The growing number of flights carrying drugs across Guatemala has brought renewed attention to the government’s failed strategies to tackle drug trafficking.
So far in 2019, authorities have detected at least 30 small aircrafts used to transport drugs passing through the country, according to data from the Defense Ministry reported by Prensa Libre.
The most recent discovery took place on August 26 at the Laguna del Tigre National Park, in the border department of Petén. The aircraft was found on fire at a clandestine airstrip, with around 210 packets of cocaine strewn around it.
A few days prior, on August 17, authorities had intercepted another illegal plane at the same park. That plane was carrying 422 packets of cocaine and 10 Mexican citizens were detained along with one Colombian, the newspaper Periódico Correo reported.
On August 9, a new narco-plane was discovered, this time with 171 packets of cocaine and the remains of two Mexican men, on a clandestine runaway in the Suchitepéquez department to the south of the country, according to the newspaper La Hora.
SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profile
For years, Guatemala has been identified as one of the key points along drug routes headed towards Mexico and the United States.
So far in 2019, authorities have seized 11,741 kilos of cocaine in the country, according to official statistics reported by Televisa. This represents an increase in comparison to the same period in 2018, when 5,753 kilos were seized.
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Flights carrying drugs passing through Guatemala is nothing new but their growing frequency is almost certainly due to increased cargos of cocaine leaving Colombia to head north to the United States. But their increase has also spread doubts about Guatemala's strategy in dealing with them.
Small planes are among the most widely-used vehicles for transporting drugs as they are both easy to obtain and difficult to intercept, as Óscar Giovanni Pérez Figueroa, a spokesman for the Guatemalan Army explained to Prensa Libre.
But Pérez Figueroa added that six of the planes detected in Guatemala this year are jets. Jets are even more effective as they are capable of carrying heavier loads of between 3 and 5 tons, which gives them more flight autonomy in addition to being faster than lighter, propeller aircraft.
“They land the planes, they get out, they unload the shipments, they burn the planes, they leave the area, and an hour later or 45 minutes later, our units arrive by helicopter, Pérez Figueroa told Prensa Libre as an explanation for why few arrests are made.
In other instances, the narco-flights have been facilitated by corrupt officials.
In May 2018, following the discovery of a crashed plane carrying chemical precursors used for processing cocaine, an operation led to the arrests of five workers of the Directorate General of Civil Aeronautics (Dirección General de Aeronáutica Civil - DGAC), who were accused of omitting the relevant air controls.
However, a recent operation has also raised questions about the true effectiveness of the official strategy.
On September 4, three soldiers from the Guatemalan army died and five were injured in the midst of a confusing series of events in the community of El Estor, in the department of Izabal.
According to the official version of events, the soldiers were pursuing a light aircraft that, they believed to be carrying drugs, as news site Nómada reported, which led them to enter a nearby community where authorities say they were attacked. Members of the community have questioned this version of events.
In response, President Jimmy Morales declared a state of siege in some 20 municipalities in six departments, which Congress approved on September 7th. The state of siege will be in effect for 30 days and will limit the freedom of action, of transportation, and of demonstration among other rights. Such a sweeping response to an incident stemming from a flight carrying drugs seems exaggerated, if there is no other motive behind it.