemala’s Governance Minister Enrique Antonio Degenhart Asturias said: “We know they are not talking about us.”

Defense Minister Luis Ralda agreed. “He knows that we’re giving here a pretty strong fight against drugs and that we’re doing it with the resources we have and with the aid we receive from the different agencies of the United States,” he said.

Asturias and Ralda took Haley to a Guatemalan Naval Special Forces base on the country’s Pacific coast on Thursday to hear about the maritime interdiction operations carried out by the Guatemalan forces, usually acting on U.S. intelligence tips.

Both ministers said more helicopters, boats, vehicles and communication equipment were needed to boost the effectiveness of the operations by the 131-member special force, which seized more than 10,000 packages of cocaine last year valued at nearly $140 million.

However, senior Guatemalan naval officers said the force was operating with boats that were not big enough and not always fast enough to catch the drug traffickers. They said the traffickers were traveling thousands of miles from Colombia and had started using hard-to-detect semi-submarine-like boats.

The officials said the special forces boats sometimes have to travel hundreds of miles out to sea and end up running out of fuel. They have to rely on fuel from the interdicted vessel to get home or sometimes float until they are rescued.

“We need a logistics vessel that can allow us to be more successful operationally,” one Guatemalan official told Haley as they toured the special forces base, before being taken out on one of the boats provided several years ago by the United States.

Haley also visited Honduras during her four-day trip to Central America and said she plans to brief Trump on her return about their efforts to fight drug and migrant trafficking and corruption.

She thanked both countries for their support in voting against a United Nations General Assembly resolution in December that called for Washington to reverse its decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by James Dalgleish