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Guatemala: the next to fall?

Opinion: Mexico's southern neighbor is in danger of becoming a failed state.

While U.S. attention has rightly been focused on Mexico's drug wars — with high-profile trips by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before this weekend's Summit of the Americas — Mexico's southern neighbor is in far more serious danger of becoming a failed state. Reeling from gangs, corruption and pervasive poverty, Guatemala now faces well-armed, well-financed drug cartels.

Narco traffickers and organized criminals dominate an estimated 40 percent of the country, from the Mexican border to the Caribbean coast, as well as in the little-populated Mayan jungle and forest preserves of the Peten. Opium poppy fields grow freely. The major threat, though, comes from more than $10 billion in cocaine passing through Guatemala each year, with a tenth of the money laundered in the country and used to bribe officials.

The drug lords and their friends have become the self-ordained local governments and police, either directly or by buying off others. The Sinaloa Cartel, which has run cocaine trafficking in Guatemala for the past several years, is pitted against the Gulf Cartel newcomers. Their "Zetas" (paid assassins) are ratcheting up violence that inevitably hits "civilians." Last year there were more than 6,200 homicides reported in Guatemala.

As I walked the streets of Guatemala City a few weeks ago, the fear of local citizens boarding the city's buses was palpable, and it's no wonder. Bus drivers are a prime target as gang members tied to organized crime extort protection money from bus company owners and the bus drivers union. In the past year, more than 135 bus drivers in Guatemala City were assassinated, and in one case a grenade was exploded on a bus.

Marauding gang members rule entire urban neighborhoods, routinely abusing women and children. Kidnapping doubled last year to 438 cases, and there have been dozens more victims this year. Most suspect "dirty" or former police are behind the snatchings.

If thugs and drug dealers are caught, they are rarely successfully prosecuted. Impunity results from corruption and intimidation of police, prosecutors and judges. For example, one of the country's most notorious drug traffickers was recently stopped for speeding, and arrested after officers found two AK-47s in the car. He assured the officers that he possessed appropriate licenses and promised to have his daughter deliver them. The next day his daughter presented the judge with a thick envelope, which contained not licenses but thousands of dollars in cash and the photos of the judge's wife and children. The drug trafficker was released and the judge fled the country with his family.