As part of the second phase of the US-led counter-narcotics strategy in Central America, codenamed "Operacion Martillo" (Operation Hammer), 171 US Marines were deployed to Guatemala last week. The first phase of Operacion Martillo began in January focusing primarily on drug trafficking through the Gulf of Honduras in the Atlantic. The second phase is expected to last 120 days, reported Siglo 21.
According to Wired magazine's security blog, Danger Room, the deployment of Marines marks a notable shift in US operations in Guatemala. While Marines have typically been involved in training their Guatemalan counterparts in the past, they will now be armed and actively engaged in monitoring and tracking down drug traffickers from the air. They will have use of four UH-1N Huey helicopters and be working with around 2,000 Guatemalan soldiers who they will call upon to interdict suspected traffickers.
Staff Sergeant Earnest Barnes, public affairs chief for Marine Corps Forces South, told Danger Room, "It's not every day you have [some 200] Marines going to a country in Central and South America aside from conducting training exercises."
Barnes stressed that the Marines will only be involved in surveillance and are not permitted to use their weapons except for when they are fired upon. However, Danger Room notes that this does not mean they won't be drawn into a firefight with drug traffickers, particularly the Mexican Zetas gang who operate in the country, adding, "Nor is it true to say the US isn't already involved in a shooting war in Guatemala."
The Marines will be deployed to six Guatemalan provinces in the southwest of the country.
InSight Crime Analysis
Based on recent events in Central America, US Marines will likely do their best to avoid becoming involved in any kind of open conflict with drug traffickers. The involvement of Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officials in a May 11 joint operation in Ahuas, Honduras that killed four suspected drug traffickers -- one of whom was a pregnant woman, another a 14-year old male -- resulted in widespread condemnation of US counternarcotics operations in the region. In light of this, the US will try and remain in their operational role as a surveillance outfit, leaving gun battles to their Guatemalan counterparts.
With regards to Danger Room's assertion that US troops may already be "involved in a shooting war," there is simply no evidence to date to support this claim.
The Zetas are indeed one of the major criminal organizations running narcotics through Guatemala, though isolating the focus to them, as the Danger Room report does, neglects the wider dynamics of the area in which US Marines will work. Zetas operations in the country have traditionally been based in the northern Peten department and spread along the Mexico Guatemala border (see InSight Crime's map of the Zetas in Guatemala). The Mexican gang thought to have more of a presence on Guatemala's Pacific coast in the southwest is the Sinaloa Cartel who are believed to employ local fishermen to run narcotics along the west coast of the country, according to Infosur Hoy.
Operacion Martillo, which also includes Latin American and European security forces, has been deemed a success so far with General Douglas Fraser of the US military's Southern Command declaring in July that drug seizures in the region were up 30 percent compared to the first half of last year. However, while this may have affected traffickers moving through Central America, it merely appears to have pushed the trade elsewhere. A map released by SouthCom showed that from January 15 to May 28, cocaine trafficking rose 55 percent along Colombia's Pacific coast while it dropped in most of Central America.