Guatemala arrests national police chief, drug czar

GUATEMALA CITY – Authorities arrested Guatemala’s anti-drug czar and national police chief Tuesday in a case involving stolen cocaine and slain police, acting just two days before U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrives to discuss the drug war.

The detentions were the latest embarrassment for Guatemala’s embattled anti-narcotics effort and came amid U.S. complaints that corruption is impeding the battle to stop the flow of drugs north through Central America.

Attorney General Amilcar Velasquez said Police Chief Baltazar Gomez, anti-drug czar Nelly Bonilla and police officer Fernando Carrillo were detained after an investigation by Guatemalan authorities and the U.N.-sponsored International Commission Against Impunity.

No charges were immediately filed.

The commission’s head, Carlos Castresana, said the three arrested Tuesday, five other agents detained in January and five more officers killed in a gunbattle with drug traffickers last year were part of a criminal network that stole drugs from organized crime.

Members of the group had stolen 1,540 pounds (700 kilograms) of cocaine from a trafficker’s warehouse in the town of Amatitlan and returned for 770 pounds (350 kilograms) more and an arsenal of weapons when they were ambushed by gangsters, Castresana said. Five officers died in the April firefight that resulted in police seizing automatic weapons and about 500 rocket-launched grenades.

«We can’t say whether it was the first or last time they had stolen drugs,» Castresana said.

He said authorities became suspicious of the slain officers after learning anti-narcotics agents blocked federal prosecutors from reaching the crime scene and noticing the national police didn’t open an investigation into the officers’ deaths.

In a brief meeting with reporters at a detention center, Gomez didn’t address the accusation that he was involved with a police group that was stealing drugs. But he denied he tried to cover up the involvement of the five dead officers.

«When that happened I informed my superiors,» Gomez told reporters. «These things happen in our country. We will appeal.»

Bonilla called the accusations a vendetta against her, but she also didn’t specifically address Castresana’s outline of the alleged crimes. «I have enemies and I was on their way,» Bonilla told Channel 7 television.

Carrillo, the arrested police officer, and his lawyer could not be immediately contacted.

At the time of the gunbattle, police said it involved members of the Zetas, a group of hit men and drug traffickers linked to Mexico’s powerful Gulf cartel. The Zetas have extended their operations into Guatemala in recent years after coming under pressure from Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s drug war.

Clinton is scheduled to discuss Guatemala’s drug war when she meets with President Alvaro Colom on Friday, winding up her tour through Latin America this week.

Officials say Guatemala has become a transshipment point for cocaine heading north from Colombia, with Mexico’s powerful drug cartels deepening their reach into the impoverished Central American country.

Guatemala has witnessed the arrests of a string of top law enforcement officials responsible with overseeing the fight against both local gangs and foreign cartels.

Bonilla is the second drug czar to be detained and Gomez, who previously served as drug czar, is the second national police chief to be jailed for alleged drug ties in recent years.

In September, National Police Chief Porfirio Perez was suspended and later detained for allegedly stealing $300,000 from smugglers. He is awaiting trial.

In one of the biggest cases involving police officials helping cartels, former anti-drug czar Adan Castillo was caught on tape accepting $25,000 from an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to protect a U.S.-bound cocaine shipment. He remains jailed in the United States.

«Where legitimate institutions are weak and fragile then you’re going to have criminal institutions moving into that vacuum, and that’s what’s happening there,» said George Grayson, a professor at the College of William & Mary in Virginia who has written about Mexico’s drug cartels.

In a corruption case reaching the highest levels of government in Guatemala, former President Alfonso Portillo was arrested in February after being indicted in a U.S. court on money laundering charges. He already was on trial on corruption charges brought by Guatemalan prosecutors.