Potential Hot Spots: Gangs Gone To Guatemala

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February 16, 2011: Over the last two years Guatemala has witnessed a steady increase in drug-related violence. This is partly the result of Mexican police and military squeezing drug cartels in western and northern Mexico. Ever the businessmen, the cartels have set up operations along the Guatemala-Mexico border. In the late fall of 2010 Guatemalan authorities decided to strike back at the cartels. The government declared a state of siege in Alta Verapaz department in December 2010, after reports of torture and murder surfaced (and could no longer be ignored, as they often are in rural Guatemala). The government itself is aware that the gangs operate throughout Guatemala. In June 2010 several severed heads ended up on the steps of Guatemala’s parliament. Another was left in a Guatemala City shopping mall. Media noted that severed heads delivered as a threat to police and other government officials are a common drug cartel calling card, especially in western Mexico.

Alta Verapaz is an area wedged between the Mayan highlands and the vast Peten region. The narrow panhandle of El Quiche department separates Alta Verapaz from Mexico. This is rough country with jungle –in other words, a great place to hide.

The Guatemalan Army has always had an interior security function, and in late December 2010 the army went into action in Alta Verapaz. In January 2011 the army conducted an extensive sweep operation in the region, designed to counter inroads made by the Zetas drug cartel. Several hundred troops participated and the soldiers arrested some two-dozen men suspected of working for the Zetas. Reports indicate the soldiers discovered that the narco gangs have very fine weapons, including machine guns and grenade launchers. One unit found an air strip in the mountains that the cartels used to ship drugs (probably cocaine) from South America to North America. The military later reported it seized five aircraft in the same area (Alta Verapaz).

Local residents (most are indigenous Mayan Indians) acknowledged that the Mexican drug gangs are around, but they say the Mexicans are collaborating with criminal rings that have operated in northern Guatemala’s wilder regions for years. The cartels do provide more money to bribe government officials. The national government knows all about that. In March 2010 the government announced that Guatemala's top ranking police officer and its chief anti-drug officer had been arrested on charges of corruption and homicide. The two men were accused of working with international drug traffickers.

The situation in Guatemala is not a replay of Mexico. In many ways it’s worse. Mexico can buy heavy firepower and fancy surveillance equipment. Guatemala can’t afford it. Since the civil war ended fifteen years ago, the military has shrunk from over 50,000 troops to around 17,000. The fact is Guatemala does not have the soldiers and police to protect remote areas of the country. Local gangs take control in the vacuum. The military’s equipment budget has been seriously underfunded. The cartels’ money advantage could translate into a firepower advantage in Guatemala.

The Mexican military is regarded as being one of the most trusted institutions in Mexico. The Guatemalan Army has a different reputation. The locals in Alta Verapaz know what they’re talking about when they say gangs have been there for decades. Guatemala’s long civil war left a lot of dead Indians in the region, some allegedly killed by gangs in cahoots with the military’s counter-insurgency forces. Alta Verapaz is also an area where there has been conflict between small landholders (like most of the Indians) and larger estates, which was a constant feature during the civil war. The civil war ran from roughly 1960 to 1996. No one knows how many people died in the war: best estimates run from 200,000 to 300,000. Many Indians do not trust the military because they recall the civil war. However, they don’t care for the cartelistas, either. The Indians were in a crossfire between the army and the Communists for 36 years. Now they are in a crossfire between the army and the cartels.

January 20, 2011: Guatemala’s murder rate is 46 per 100,000 people. It’s not as bad as its neighbors El Salvador (71 per 100,000) and Honduras (67). For comparison purposes, Mexico’s rate is around 15 per 100,000.

December 19, 2010: The Guatemalan government ordered the Guatemalan Army to retake Alta Verapaz department from Mexican drug gangs. The government gave the army the power to arrest suspected gang members and search them without judicial warrants. Some of the better units in the army have received counter-drug operations training from U.S. Army Special Forces teams.

 

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