A massacre in northern Guatemala, which has left at least 27 people dead, is another reminder of the growing influence exerted by powerful Mexican drug gang, the Zetas, in Central America.

The Zetas may have first entered Guatemala at the invitation of two drug bosses, Otoniel Turcios and Hearst Walter Overdick. But instead of partnering with local Guatemalan smugglers, the Mexicans became intent on displacing them.

The Zetas cemented their presence in Guatemala in 2008, when they ambushed and killed local crimelord Juan Jose Leon. Dislodging the Leon clan gave the Zetas power over key trafficking routes in the northern departments of Zacapa, Alta Verapaz and Peten.  It was in the latter that the recent massacre took place. In Peten, the government has now declared a "state of siege" similar to the security surge that failed to drive Zetas from Alta Verapaz at the end of last year.

As proved by the Peten killings, the Zetas' presence in Guatemala has drawn attention because of their willingness to use brutality. In contrast to the other Mexican cartel with sizeable presence in Central America, that of Sinaloa, the Zetas have frequently used extreme violence to establish control over a territory. While the Sinaloans have attempted to maintain their operations in Guatemala's western Huehuetenango department by buying the silence of authorities and negotiating deals with local traffickers, the Zetas have proven themselves more disposed to fight and kill their rivals.

In other Northern Triangle countries, the Zetas have been more accomodating to local gangs, although no less ambitious in expanding their operations. As recently noted by El Salvador President Mauricio Funes, the Zetas have made contact with gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Barrio 18 (18), which echoes statements made by the president and the defense minister in 2010

In El Salvador, the Zetas use gangs as drug peddlers and hired assasins, not for the purpose of trafficking cocaine via international routes. However, there is evidence that MS-13 is interested in deepening their relationship with the Zetas, with some cells reportedly soliciting training in combat from the Mexicans

Like Guatemala, where the Zetas have recruited from the army's special forces unit, the Kaibiles, the Mexican group has also reportedly attempted to recruit members of the security forces in El Salvador, according to officials. In July 2010, a former Salvadorean police officer was killed in a shootout with the Mexican army in Nuevo Leon, one of nine police agents who may have found work with the Zetas in Mexico, reports El Salvadorean paper El Diario de Hoy.  

In Honduras, the Zetas are based in the departments of Olancho and Cortes, managing air and sea routes for the trafficking of cocaine. Here, there is also evidence of the Zetas using local gangs as hired guns: in February 2010, Honduran intelligence officials said they intercepted a note in which Barrio 18 discussed receiving payment from the Zetas, in exchange for killing the security minister. The Mexican gang has also been able to establish control over human smuggling and arms trafficking routes in the country, according to one report

Elsewhere in Central America, there is little evidence of the Zetas wielding the same kind of power and influence as they do in the Northern Triangle. In Costa Rica, where the murder rate has doubled since 2000, reaching 11 homicides per 100,000 residents last year, the increased violenced is blamed on drug trafficking. But while the Sinaloa Cartel is known to have a powerful presence here, the Zetas are not yet believed to have arrived. Similarly, in Nicaragua, the Zetas are not thought to maintain personnel inside the country. 

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

The power of Colombia's elites is founded upon one of the most unequal divisions of land in the world. As of the early 21st century, one percent of landowners own more than half the country's agricultural land.1  Under Spanish rule, Colombia's agriculture was organized on the hacienda...

Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Honduras is currently one of the most violent countries on the planet that is not at war. The violence is carried out by transnational criminal organizations, local drug trafficking groups, gangs and corrupt security forces, among other actors. Violence is the focal point for the international aid...

Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Organized crime and the violence associated with it is the preeminent problem in Latin America and the Caribbean today. The region is currently home to six of the most violent countries in the world that are not at war. Four of those countries are in Central America...

Special Report: Gangs in Honduras

Special Report: Gangs in Honduras

In a new report based on extensive field research, InSight Crime and the Asociacion para una Sociedad mas Justa have traced how Honduras' two largest gangs, the MS13 and the Barrio 18, are evolving, and how their current modus operandi has resulted in staggering levels of violence...

Bolivia: the New Hub for Drug Trafficking in South America

Bolivia: the New Hub for Drug Trafficking in South America

Transnational organized crime likes opportunities and little resistance. Bolivia currently provides both and finds itself at the heart of a new criminal dynamic that threatens national and citizen security in this landlocked Andean nation.

Justice and the Creation of a Mafia State in Guatemala

Justice and the Creation of a Mafia State in Guatemala

As Guatemala's Congress gears up to select new Supreme Court Justices and appellate court judges, InSight Crime is investigating how organized crime influences the selection process. This story details the interests of one particular political bloc vying for control over the courts and what's at stake: millions...

The FARC 2002-Present: Decapitation and Rebirth

The FARC 2002-Present: Decapitation and Rebirth

In August 2002, the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) greeted Colombia's new president with a mortar attack that killed 14 people during his inauguration. The attack was intended as a warning to the fiercely anti-FARC newcomer. But it became the opening salvo of...

The Urabeños - The Criminal Hybrid

The Urabeños - The Criminal Hybrid

The mad scramble for criminal power in the aftermath of the demobilization of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) is over. The Urabeños, or as they prefer to call themselves, the "Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia," have won.

Mexico's Security Dilemma: The Battle for Michoacan

Mexico's Security Dilemma: The Battle for Michoacan

Faced with the government's failure to rein in the criminals, communities across crime-besieged Mexico have been trying for years to organize effective civic resistance. Michoacan's vigilantes express the most extreme response by society to date, but other efforts have been less belligerent. In battle-torn cities along the...

Uruguay's Marijuana Bill Faces Political, Economic Obstacles

Uruguay's Marijuana Bill Faces Political, Economic Obstacles

If Uruguay's proposal to regulate the production, sale and distribution of marijuana is properly implemented and overcomes political and economic hurdles, it could be the most important drug regulation experiment in decades.