Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom has said two government officials planted listening devices in his home and offices at the behest of drug traffickers. Though plausible, Colom's effort to lay blame on the drug cartels active in Guatemala represents a move to shift attention away from his administration's security problems.
Carlos Quintanilla, former Guatemalan secretary for presidential security and administrative affairs, was responsible for coordinating a spy ring that placed as many as seven listening devices in the home, private office and presidential office of Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom, the Central American country's president said Sept. 7. Arrest warrants were issued Sept. 6 for Quintanilla and Gustavo Solano, the former head of the Strategic Analysis Secretariat, after both men were dismissed from their posts. In his Sept. 5 announcement of the discovery of the devices, Colom blamed the spying on organized crime — meaning drug traffickers — a charge that could well be true. Mexico's drug wars have been spilling over into Guatemala in the form of gunbattles and high-level arrests. Conducting surveillance on the president would be a plausible next step for drug traffickers in Guatemala, who pose a very real threat to security in the region. But assigning blame to the drug cartels is an attempt to deflect attention away from Colom's own internal security problems. The firings and arrests of Quintanilla and Solano, coupled with Colom's accusations, suggest the cartels successfully penetrated the president's security apparatus. Organized criminal groups almost certainly would need to have someone on the inside — preferably on the presidential security detail — to plant listening devices in the president's home and office. Technicians working on the president's office or residence presumably would be vetted (and probably accompanied) by security forces before being granted access to sensitive areas. Having a mole, or several, on the security team would make it much easier for the cartels to get people into these areas. Though Mexican cartels have been most active in Mexico, Guatemala is a strategic arena for drug trafficking, as it sits astride most of the overland routes traversing Central America from South American drug-production sites into Mexico. Crackdowns by U.S. and Mexican authorities on seaborne and airborne drug trafficking have made land-based routes increasingly crucial for the cartels. If Colom is right and the cartels were behind the listening devices, the cartels clearly have expanded their abilities and broadened their goals. Drug traffickers already are very active in Guatemala, so much so that the Interior Ministry announced plans in June to deploy hundreds of troops, elite presidential guards and counternarcotics police to the Guatemalan-Mexican border to combat growing drug-related violence there. In an example of this activity, Guatemalan authorities arrested Daniel Perez Rojas, the deputy leader of cartel-linked enforcer group Los Zetas, in March after a shootout in Guatemala City that left 10 people dead. If successful, the presidential surveillance could prove instrumental in undermining Guatemala's efforts to combat drug trafficking. From tactical plans on drug seizures to the fate of Rojas (still in Guatemalan custody), all executive orders regarding Guatemala's fight against drug trafficking and violence must now be considered compromised. To be sure, the cartels are not the only actors in Guatemala that could have planted the devices. The political opposition — which is tied to the security services — could also have an interest in spying on Colom, Guatemala's first left-wing president since the 1950s. Guatemalan security services, with connections to the previous leadership, feel they are entering uncharted waters with Colom and so could want to keep better tabs on him. The also could conceivably have been spying on the president at the behest of the cartels for a handsome commission to supplement meager state wages. Regardless of who was behind the spying, Colom apparently does not have a firm grasp on his security situation. By blaming drug traffickers, he is drawing attention away from his internal problems and toward a (very real) external threat. With $20 million to $50 million on its way to Guatemala over the next three years in U.S. counternarcotic support and only eight months into his presidency, Colom is understandably eager to portray Guatemala's rampant corruption as connected to the drug trade.