WASHINGTON — Crime groups in cahoots with venal army officers are looting military arsenals in Central America, giving them powerful weapons that allow them to outgun police and challenge the region's regular armies.
The weapons run the gamut from assault rifles to anti-tank missiles, some of which the U.S. supplied during regional conflicts more than two decades ago. The slippage from military armories occurs regularly.
The feared Mexican organized crime group known as Los Zetas has stolen weapons from military depots in Guatemala three times in recent years, Guatemalan Deputy Security Minister Mario Castaneda told an anti-narcotics conference in early April in Cancun, Mexico.
In February, U.S. prosecutors unsealed a five-count indictment against a retired army captain from El Salvador for allegedly selling or offering C-4 plastic explosives, assault rifles, grenades and blasting caps to undercover agents.
U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and passed to McClatchy show that American envoys have repeatedly voiced concern over lax controls on military weapons depots in Guatemala and Honduras.
One cable from June 2009 carries a simple message line: "Rogue elements of Guatemalan military selling weapons to narcos."
The cable was sent after a narcotics raid on a warehouse south of Guatemala City on April 24, 2009, when agents clashed with "a number of heavily armed Zetas," leaving five agents dead. Inside the warehouse, the unit found 11 machine guns, a light antitank weapon, 563 rocket-propelled grenades, 32 hand grenades, eight landmines and abundant ammunition in crates with the seal of a Guatemalan military industrial facility.
U.S. defense analysts determined "with a high degree of confidence that many of these weapons and munitions came from Guatemalan military stocks," the cable said.
"The involvement of Guatemalan military officers in the sale of weapons to narco-traffickers raises serious concerns about the Guatemalan military's ability to secure its arms and ammunition," it added.
Moreover, it puts police tasked with confronting the cartels at a sharp disadvantage, the cable said, because they "now have to go up against weapons from Guatemala's own military."
Further piquing U.S. officials, Washington furnished some of the munitions.
That turned out to be the case in Honduras, where U.S.-supplied grenades and light anti-tank weapons turned up as far away as Ciudad Juarez, the narco-infested Mexican city on the border with Texas, and on Colombia's San Andres Island, an entry point for weapons going to drug-trafficking guerrillas.
The slippage prompted the Defense Intelligence Agency to publish a report entitled, "Honduras: Military Weapons Fuel Black Arms Market," an October 2008 cable said.
It noted that the Pentagon investigators determined from lot and serial numbers that six light anti-tank weapons found in Colombia "were part of a shipment of 50" sent to Honduras in 1992 under a U.S. Foreign Military Sales program.
U.S. diplomats were unhappy enough over "lax weapon control" to issue a formal diplomatic protest to the then-minister of defense, Aristides Mejia, another cable said.
Unsavory buyers sometimes approach guards at armories in El Salvador offering cash for weapons, Defense Minister David Munguia Payes said in an interview, but so far the losses haven't been great.
"What has been lost is little, maybe five or six rifles in the last three years. That is different from Guatemala's Mariscal Zavala depot, where almost the entire armory was cleaned out twice," Munguia said.
He said large stocks of munitions remain stashed around Central America from the 1980s and 1990s, when civil wars roiled the region.
"There are many grenades left over from the wars," Munguia said. "If you include all the years of conflict, about half a million grenades came in here."
Munguia's assertions of only minor losses do not do not help explain the case of Hector Antonio Martinez Guillen, a 32-year-old former Salvadoran army captain who was snared in a sting while allegedly offering U.S. undercover agents C-4 explosives, as many as 3,000 hand grenades and several Russian-made Sam-7 shoulder-fired missiles, apparently taken from unsecured military arsenals.
Martinez Guillen was lured to Washington and arrested in a parking lot near Dulles International Airport on Nov. 18. The Salvadoran, known as "El Capitan," had gone to Guatemala earlier in the year and trained with the Kaibiles, a Guatemalan special forces unit known to be infiltrated by the Los Zetas drug gang.
A Feb. 24 indictment against him says he believed he was dealing with a representative of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrillas, and would be swapping weapons for cocaine.
The Justice Department in 1997 declared the FARC a terrorist organization, and if Martinez Guillen is convicted of arming terrorists, he could face life in a U.S. prison.
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