On Tuesday, May 12, 2011, some 10 SUVs and pickups with tinted windows pulled up to a local gasoline station in Coban, the capital of Alta Verapaz state, north Guatemala. The men were heavily armed and flaunting the fact. The gasoline station is about a half block from the national police headquarters in Coban. They filled their four-by-fours with close to 150 gallons of gasoline, then drove about 100 km north along a major highway to start a week-long criminal spree that has shaken the foundations of this country of 14 million people.

It began like it would end: with a mutilation. The first three victims were relatives of Raul Otto Salguero, a prominent local landowner. Two of their bodies were found on the side of a road, cut to pieces alongside a note: “Otto Salguero, I’m coming for your head. Att Z 200.” On Saturday May 15, the men intercepted Haroldo Leon, a member of a prominent Guatemalan crime family, as he drove down a road, killing him and two of his bodyguards.

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, the men entered Los Cocos farm, an area about 30km northwest of the tourist city of Flores, where they found some 28 farmhands. They spent the next few hours torturing and killing them. Authorities found 27 decapitated bodies. At the end of the slaughter, prosecutors said the suspects took the leg of one of the victims and scrawled a message for Salguero on the wall: “What’s up Otto Salguero. I’m going to find you and this is how I’m going to leave you.”

The men then returned to Alta Verapaz where, on May 25, they kidnapped Allan Stowlinsky Vidaurre, a local prosecutor from Coban, as he drove to pick up his son from a local sports complex. Stowlinsky’s body was found the next day, cut to pieces and left in black plastic bags on the steps of his office. In the days that followed, the government, acting with unprecedented swiftness, captured over 40 suspects, including two suspected commanders of the group and an accountant. But the damage had been done. The Zetas had notified the world: Guatemala would be theirs.

Origins and Expansion

How the Zetas, a criminal group with Mexican roots, has come to operate so thoroughly in Guatemala -- the most important transit, depot, and staging point for drugs in Central America -- has as much to do with the Zetas’ modus operandi as it does with the local dynamics of this Central American nation.

The Zetas are different from most other criminal organizations. They began in the late 1990s as the armed wing of the Gulf Cartel. Their core was former members of the Airborne Special Forces Group (Grupo Aeromovil de Fuerzas Especiales - GAFES). They take their name from their radio call signs. Zeta is the name for the GAFES’s high commander on the airwaves. Their superior training, tactics, and ruthlessness helped the Gulf Cartel become a national force and its leader, Osiel Cardenas, become the most feared cartel leader in the country.

But more than tactics, it was their strategy that changed the criminal game. At the heart of this strategy is the notion that the most important part of running the underworld is controlling territory. It was a decidedly military outlook that has had a profound impact on how both their rivals, and the region's governments, have reacted to the Zetas.

For the Zetas, controlling territory is the way they control what in Mexican underworld parlance is called “piso.” Piso is simply a quota or a toll that the controlling group collects for any illegal activity in their territory. Collecting piso was not a new strategy. Criminal organizations, especially those controlling border areas where illegal drugs passed into the United States, had done it for years. The Zetas simply mastered it, then expanded it.

At first, this was at the service of the Gulf’s leader, Cardenas. Cardenas’ focus was drug trafficking, thus the Zetas had a limited leash. With some exceptions, their role was to secure territory for moving cocaine north into the United States. But after Cardenas was jailed in 2003, the Zetas got a longer leash. This meant collecting “piso” on almost every criminal activity outside of drug trafficking: kidnapping, piracy, small-time prostitution and gambling. This allowed them to pay for their own growth and expansion where they simply repeated the process.

Inevitably, the Zetas sought more than just what is considered the crumbs of the underworld and began looking to control the drug trafficking business. From jail, Cardenas acquiesced and soon the leadership began buying into Gulf Cartel cocaine shipments moving north. Increased revenue accelerated a process already in motion: More money meant more troops and more territory, and the southward expansion continued until Guatemala entered the picture.

The Gulf Cartel was already operating in Guatemala. The country has a strategic importance that those in the underworld perhaps only come to realize with time. With its corrupt and bankrupt government, it is a nearly perfect setting to operate with impunity. Over the years, Guatemala has grown to be one of the region’s most important transit countries for illegal drugs. By U.S. estimates, more than a ton of cocaine passes through Guatemala per day. But it is more than just a fertile area from which to land and move drugs. It is the crux of the distribution chain, a place where the price for a pure kilo of cocaine is still a relative bargain. Gain control of the product in Guatemala and the margins can almost double relative to what one makes by taking possession in Mexico.

The Zetas in Guatemala

By 2007, the Zetas had done the math and realized they should move further down the narcotics chain. Zeta operatives began appearing in Coban, making deals with local Guatemalan operatives to purchase into loads they were moving from Colombia. The group’s purview and appetite had expanded further after Cardenas, who had still retained some control of the Gulf Cartel from his Mexican jail cell, was extradited to the United States in January of that year. The remaining Gulf leaders tried to keep the Zetas close, but the alliance was fraying. By the end of 2007, one of the Gulf leaders reportedly refused to meet with Zetas’ commanders in person. In the meantime, the Zetas kept working with the Guatemalan traffickers. One of them, Horst Walther Overdick, has been a critical ally from the beginning because of his local background, rearing, and business acumen.

Overdick grew up in Alta Verapaz. The mountainous state is the heart of Guatemala. It has a small airport and roads connecting it to the four corners of the country that facilitate its important agricultural industry. Alta Verapaz is Guatemala’s largest producer of cardamom, as well as a rising producer of palm oils, corn, and coffee. Overdick studied in Coban and after finishing at university started working as a local buyer of cardamom. Known as “coyotes,” these buyers trek to the remote spaces of the region during the harvest season, buy cardamom in bulk, then sell it in the Coban market.

Guatemala exports more cardamom than anywhere else in the world, but it is not an easy business. Locals say the producers and buyers were frustrated with the wide fluctuations in cardamom prices. To smoothen the rough periods, the locals say, these businessmen “diversified,” i.e., began to move other, sometimes illegal products. It was a natural fit for a person like Overdick. Through his time as a “coyote,” he’d obtained the infrastructure, know-how and contacts needed to move any product. And Overdick used this knowledge to enter the drug distribution game.

By the middle of the 2000s, local businessmen like Overdick had successfully diversified, taking his share of contacts with him. Overdick took on a nickname: "El Tigre" or "The Tiger." When the Zetas arrived in 2007, Overdick’s network ranged from national congress to the local police and military. A U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks said that during a search of Overdick’s house, Guatemalan authorities found three checks to Army Colonel Carlos Adolfo Mancilla. Mancilla was later promoted to Brigadier General and Deputy Chief of Staff.

Overdick had also maintained his agri-business cover and contacts in cardamom as well as other products. He’d allied with one of the largest importers of drugs and one of the largest purveyors of weapons in the area. What Overdick lacked was firepower, which is what the Zetas initially brought to the table. The Zetas also came with cash in hand and offered traffickers like Overdick a chance to expand their businesses.

But while men like Overdick had infrastructure, contacts, and direct channels to local political and judicial authorities that gave the Zetas a measure of protection, he was still beholden to other, larger players. At the time, the Guatemalan drug world, especially the eastern and northern portion of the country, was run by three clans: the Leon, Lorenzana, and Mendoza families.

Of these three families, the Leon family was the most belligerent, as well as the most ambitious. Juan Leon, or “Juancho” as he was popularly known, the group’s nominal head, had started as an operative for a local trafficker. He later married Marta Lorenzana, the daughter of the head of the powerful Lorenzana clan. By 2007, Leon had—via a combination of smuggling, theft, and intimidation—worked his way to the top of the food chain. He’d then spread into Alta Verapaz and Peten, buying land, and making contact with political and security forces, so he could impose his will on large and small distributors such as those in Coban. These locals in Alta Verapaz, especially Overdick, did not like Juancho Leon. They especially did not like having to pay him “piso” for using his territory near the border.

In 2007, just as the Zetas were making their first appearance in Coban, this disgust with Leon’s “piso” was boiling over. Local sources told InSight Crime that allies of the Leon family stole Overdick’s drug cargoes. Overdick responded by killing several members of the group. The Leon family then sent several assassins to Overdick’s house near Coban and killed several of his bodyguards. He narrowly escaped by hiding with his family in a hidden compartment of the house.

None of this is on the public record. What is on the record is a Guatemalan government version during a later trial of several Zetas’ operatives stating that the Mexican group and Overdick wanted control of the Zacapa corridor, a border state long known as a reception and staging area for drug traffickers. To be sure, for Overdick, allying with the Zetas represented an opportunity to rid himself of a malicious overlord. For the Zetas, it represented a chance to get a firmer foothold in Guatemala. It still can be argued to this day that both sides won in this deal. The Zetas and Overdick groups called a meeting with Leon in his territory. In a prelude to future means of cooperation, the two each provided troops for this “meeting.” This included some Mexican specialists and possibly even the participation of Miguel Treviño, alias “Z-40.” Treviño is the Zetas’ second in command and was eying Guatemala as a potential “plaza,” or drug corridor, where he could strengthen his position in his group and the underworld.

The multi-car caravan, like every one after it, left from Coban, and in a few hours made the rendezvous with the Leon group at a restaurant in Rio Hondo, Zacapa. The battle, which has been immortalized in song as a heroic struggle, was more of a massacre. With a combination of assault rifles and rocket propelled grenades, the Zetas and Overdick crews overwhelmed the Leon group. The first to fall was Juancho Leon. Ten Leon bodyguards followed. Scorched cars and corpses littered the scene. It was March 25, 2008. The Zetas had arrived.

More stories in this series:

Part II: The Modus Operandi

Part III: A Guatemalan Response?

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