Guatemala president orders army to join drugs fight

President Otto Perez Molina (c) during the ceremony appointing him as commander of the Army President Perez Molina (c) said he would provide the military with new equipment to fight drug cartels

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One day after his inauguration, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina has ordered the army to join the fight against drug cartels.

Mr Perez Molina, who is a retired general, called on the military to "neutralise organised crime".

Officials say the police in some areas of Guatemala have been infiltrated by drug gangs.

Guatemala is following the example of Mexico and Honduras, where the military is also tackling the drug gangs.

President Perez Molina, who is the first military figure to lead Guatemala since the return to democracy in 1986, has promised tough action against violent crime and drug trafficking.

During his campaign for the presidency, he promised voters to restore security with an "iron fist".

Police corruption

In December, outgoing President Alvaro Colom gave the army special powers to reclaim control of the northern province of Alta Verapaz.

Officials said Alta Verapaz was being run by Mexican drug traffickers belonging to the violent Zetas cartel.

A government spokesman said the police force in the province had been "totally infiltrated by the Zetas", guaranteeing "total impunity" for criminals.

The measure has allowed troops to hold suspects and conduct searches without warrants in Alta Verapaz.

Under the new orders issued by President Perez Molina on Sunday, the army will join in the fight against organised crime across the country.

In a speech to the armed forces, the president told the military "to co-ordinate and co-operate with the other security forces to neutralize organised crime through ground, air and maritime control."

He said he would provide the military with planes, speedboats and ground vehicles to help battle organised crime.

Transit country

Guatemala is a major transit point for cocaine smuggled from Colombia through Guatemala to Mexico and on to the US.

Guatemalan law enforcement officials say the Zetas cartel has increasingly moved its operations to Guatemala since Mexican President Felipe Calderon stepped up his country's fight against the drugs trade.

Guatemala is following in the footsteps of its neighbours by giving its military wider powers.

The Honduran Congress voted in November to allow troops to take on police duties to confront its murder rate, the highest in the world.

And in Mexico, the military has been part of the war on drugs for more than five years, ever since it was deployed by President Felipe Calderon in December 2006.

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