GUATEMALA CITY -- Late in the afternoon of Aug. 1, a car carrying two men and a large green canvas suitcase was waved through security checkpoints directly onto the tarmac of La Aurora airport, where a commercial jet was being loaded for a flight to Miami. The men worked for the chief of Guatemala's anti-corruption office--but the suitcase contained 55 pounds of cocaine.

Acting with the assurance that comes naturally to high-level government officials, the men ordered the baggage crew to load the suitcase onto the plane.

However, a nearby airline official alerted members of an American-trained anti-drug unit stationed at the airport, who halted the loading, confiscated the cocaine and arrested one man. The other escaped.

On the surface, it was a victory--albeit a small one--in the effort to prevent Guatemala from slipping into the morass of drug-related corruption and violence.

"It's very scary," said one foreign drug expert, who requested anonymity. "It wouldn't take much to buy some of these people (Guatemalan officials). It is something that could happen very easily."

Moreover, a Western diplomat added, "All the elements of Colombia are here: violence, instability, an alienated population, poverty."

In fact, the aftermath of the seizure indicates that Central America's largest country already is suffering from the narcotics rot that is engulfing Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Panama.

American and Guatemalan officials say well over 4,500 acres in the country's mountains and jungles are planted in amapola, as the poppies used to produce heroin are called here. That figure is twice last year's estimate and continues to grow so fast that opium production outstrips the production of marijuana, Guatemala's traditional drug crop. The American street value of Guatemalan-produced heroin ranges from $2 billion to $5 billion, experts estimate.

"As it stands, 60% of the American demand for heroin could be supplied from here," one diplomat observed.

Beyond the home-grown production of opium, Guatemala is now a major transshipment point for South American-produced cocaine destined for the United States.

Each week, up to 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds) of cocaine is shipped through Guatemala, nearly all to the United States, according to foreign diplomats and drug experts.

And while 4,000 kilos of the drug have been seized here this year by Guatemalan police and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, "obviously most get through," conceded one expert, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Foreign drug experts say that until now, nearly all the production and shipment of Guatemalan cocaine have been controlled by the drug cartels operating out of the Colombian cities of Medellin and Cali. "The Colombians know where to invest money," one drug specialist said.

However, he says, Guatemalans increasingly are getting into the business.

The incident at La Aurora is cited as an example of that growth and as a measure of how high the resulting corruption has reached into the government.

The man arrested was Jose Fernando Minero Navas, a close associate of Col. Hugo Francisco Moran Carranza, at the time director of the Administrative Control Department, President Vinicio Cerezo's anti-corruption office.

Although Moran told local journalists that the airport arrest would be investigated, he defended Minero Navas as "one of the most efficient employees of this office, and I give him total confidence."

Later, the investigation was stopped, and Moran resigned. But he remains a close associate of Cerezo, according to some sources.

More alarming than the aborted investigation have been the actions taken against the Guatemalan police who carried out the arrest and seizure. One was shot and killed on the street, while the others received death threats and have gone into hiding.