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Guatemala Warns of Drug Gang Invasion

Guatemala's president has warned that the country is being "invaded" by drug traffickers, following the arrest of another alleged member of a Mexico-based gang accused of massacring 27 people in the north of the country.

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In a press conference, President Alvaro Colom told reporters that Elder Estuardo Morales Madrid was responsible for leading the group that murdered 27 laborers on May 15, reported El Universal. The massacre has been attributed to the Zetas, a Mexican drug gang which has steadily increased its operations in Guatemala in recent years.

Morales, alias "El Pelon," has been identified by the security forces as a key leader of the group Z200, a local cell of the Zetas. He was captured on May 25 in San Benito, Peten, a city not far from the site of the killings.

The massacre provoked outrage in the country, particularly when it emerged that the victims had been farm laborers, mostly young, with no apparent connection to the drug trade. This, as well as the fact that many of the bodies had been tortured and beheaded, has forced attention towards the presence of foreign groups like the Zetas in Guatemala.

While these groups have been present in the country for years, their level of infiltration has reached an alarming stage. This point was driven home by the murder of a prosecutor working on the massacre case, whose body was found dismembered in several plastic bags on May 24.

In a recent interview with Spain’s El Pais, President Colom said that Guatemala is experiencing an “invasion” of foreign drug traffickers, and accused the two previous governments of colluding with criminal elements to “hand the country over" to them. His comments shed some light on what has made the province of Peten, where the massacre took place, so lawless. Colom said that 12 military outposts in Peten, which borders Mexico, had been dismantled by the authorities in order to leave the way open for drugs to be transported to the neighboring country.

Colom acted swiftly in response to the killings, declaring a state of siege in Peten. This put the armed forces in control of the department for 30 days, allowing them to ban public gatherings and perform searches without a warrant. In addition to Morales, at least two other high-profile Guatemalan suspects have been arrested in a series of police raids, including a former army sergeant and air traffic controller and a former member of the elite Guatemalan special forces unit known as the "Kaibiles." Guatemala’s elPeriodico asserts that officials have detained seven Mexican citizens in connection to the murders.

The military background of the most recent arrestee reinforces reports about the Zetas’ personnel preferences. Because the organization was founded by former Mexican special forces, they frequently recruit former military men for their discipline and firearms experience.

The armed forces have long been accused of being corrupted by drug money, and have previously admitted that elements in the institution have trained and armed the Zetas. In the wake of the killings, military officials have scrambled to demonstrate the forces' integrity. Guatemalan military spokesman Rony Urizar made a point of emphasizing to the media that Morales was not a member of the armed forces, according to the same elPeriodico report.

The military is not the only institution in the country to be hit by the "invasion" of drug money. As InSight has reported, the Guatemalan court system is notoriously flawed. Although criminal activity is rampant, less than two percent of all crimes result in a conviction, with allegations of criminal penetration at high levels of the justice system.

In the wake of the Peten massacre President Colom seems to be attempting to tackle this institutional corruption on a regional level, and is pushing for more anti-crime cooperation among Central American countries. Almost immediately after the massacre the president called an emergency regional security summit, which was attended by representatives of four other countries in Central America. The attendees released a statement expressing their solidarity with Colom, and pledged to work more closely against criminal networks.

In the El Pais interview, Colom also called for the creation of "a kind of NATO" to increase security in Central America. However, this is unlikely to happen in the near-term, due to a shortage of funds from the U.S.-backed Merida Initiative. Washington has earmarked 0 million aid for Mexico in FY 2011, compared to only $100 million for the whole of Central America.

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