A Guatemalan newspaper editor shines a spotlight onto networks of corruption intertwined with the state, and how these may be developing to try to keep their hold on power in the coming decades.

In an article titled “The shadowy ‘sleeper’ cartel” (“El tenebroso cartel de los “Durmientes”), elPeriodico’s editor, Jose Ruben Zamora, describes the roots of the networks of organized crime built into Guatemala’s institutions. Zamora is one of Guatemala’s most prominent newspaper editors, who has suffered kidnapping, attacks on his house, and a murder attempt due to his outspoken criticism of power-holders in the country.

Zamora’s “Sleeper Cartel” is a network involving ex-ministers and military officials, who have “their own mafia organization of protection and silence.” The result of this is a state “infiltrated and controlled” by organized crime.

He identifies the roots of this phenomenon as going back to the time of president Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia, who was in power from 1978 to 1982, and escalating under President Alfonso Portillo (2000 to 2004).

Zamora’s claim is not just that the military has been infiltrated by organized crime, but that the high command has been thoroughly and systematically populated with puppets from these groups. According to the editor, this has been perpetuated in recent years by the placement of carefully chosen men in key positions in the army -- “sleepers” -- who would then gradually be promoted to the highest positions, from the end of Portillo’s rule in 2004, and as far into the future as 2020.

The men placed in the army on behalf of this “cartel” have, Zamora argues, carried out crimes such as selling military weapons to drug traffickers and guerrilla groups, stealing large sums of money from the state, and helping drug traffickers to evade justice and to consolidate their territories.

These “parallel” or “hidden” powers have been working side by side with, and through, Guatemala’s state for many decades. Groups known collectively as the Illegal Clandestine Security Apparatuses (Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad - CIACS) emerged out of the security forces during the country’s 36-year civil war, to manage various criminal enterprises, from drug trafficking operations to extracting vast sums of money from public funds. Officials on the inside of the state apparatus provide services to those in the outlying parts of the network, who are active members of Guatemala’s criminal gangs, such as local drug trafficking families like the Mendozas and the Lorenzanas. There role includes ensuring that gang members will not be prosecuted or arrested, and providing them with weapons and intelligence.

As InSight Crime has argued, the days of the original CIACS powerbrokers controlling all criminal activity in Guatemala are ending, or over. The men who founded these networks formed their careers during the war, which began in 1960, and they are ageing. The article highlights the role of General Francisco Ortega, for example, who according to Zamora has determined the appointment of many of the defense ministers in the last 30 years. 

Zamora’s piece, then, gives an insight into what the CIACS network has become, and how its original founders are trying to preserve it and hand their power to a new generation by embedding them within state institutions. The picture of the army officers groomed by the networks for power in the military offers a view of how the criminal networks descended from the CIACS currently interact with the state, and how traffickers are forming the necessary links with officials.

Current President Alvaro Colom is no exception to this line of illicit power, Zamora says. According to the newspaper editor, army General Mauro Jacinto -- who was later murdered -- told him that, as a candidate, Colom had received large sums from local trafficking groups and from Mexican-based Zetas.

Progress has been made in Guatemala in recent years, including under Colom. More than 2,000 corrupt officials have been fired under the aegis of the United Nations' Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comision Internacional Contra la Impunidad in Guatemala - CICIG), which came to the country in 2006, and ex-President Portillo was later brought to trial, accused of embezzling large sums of public money, though he was later acquitted. Meanwhile, President Colom has made at least some progress in tackling his country’s problems, appointing an attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, who has been working to tackle the country’s soaring impunity rates.

Amid these signs of progress, Zamora’s article gives an idea of how intractable these ingrown networks of corruption may be, and how they might transform themselves to retain their hold on power.