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Guatemala: the next to fall?

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

All efforts to deal with gangs, drugs and crime are made more difficult by Guatemala’s history.

For decades, Guatemala's elite simply has not allowed tax revenues to rise enough to fund needed schools, health clinics, rural development or justice. The 1996 peace accords that ended decades of civil conflict included unmet commitments to drastically reduce poverty, particularly among indigenous Mayan peoples who comprise a majority of Guatemala’s population.

The World Bank reports that only 14 percent of all indigenous children are enrolled in secondary school. And at 44 percent, Guatemala's child malnutrition rate is not only the highest in Latin America, it is among the worst in the world. In the cities, growing numbers of unemployed, unskilled youth are ready recruits for Maras and traffickers.

The underlying weakness of state institutions is now even more dangerous when Guatemala finds itself threatened by a well-armed and totally ruthless criminal adversary.

The answer lies not in growing the military, which the peace accords reduced by half from 62,000 to some 30,000, and which the past government cut even further, to 16,000. New security sector resources should be dedicated primarily to civilian law enforcement, training prosecutors and judiciary and re-building police — including vetted muscular units — that can go toe to toe with the traffickers. That is the only sustainable way to combat drug traffickers. A recent national security agenda agreed to by the government, church and civil society is a hopeful sign.

With U.S. encouragement, Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom has proposed adding 4,800 new police recruits this year and creating police units to hunt drug traffickers, organized crime heads and the most vicious Maras. In addition, he has proposed adopting the "high impact" court recommendation of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), to get a few serious crime courts able to withstand intimidation. Originally established by the United Nations to investigate the presence and activities of illegal armed groups in Guatemala, CICIG has become the key source of investigative support on drugs and crime.

However, successful efforts to produce stability and security will also require a new public-private partnership to develop programs that rapidly improve the country's social indicators and give the growing number of alienated young people real opportunities to learn, work and exercise their rights as citizens.

The Summit of the Americas will not get down to country-level solutions nor review the adequacy of existing counter-drug efforts — the failures of which are evident. However, Obama can join the hemisphere's leaders in pledging a new counter narcotics strategy for the Americas in 2009. It must begin with a reduction in cocaine demand in the U.S., and it must help strengthen police, prosecutors, and judges — and address the "soft" side of security by drastically reducing extreme poverty and meeting the needs of alienated youth. Guatemala is a good place to start.

Mark Schneider is senior vice president and special adviser on Latin America at the International Crisis Group.