Mexican drug cartels are carving out new territory in northern Guatemala, adding another layer of violence and crime to a country with one of the highest murder rates in the hemisphere.
In December the Guatemalan government declared a two-month state of siege in the rural province of Alta Verapaz, bordering Mexico, in order to crack down on the growing influence of the notorious Mexico-based Los Zetas cartel.
“Drug traffickers have us cornered,” Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom told the country’s Congress in January. “Just the weapons seized in Alta Verapaz are more than those of some army brigades.”
The state of siege deployed hundreds of Guatemalan soldiers in the region and allowed them to carry out searches and detain suspects without warrants. By the final day in February, 18 people allegedly involved in Los Zetas were arrested and reported crimes decreased by 50 percent, said Leslie Pérez, spokesperson for Guatemala’s Interior Ministry.
But many question if those gains can last now that the initiative has ended.
“We are aware the these criminals are waiting for us to retreat so they can return, but no security units will leave,” Colom told journalists.
While residents said the siege did, at least temporarily, drive away many of the powerful cartel figures, people still fear a return to the previous levels of violence, said Lorne Matalon, a reporter for Public Radio International’s “The World.” Matalon was in Coban in February to cover the results of the siege.
“[Before December] there were weekly if not daily shootouts in the town square between rival drug dealers. There are numerous reports of women being snatched off the street and stuffed into dark SUVs,” he said. “[The cartels] rule by fear, they would make sure that you could see them in the streets of Coban…. they knew they were beyond the reach of the law.”
Guatemala already had a massive problem with organized crime, especially in Guatemala City, but the Mexico drug cartels are a new, well-resourced threat looking to cash in on the country’s strategic placement on the drug trade trail through Latin America. The country contributes to more than 60 percent of the cocaine trafficked to the United States from the region, according to the U.S. State Department.
With Mexico beefing up efforts against the cartels within its borders, and the U.S. helping clamp down on illegal trafficking by air and water, the land routes through Guatemala are even more attractive.
“The climate in Mexico has gotten more competitive and so the forms of crime these groups are engaged in have expanded and there is a push to take control of strategic routes,” said Nick Miroff, a Washington Post reporter who was in Guatemala last month and regularly covers the issue in Mexico. “Drug shipments are coming up from Colombia or Panama, landing in Honduras then coming over land.”
Add those factors to the weak institutions and justice system in the country and Guatemala is “the perfect place to commit a crime,” said Adriana Beltrán, head of the citizen security program at the Washington Office of Latin America, a nonprofit that promotes human rights in the region.
“The likelihood of you being arrested and facing trial for any act is low,” she said. “You have a private sector that often refuses to pay taxes, problems of corruption, oversight and accountability.”
Even Guatemala’s newly-appointed attorney general, Claudia Paz, agrees.
“Guatemala’s state is a very weak state. It doesn’t have the resources to face problems as grave as that of narco-trafficking,” she said. “For traffickers to move down here was very easy because there are some areas of this country where practically there is no presence of the state.”
Under the Merida Initiative approved in 2008, the United States has appropriated nearly $1.6 billion to help Mexico and the countries of Central America and the Caribbean combat organized crime groups and strengthen institutions. But less than 20 percent of the funds were allotted to Central America, with the vast majority going to Mexico.
Citing the deteriorating security situation in Central America, an additional $165 million in U.S. assistance was designated for the region through the Central America Regional Security Initiative, formed in 2010.
“We understand that Central America is a bridge for many criminal elements,” a senior State Department official told the NewsHour. “Therefore it would be virtually impossible or extremely difficult to contain criminality or violence in Mexico or the Caribbean or Colombia without being able to manage or improve the situation in Central America.”
The Guatemalan government has made some promising progress, including increasing resources for security, but more could be done, the official said, “including reforming the police and improving the ability of the government to prosecute effectively the crimes.”
Perez said a state of siege is being considered in other parts of the country but no decisions have been made yet. The military is keeping a presence in Alta Verapaz in the meantime, but in areas where there are not soldiers, drug cartels could face little opposition, said Matalon.
“The government’s complete absence from vast remote areas means there is a power vacuum of sorts that Los Zetas have been able to exploit,” he said.
“They offer ‘plato o plomo, money or bullets’. In essence they say to farmers whose land they want ‘You can sell to us and leave this area walking, or you can refuse and you will be carried out of here feet first.'”