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Guatemala Risks Losing US Aid - 2003-01-17

Guatemala is facing a possible suspension of U.S. aid for failing to cooperate in the war on drugs. The country risks being included on a U.S. list of "decertified" nations that do not cooperate in the drug war.

Guatemala has emerged as a significant drug-trafficking center and a serious concern for U.S. authorities, who say they are growing weary of Guatemala's poor drug interdiction record and its corrupt anti-narcotics police.

Guatemala is a major trans-shipment point for drugs bound for the United States from South America.

Guatemala has never before appeared on the annual list of decertified countries, thanks to its cooperation with the war on drugs. But sources here and in Washington say this year, that could change.

In 1998, the Guatemalan government seized 10 tons of cocaine, and it seized 11 tons in 1999. In the past three years, since President Alfonso Portillo assumed power, authorities have only seized an average of two tons per year.

Guatemalan Vice Minister for Foreign Relations Gabriel Aguilera maintains that authorities are doing all they can to prevent and combat drug trafficking, but that the task is just too overwhelming.

But according to an embassy official, who asked that his name be withheld, the problems in Guatemala have more to do with corrupt anti-narcotics police than inefficient policing. Last October, then Undersecretary of State Otto Reich said that drug traffickers had ties to, and influence with, the Portillo administration.

When a nation is decertified the U.S. government suspends almost all its aid, and is required to vote against that nation's request for loans from multinational lenders. A source within the Guatemalan government says it appears that Washington will decertify Guatemala, but invoke a clause that allows it to waive the attendant sanctions.

That option might do less economic damage in this country, where more than half the population lives on less than two dollars a day. But some say, it would still sting the current administration, as it heads into an election year.