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Running from Your Own Shadow

  • Written by Oswaldo J. Hernandez*
  • Sunday, 30 September 2012

The Peten province in Guatemala is a vast territory, so big you could fit the neighboring countries of Belize and El Salvador inside it. But despite its size, there is little room for co-existence and dead bodies are a common sight. "Either leave, or I’ll make you leave,” seems to be the motto here for both illegal and legal groups, including family-run drug trafficking organizations, Mexican criminal groups like the Zetas, palm plantation owners, cattle ranchers, property owners, oil men, and indigenous Q'eqchi villagers. 

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[See Plaza Publica's Spanish language version of this report, including maps and timelines, here]

On May 10, 2011, as the townspeople of Sayaxche were preparing to celebrate Mother's Day, a convoy of four trucks with tinted windows stormed through the village. The tires pushed up clouds of dust as they approached the banks of La Pasion River that divides this, one of two highways in Peten, between the northern section and the southern section.

The trucks came to a stop in front of the local ferry where there is a fork in the road. One way leads north, an isolated area that has little infrastructure -- there is no electricity for the next 20 kilometers. The other way leads south to the noisy bars along the sandy river banks, and the hustle and bustle of this busy municipality, along the edge of Guatemala's northern jungle region.

As the dust settled, masked and armed gunmen emerged from their vehicles. They approached the ferry and, after a few harsh words with the operators, were driving their trucks onto the flatbed to cross the river.

Then they disappeared, heading north in the same cloud of dust that brought them.

“When they disappeared, many of the townsfolk sighed with relief,” Abner Palencia, a boatman who earns a living transporting people across the La Pasion River, recounted later. Palencia makes one hundred trips a day across the river, but few as tense as that one.

A week later, the men massacred 27 farmhands at a ranch several kilometers north, and Palencia's relief turned to grief.

“It must have been them. We saw them just few days before. We didn’t know they would commit this atrocity,” Palencia said, raising his eyebrows, widening his eyes and making the sign of the cross before kissing his hand and raising his fingers to the sky.

The massacre at La Libertad on May 16, 2011, shook Guatemala and made international headlines. The government attributed it to the Zetas, a group made up of former Mexican and Guatemalan military personnel. Set up as an armed wing of the famous Gulf Cartel, the Zetas broke from their progenitors in 2006 and became completely independent in 2010.

“The Zetas,” says Palencia, “passed through and continue to pass through this spot. There is no other way across.” 

[See InSight Crime's Zetas Profile]

However brazen they seemed, the Zetas, and other drug trafficking groups, are not the only ones operating here. These others might be less visible, but they are just as vigilant. They monitor each other and try to avoid physical contact. And if their paths do cross, the outcome, like the massacre of 27 farmers, can alter the dynamic of the entire province. 

Violent drug traffickers, like the Zetas, are the most recent arrivals. But farmers and ranchers arrived here more than half a century ago; indigenous Q'eqchi and oilmen came about 25 years ago; and small-scale drug traffickers and African palm plantations popped up a little over a decade ago. There have been conflicts and power shifts in areas where the control over territory is still in doubt. For all these groups, Peten is a battleground.

1. Everyone Displaces Everyone Else 

You are in the middle of the river on the ferry. Everything is moving and creaking. On the riverbanks you see the two roads that divide Sayaxche in half. You think of everything you’ve been told that has been transported across this river over the last century, from food to livestock, crops, oil, timber, ancient artifacts and contraband. In the last few decades, recent model trucks with tinted windows started crossing. And more recently, trucks, loaded with palm oil, which is the new cash crop for the area, have started using the ferry. Everything is being reconfigured constantly here. Everyone seems to be displacing everyone else.

In the headlines, we read about drug traffickers being displaced by other, more violent traffickers. But behind those headlines, are vast palm oil plantations that are also pushing aside small towns and villagers. Everyone seems to want in on the trade. Land speculators, as if playing a board game, are grabbing large stretches of territory and then leasing them to the agro-industrial companies growing the palm. Cattle ranchers are slaughtering and selling their herds in order to get into the business of palm as well. The shifts belie the tranquil look of the fields, which, in the evening light, seem like large peaceful oceans of green.peten16

And there are also those with fewer opportunities: the peasants, mostly Mayan Q'eqchis, who are increasingly powerless to claim that anything located in this province the size of Israel is rightly theirs.

While the size of the province is formidable -- Peten is 35,834 square kilometers, or about a third of Guatemala’s territory -- there are only a handful of individuals who are pulling the strings. This battle is like the Wild West: a wide open, largely unethical and aggressive fight for control of every square centimeter -- whether for industrial, agriculture, or transportation services. Surrounded by the flow of the La Pasion River, it becomes vividly clear this is the center of it all. The ferry creaks. It is clumsy, slow, and heavy. But on the water, the movement of the boat is barely noticeable.

2. An Area in Constant Motion: Some Context

The death of 27 farmhands in La Libertad was one of the clearest signals that Peten was changing. But long before that May day in 2011, the Zetas had already advertised their presence and their strength. They rattled Peten, and Guatemala, when they made their first public appearance in the country. As it usually is with the Zetas, it came with bullets, grenades, explosions and murders. 

[See InSight Crime's Guatemala News and Profiles Page]

Their letter of introduction was addressed specifically to the longstanding family-run drug trafficking groups in Guatemala; it was signed with lead, fire, and death. It started as a plan for revenge. One local criminal outfit, led by a man named Juan Jose "Juancho" Leon, had stolen from the Zetas’ main ally in Guatemala, a man named Walther Overdick. Overdick was a former spice trader. Leon had overstepped his bounds.

"The Leones had begun to assert themselves in the province. They had property, cattle ranches. They were moving in on the ‘plaza,’ and were beginning -- by stealing the merchandise from others -- to dominate, making other families in the area uncomfortable," a former agent of the State Intelligence Secretariat (SIE) explained. “Because of this, the revenge attack had the support of other groups."

Overdick and the Zetas called a meeting with Leon and his armed wing, known as the Leones, in Zacapa, just south of Peten, on March 25, 2008. There, they ambushed him and his group, leaving Leon and several others from his group dead. 

"That day the rearrangement (of drug trafficking) started in Peten,” the former SIE official said. “It was the first jolt." 

By the time the Zetas had turned their attention to Peten, they had numerous advantages. The US government had indicted several Guatemalan kingpins, and the Guatemalan government was starting to pursue them in earnest. What’s more, the Zetas arrived as the province's economy was shifting. African palm plantations had monopolized much of arable land, especially in the southern part near Sayaxche, displacing traditional crops such as corn and beans.

Agro-industry has long served the Zetas' need to launder their proceeds. The group buys in bulk, thereby legalizing their illegal earnings. As the ex-mayor of Sayaxche, Luis Alberto Navarijo, explained: “The cultivation of palm has co-opted and changed the local economies and communities, but it has also transformed the legal businesses that traditional organized criminals in these zones use for their dirty money.” 

The Zetas arrival shifted the balance of power in the province. Members of the Leones group, specifically Giovani España, Santo Manuel Aguirre, and Juancho's brother, Haroldo Leon, replaced their slain boss. But just as quickly they were killed. As the old were replaced by the new, their modus operandi regarding territorial acquisition also became clear. The displacement of the old allowed them to obtain the land titles, and use these areas to establish drug trafficking corridors.

Now the Zetas are facing their own internal problems. The upper echelons of the organization, specifically Miguel Angel Treviño and Heriberto Lazcano, appear to be at odds. The split extends through southeast Mexico, including the state of Quintana Roo and particularly the Mayan Riviera and is impacting Peten.

“Their troops inside Guatemala are retreating, waiting for the best moment to return,” the former SIE agent explained, referring to the Zetas footsoldiers. “Two years ago, in contrast, this armed unit arrived to an area of Guatemala where the other players -- farmers, African palm (plantation owners), traditional drug trafficking families -- were in flux. They found this place and blended right in."

3. The Community that No Longer Exists

You drive down a rough dirt road after leaving the asphalt highway behind. You veer to the left, heading in the direction of Melchor de Mencos, a municipality in the northeastern part of Peten along the border with Belize. It is a place school textbooks describe as bearing some resemblance to the Amazon. You seek a glimpse of a community called El Arroyon, which was expropriated and disappeared ten years ago by the Leones. A former mayor of Dolores, Cristobal Calderon, has told you there are "dead" here.

“The dead who aren’t buried and who remain on earth,” she told you.

You repeat the phrase. It is a strange phrase, but it starts to take on more meaning as you travel along this lonely road, where your only companion is the dense, hot air that hits your face through the window. You see some houses -- massive, fenced in, built on top of some small hill -- but at first glance they seem to be abandoned. All around you there are only plantations and more plantations, one after another. The road also leads to Belize and is a route that was used by the Leones for their drug business. It’s dusty. The landscape is filled with wide ranches, cattle, and overgrown grass.

To understand this battleground, you have to look to the past: records and indexes of how land in Peten has been bought and sold; find the communities that don’t exist anymore; understand the movement, the extensive sale and lease of property because of African palm, the Q’eqchies that sell hundreds of plots, and the territory that has been marked by organized crime.

You come to a crossroads with a small military checkpoint. Adolescent soldiers, thin, with bland little mustaches, let you pass no questions asked. You don’t get two kilometers ahead when, suddenly, it hits you where you are and why you’re interested in this disappeared community.

“Ah, they killed these people. They killed each other. The entrance to El Arroyon is right here, so close, cross to the right and there’s the plantation,” a man who offers a toothless smile tells you. He holds a hotel-style edition of the New Testament in his hands. You’ve stopped in the middle of the road, just as you go through a community called El Calabazal (population: 211).

El Arroyon was a community of 28 such land titles. The former mayor Calderon says that each of the community members had plots of land to farm or keep livestock. There was a small school, a communal hall. A river that originated in the north of Belize and swelled up in the rainy season crosses through it. The community had easy access to Belize, where they could trade. El Arroyon, the former mayor stresses, was “a community,” just like the communities that are leaving Sayaxche due to the mass cultivation of African palms, a crop that requires a relatively small amount of manual labor. The process of buying and selling, of intimidation, even if the big organized crime bosses aren’t the ones who are responsible now, seems to follow a similar pattern throughout the province.

Ten years ago, some community members on the edge of El Arroyon started to sell their land. At the time, says Calderon, those community members didn’t know who might be interested in land so far from the city. But this outsider was offering a good price.

“All those dollars dazzled people, and little by little, the buyer obtained the entire outskirts of the village," Calderon explained. "The buyer bought everything around the edge ... until only the center of El Arroyon, with about 10 houses, remained as evidence of any sort of community.”

Surrounded, the last remaining inhabitants of El Arroyon saw no other choice but to sell. And when they did, they got little in return.

Giovani España, the one who was behind the takeover, converted the community into an enormous plantation. At the time, he hadn’t yet been pegged as a suspected drug trafficker for the Leones group. No one imagined back then that, following the assassination of Juancho Leon by the Zetas, España would take the reins of the drug business in northeastern Guatemala. It was during that time that the name Giovani España was forbidden in this area. If you felt the urge to say it, you had to keep your mouth shut, close your eyes, and ignore your ears.

After his murder, on June 26, 2008, España's name is a source of conversation. He's a myth, a legend, someone to talk about when you have nothing else to say. It's what happens when you live in an area without musicians to eulogize the dead drug traffickers. 

You haven’t traveled more than two kilometers down the road that leads through the estate of the now deceased Giovani España when you spot, at last, a house. It's the only one there. It is humble and small, and it belongs to the foreman. In the distance, a woman is reading a book so big and wide that it looks like a bible. She is sitting in front of the house. You wave to her and nothing happens. With every step you wonder how on earth you got this far. With every step you imagine yourself in the cross-hairs of a sniper. The woman seems strange; she is muttering. She seems to be talking to herself or reading aloud because no one else appears to be near.peten09

“Arroyon? This is Arroyon. The other Arroyon no longer exists,” she says, without taking her eyes off of what appears to be a bible.
“Is there anyone left from the old Arroyon? I’m looking for someone from the old Arroyon to hear about what it was like. How did it disappear?”


“I honestly couldn’t tell you. We just arrived here a few years ago. I wouldn’t know.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Oh, just around three years.”
“And the foreman is your husband?”
“Yes. But he’s not here.”

Just then an eye peeks through a crack in the wooden boards of the house. The eye looks at you, and you look at it. The eye knows you've seen it. It moves. Then from inside comes a noise, a stumble, and things falling.

Ernesto, sweaty and sporting an unbuttoned shirt and an unshaven beard, is the foreman. Nervous, surprised and breathing heavily in order to stay calm, he comes out and greets you. You explain to him what you are looking for, what you're trying to understand. You mention the displacement, the process of extinction of communities drowned in the sea of palm oil in southern Sayaxche. You ask Ernesto the foreman the same questions as you asked his wife, Maria, and you get the same answers. You then go further, asking about the deaths that occurred here and whether they are related to the community that no longer exists. But he keeps his silence.

Then he says in a lower, measured tone: “I do not know if you know, but this was the estate of the late Don Giovani España. The widow sold it, but the new owner continues to give us work. I don't know anything else.”

4. Peten is No Jungle

Guatemalans are convinced that Peten is a thick, impenetrable jungle full of howler monkeys, jaguars, rivers and ancient ruins. It is, as they are taught in school, the second Amazon of the continent, like a tourism ad.

The truth is that for the past 50 years a large part of it, almost three quarters of the province, is no longer a jungle. And if one had to describe Peten in one word, it would be "farmland."

Back in Sayaxche on the western border with Mexico, Rosendo Giron, a man with gray hair and the hornrimmed glasses of a math teacher, came to Peten four decades ago. He was 23 and a recently graduated lawyer when he made the move. Today he is 63 and remembers that when he first arrived, yes, it was a lush jungle, wild and hot. 

"In the sixties, the government was giving away land to anyone willing to farm it," he explains. He had obtained 13 cabellerias [174 hectares] through the Enterprise for the Promotion and Development of Peten (FYDEP, which existed from 1959-1989), and began to clear land. He uprooted and cut down trees to make it clear that his farm in Sayaxche was not a forest but was in fact a huge, flat estate, ideal to grow feed, and raise cattle.

The military dictatorships and the FYDEP divided the land solely between mestizos, or mixed blood, and whites, who were the first large ranchers to arrive in Peten. They cleared the trees as well, and made this province one of the largest lumber producers in Latin America in the 1970s.

Giron witnessed that, and several other agricultural trends in the region over the course of his life. He is, to his chagrin, known in Sayaxche as the historian of Peten. But if he's asked, he will tell what he's seen, from migration to petroleum; drug trafficking to palm oil; and, of course, the Zetas.

“The first displacement of rural Q'eqchi (indians) occurred when they built the road connecting Coban, Alta Verapaz, to Flores, Peten,” he starts. “It was part of the counterinsurgency plan, and was constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers in order to neutralize the guerrillas in this area. That was in 1982. With the road came the first multinational oil companies and the pipeline, hundreds and hundreds of meters long, which was built on the road’s edge, stretching all the way to the Atlantic.

“After FYDEP came INTA (the National Institute of Agricultural Technology), and then after the signing of the 1996 peace agreement came Fontierras (the Land Fund). Each was intended to regulate land titles, to implement a legal structure over land sales and prevent anyone from displacing people from their properties. Plots of idle land were distributed by the government to the indigenous groups that had none. And there was also corruption.”

And so Peten went from being a jungle to a zoo full of different players vying for land -- some seeking routes for drug trafficking, others agricultural land, and a small minority wanting to live off of their harvest.

In sum, Peten began with farmers and ranchers in the late fifties; the Q'eqchi in the beginning of the eighties and petroleum in the late eighties; family-based drug traffickers in the early nineties; palm oil monoculture in the 2000s; and the Zetas appearing in mid-2008. The treeless jungle now has some dangerous wildlife.

5. One Plant Everywhere You Look

You have never seen an African Palm before. For that reason you hope to get a glimpse of at least one along the side of the road and you keep close watch while driving. You see corozo palms and coconut palms, and ask earnestly and naively if each one is an African palm. Later you will be tired, bored and weary of African palms. They come in various sizes and different shades of green. They grow in valleys surrounded by cobble-stoned hills, and on stretches of land so flat and vast they seem like endless prairies. Some are older than others. You'll eventually be sick of them and their orderly rows, perfectly arranged in straight lines on both sides of the road. And then you will have seen enough of the African palm to realize that it is really just a small palm tree, and is ultimately an ugly plant. You will see that its fruit resembles an ugly red pineapple. And that in the middle are plum-like seeds, which are also ugly. And that these ugly seeds, when pressed, release a thick yellow liquid, which is even uglier. The African palm, you will say, is everywhere and it is a horrible plant.

6. Claustrophobia 

The communities of Nueva Esperanza and La Torre are located in the middle of nowhere, if nowhere is a place surrounded by a vast sea of African palm, as La Torre and Nueva Esperanza are; and if the middle of nowhere also refers to those community plots that were sold less than five years ago. In the words of community leader Juan Yaxal: "The palm reduced communities to nothing, leaving a great majority of people without land."

Many locals in this nowhere, in effect, have nothing.

A report by the Institute of Agrarian and Rural Studies of the Coordinator of NGOs and Cooperatives (CONGCOOP) says that the amount of land used to harvest African palm grew by 590 percent between 2000 and 2010 in Guatemala. The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC) found a total 58,800 hectares of African palm oil production in Guatemalan territory in 2010. In Sayaxche, it went from 465 hectares of palm in 2000, to 14,986 in 2006, and 28,554 in 2010.

"All of the land suitable for sugarcane and palm, are also suitable for maize cultivation," the report concludes.

Marcelino Chuc is the deputy mayor of the community of La Torre. To him, the facts and figures and statistics are a mystery, and he does not care for them. He is concerned, he says, by more important things, things that are not seen in academic texts but are very real nonetheless.

“In the south of Peten a 'coyote' isn’t someone who takes people (migrants) to other places. They’re people who buy up properties. They’re treacherous," he says. "Here in La Torre, we almost disappeared thanks to them.” 

As an example, Chuc tells the story of one Salvador Caal.

"They sniffed out Salvador Caal very early on," he begins. “Salvador had a plot of land very close by. They wanted it. Because he was smart, he wasn’t easy to manipulate. He wouldn’t accept
peten11money or anything else for it. He was happy, he said. But the coyotes surrounded him. They bought plots all around it, insignificant little pieces of land, not even full land parcels. On these they built a small, poorly made wall. It was all legal. Salvador was prevented from leaving or entering his land from all sides. And because he didn’t know anything about contacting lawyers or representatives or the Secretary of Agrarian Affairs (SAA), or organizing as we do now, he fought them on his own. He fought them with weapons, with his bare hands, but Salvador was an 89 year-old man. They say he ended up selling his land for 20,000 quetzales ($2,500), just there, where the palm grows. Now Don Salvador is dead.”

Confinement can produce peculiar forms of claustrophobia. Between the African palm forests there are many who suffer from these disorders. Most are cases of anxiety. They happen on a community-wide scale. It is not the fear of enclosed space itself, but of the potential negative consequences of not being able to leave. This occurs when the African palm will not let you leave.

Communities like Santa Isabel and El Pato, near Alta Verapaz, another province to the south of Peten, have turned into small islands, lost somewhere in the ocean of African palms. Before, inhabitants of these communities only had to walk down a dirt path for a few miles to get to the asphalt road leading to the municipal center of Sayaxche. It was a half-hour walk. Today, it takes about four hours to make this journey. Jose Cabnal is the elementary school principal of Santa Isabel, and is one of those who feels trapped. He says that, whenever someone has any business or legal proceedings or needs to go to the hospital or the market, they must go around the vast expanses of land belonging to African palm companies, with their huge gates and checkpoints and armed security guards.

This claustrophobia has caused some to flee. Those left don't know how to survive. In some cases, it has caused conflict. Cabnal says that the experience is like the anxiety you feel when you are trapped inside a room and can't get out. "Locked in, fenced in. It's how we live now," he says.

7. African Palm Companies

Every major player in the agro-fuel business is present in the Peten. Of course, they certainly fill a very short list. Olmeca and Reforestadora de Palmas (REPS) of the HAME Group is one of those. It is in Sayaxche. Tikindustrias S.A. is another. It's owned by the Weissenberg sugar family and the Pantaleon group, which is itself owned by the Herrera family. Nacional Agroindustrial (Naisa) of the petroleum-owning Köng Brothers, also operates here. Palmas del Ixcan, which belongs to the Arriola Fuxet family, is another one on the rise. More recently, Naturaceites S.A. has been in the process of acquiring land in the municipality of San Luis, a company owned by the Valdes and Maegli families. These are some of the most powerful families in Guatemala.

8. The Coming Battle Between All Sides

Once again, you have left the comfort of the main road. It has turned to dirt and is another lonely stretch, full of puddles, holes and rocks. You’ve been told that the African palm is expanding into the municipality of San Luis, just to the east of Sayaxche. Here on this new battleground, which takes up one-eighth of Peten, all sides are about to meet in one place. 

In San Luis, you hear, they are already preparing for this fight. There is, to begin with, a region that is attempting to identify itself as official Q'eqchi indigenous territory. Andres Ixim, in the community of Bolojshosh, is one of the local leaders who gives an overview of their plans. He confides that they have been planning to erect borders in secret. The space, you realize, will be vast, but difficult to obtain. It will definitely require political, legal and legislative clout. Their hope is that it will have at least 20 micro-regions, each with 10 communities. It would run from Bolojshosh, near the municipal capital of San Luis, to the community of El Naranjal, on the border of Peten and Alta Verapaz province.

"Indigenous territory is a right inherited from our ancestors," he says. "It serves to create an important sense of unity, of community, where people make a commitment to those of their own blood.” 

But here in this municipality, there are other problems related to the proposed indigenous territory: it's closely linked to African palm companies and drug traffickers.

Tension is rising in the area. In El Naranjal, the military and police patrols -- something that is less obvious in neighboring Flores, Poptun, Dolores, Sayaxche, La Libertad and Melchor de Mencos -- make you uneasy. Just two months prior, machine gun fire broke out here. By the time the shooting had subsided, four people were dead. The confrontation, neighbors tell you, was between organized crime groups. In El Naranjal, they say it started when one of the two armed groups that operates in the area tried to invade a farm owned by the other local criminal group. The farm, as it turns out, is one of 10 plots of African palm in the area. 

“That farm belongs to Ottoniel Turcios Marroquin,” Sgt. Felipe Villalobos says, referring to one of Guatemala´s best-known drug lords. “That's no secret around here.”

Villalobos is in charge of the military patrol that was deployed to El Naranjal just two days after that shooting. He says the details are still unclear. "What we don’t know is whether it was a struggle between middle managers in the Turcios Marroquin structure, or whether it was an attempt by campesinos to take land that had no apparent owner."

Both are possible. 

Villalobos has been here, along with five other soldiers, since June 2. 

peten06“The army is here in this area as a deterrent," he explains. "It is true that we are here in Peten to address drug trafficking. But we are also charged with upholding the rule of law. Invading a farm is a violation of the law.” 

Villalobos says this is Zeta territory. It makes sense. Between 2006 and 2010, Otoniel "El Loco" Turcios, according to officials, was a key figure in orchestrating the Zetas’ incursion into Guatemala. His boss, who was once in charge of this area, was Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, alias “Z-40.”

But Turcios, Villalobos says, operated between Alta Verapaz and Izabal to the south of Peten, where he had transportation and construction companies, some of whom received government contracts. He was captured in Belize in October 2010, and extradited to the US. The sergeant says that Turcios had leased the land where the shooting had taken place, as well as the 10 surrounding palm plots. 

At least one other analyst agrees.

"Turcios, like many other drug dealers in the area, was a pioneer of the African palm," says political analyst Miguel Castillo, a consultant for several palm oil companies. He says he knows of cases where drug trafficking families have tried to sell land to palm oil companies.

He adds that, "In our analysis, as palm companies, we try not to be close to these people, we try to distance ourselves from drug traffickers."

In this conflict-ridden region, people -- soldiers and campesinos alike -- are no longer afraid of narcos. Unspeakable names from years ago are simply context, anecdotes, stories for sunny afternoons in the shade. It has reached the point where narco-conversations are commonplace, even trivial; household names for people and campesinos. And as some have been killed or captured and will never come back -- like the Leones, Turcios, Lorenzanas and others -- people use their stories to pass the time, as evening entertainment.

Villalobos mentions all of the names of the drug trafficking families, and says that one of his orders is to protect economic investments. So the detachment of El Narajnal, in San Luis, is under orders to protect investment in agribusiness. A recent presidential order has called for coordination of the sixth and the first brigades, in Peten and Alta Verapaz, to be combined, so that they can better patrol the border between the provinces, where palm oil, drug trafficking and campesinos collide.

9. An Area of Investment

Talking about anything other than the good side of their business with company owners in Guatemala is an ordeal. And arranging an appointment to talk about the darker side is nearly impossible. Company owners are tight-lipped by nature, and will dig in if they feel cornered. Plaza Publica made multiple lengthy, bureaucratic and unsuccessful attempts to talk to Hugo Molina of Repsa S.A., Christian Jose Weisenberg of Tikiindustrias S.A., Jose Maria Kong from Ideal Oil and Naisa S.A., as well as Jose Enrique Arriola Fuxet from Palmas del Ixcan. 

However, only Erasmo Sanchez, Corporate Affairs Manager at Naturaceites S.A., which makes Capullo oil products, was willing to talk. This might be because Naturaceites is one of the companies that, after establishing plantations in San Marcos, Izabal and Alta Verapaz, is a newcomer to the trade in Peten. Sanchez, for his part, says is interested in helping us understand what is happening there. 

PP: So is Naturaceites S.A. aware of the powerful groups vying for control of some parts of Peten?

ES: We are interested, certainly, in an expansion into the San Luis area. Our company specializes in the production of oils for human consumption. We do not produce agro-fuels. We are aware that the land is suitable for palm cultivation, and investment. Nevertheless, we don’t have anything like an assessment of the people who live in these places, of who they are and what they do. We don’t have, to put it a different way, something like an ‘intelligence report.’

PP: Still, you must be aware of the recent violence in the community of El Naranjal, with four people killed on a palm plantation farm, precisely in San Luis.

ES: We know what happened. But to respond or act on it is not our job. That is the responsibility of the state.

PP: Was the farm where the conflict took place growing palm for Naturaceites S.A.?

ES: The information we have is that palm cultivation on that farm is not being tended to. It isn’t used. The palms are going to waste. And of course, the answer is no, it is not within our area.

PP: How does the process of planting work, the dynamics of which properties you work with and where you obtain the palm fruit to produce oil?

ES: There are basically three ways we do it. One is to establish partnerships with outside vendors. We receive and buy their harvest, and produce oil. The second involves leasing the land. The third is directly purchasing the property. If you are asking whether we screen who brings us their harvest, we do not. The state would be responsible for notifying us in the case of any anomalies.

PP: Do you have views on how campesinos have been selling their land in the area?

ES: Like I said, the state is responsible for mediating any anomalies. Our company’s land acquisition has always been legal. If everything is legal, I see no problem. It's within our rights. When we purchase (land), of course we need to be sure that the title is in order.

PP: In recent years the drug trade in Guatemala has been rocked by several important arrests. Do you see this as positive for investment, in terms of providing a secure environment?

ES: It is certainly a boon to investment. Naturaceites tries at all costs to avoid dealing with people and businesses of a dubious nature. State presence gives us an indication that our interests are being safeguarded.

It is clear then: African palm is indomitable, with little sign of abating or changing its modus operandi. Investment, you might say, is more important than the conflicts happening around it. The idea of “development” or “progress” is even bigger than the whole of Peten in Guatemala.

“It could be stronger politically than the any other groups that are active in that territory,” says Castillo, the palm analyst.

10. Some Turbulence

Back on the ferry, in the middle of La Pasion River, everything creaks and sways. Here Peten is cut in two, at an impasse. Indeed, the divides in this province run deep. They are both historical and current, and ultimately spread over the entirety of this immense surface. Between the Q'eqchi, the farmers, the ranchers, the drug trafficking families, the palm oil companies, the oil pipeline, and newer more violent cartels, the lines between them seem difficult to comprehend or decipher. On either bank are the two side roads that cut Sayaxche in half; to the north is a plateau, and to the south is a small and ugly town. You think that in this area there is only one important piece missing from the giant puzzle around you. You have just come across it, and it has not occurred to you until now: the government. And when the government doesn’t exist, another force will ultimately assume this role, perhaps with weapons, bullets, and grenades; or maybe through intimidation by fencing off, buying out, or making threats; or even through community organizing. It will take over. Others will follow its rules.

The question that remains unresolved is what might happen down the road. Drug trafficking, palm plantations, organized campesinos. Everyone is there, close, rubbing against each other and waiting for a chance to stake their claim. On La Pasion River, the ferry leaves only turbulence in its wake.

*Reporter, Plaza Publica. Photos courtesy of Plaza Publica. See Spanish language version of this story at Plaza Publica here.

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