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Closing the Circle: Consolidating Zetas Territory in Guatemala

The Zetas are consolidating their territory in Guatemala, moving south from the Mexican border, and now only San Marcos province and the capital city remain for the circle to be complete.

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The Zetas have long been known as one of the most aggressively expansionist groups in Mexico. They have grown from their roots in the northeast to operate across the nation, and have also made inroads beyond Mexico’s borders, especially in Guatemala. Indeed, as set out in a report from El Universal Domingo last month, the Zetas have turned Guatemala from a relative backwater for the drug trade into one of their primary areas of operation, and are expanding to control more and more of the country.

The arrival of the Zetas sparked a series of fights for territory, and the gang has been behind some of the most notorious provocations since the end of Guatemala’s civil war. In 2011, for instance, the Zetas were responsible for the massacre of dozens of campesinos who were working on the farm of a rival trafficker. The group has threatened to engage in a campaign of terror against civilians in Alta Verapaz, to protest the government’s deployment of the army to the northern state in 2010. (They did not follow through.) The Zetas’ tactics in Guatemala have mimicked those honed in Mexico, though they are even less restrained.

The scale of the violence and the threat to the democratic institutions have made some analysts worry about the future of the nation, and have prompted a refreshingly open-minded examination of policy options from President Otto Perez. Indeed, Perez, a former general who promised to wield an iron fist against criminal groups, has turned into one of the region’s most prominent advocates for drug legalization.

The discussion about the Zetas' impact on Guatemala comes amid a period of great uncertainty for the gang in its home country. As InSight Crime has noted, reports have surfaced suggesting a struggle for power at the top of the organization, pitting longtime boss Heriberto Lazcano against his second-in-command, Miguel Angel Treviño. A prolonged fight could have a number of indirect but serious consequences for Guatemala; should the Zetas retrench and rebuild as a consequence of their internal strife, it might mean reducing their international operations, which could throw Guatemala’s trafficking industry into flux.

The following is InSight Crime's translation of sections from El Universo Domingo's report.

In Las Mercedes alone there are at least three dark zones, border crossing points outside the control of the authorities. They are among 54 that the army estimates are scattered around San Marcos, the northwestern-most department of Guatemala, which borders on Chiapas, Mexico. The Sinaloa Cartel has traditionally been the Mexican tenant in this “treasure,” as it is described by Manuel Galeano, a former chief of civil intelligence who for years pursued drug traffickers in the country.

During a journey of some two hours by car through San Marcos, the highway joins three of the cities most emblematic of drug trafficking in Guatemala. On the Pacific coast, according to military information, boats loaded with cocaine cross from Ocos to Salina Cruz, in the state of Oaxaca [Mexico]. From Tecun Uman, the second city, migrants and drug shipments share the routes toward the United States. In Malacatan, the third installment of this trilogy, mansions proliferate in a landscape that, if it weren’t for them, could be anywhere. The transit of merchandise, people and drugs are the principal activities in these areas, which are the last bastion of a bloodless way of doing business in Guatemala, broken in 2007 by internal fighting among the local drug traffickers and by the arrival of the Zetas.

[...]

The commander of the Zetas in Poptun is 24 years old and likes to demonstrate that he is one of the bosses in Peten (which borders Quintana Roo). Everyone knows him and fears him. Every day he goes to one of the stores on the main drag to drink beer and snort cocaine. It’s his office. That’s where he receives people. It’s well known who he is, and he doesn’t care. The only police car in the zone stays a few steps away, watching over him.

The man who tells us this, who we will call Pedro, has worked for the past five years as an intelligence agent following the Zetas. He decided to meet with us in a hotel in Guatemala City. He talks like a hunter in pursuit of his prey. For him, the arrival of the Zetas is something personal. “A Zeta is recognizable 100 kilometers away. You can smell it. You can feel it,” he says between coffees, while telling us the story of the violence that has shaken Guatemala since the armed wing of the Gulf Cartel showed up on August 20, 2007. The Zetas have built a brand that in such a violent country -- the fifth in the world, at 45.2 homicides per 100,000 residents -- represents an achievement.

On the day they arrived, the history of the country began to be written in bloody letters. They found their opportunity in the east of the country -- on the Mexican border, not far from Honduras -- where scarce police and military presence, jungle terrain, and difficult communication with the rest of the country by road made it the perfect territory for a type of drug trafficking never before seen here. Before then, Guatemala had not found itself a state under siege, nor witnessed decapitated men in public plazas and posters threatening to kill “innocent people.” The traffickers, who had made names for themselves in mini drug cartels, were “free agents” who, although they worked primarily for the Sinaloa Cartel, were allowed to sell their merchandise to the highest bidder, according to sources we consulted. Always “peacefully.” No fights for plazas, nor massacres of campesinos.

San Marcos, the only place where the Zetas haven’t managed to take over, is a remnant of that mode of understanding the business. Today, the normalcy continues. A few steps from the official border outpost of Carmen, dozens of people cross the river with all sorts of cargo on their shoulders, from gasoline to beer. The police watch them from the fences and do nothing.

“They take the difficult road so as to not pay taxes,” says a currency-changer who gives us 300 quetzales for 500 pesos, enough to eat and get a hotel room that night.

“And how do [the police] know that they don’t have drugs,” we ask the man, who appears poor and returns to his home a half hour away, afraid of having his exchanged quetzales robbed.

“They don’t know,” he answers coolly, amid the bustle of people crossing from one country to another.

[...]

While the Zetas spread themselves throughout Guatemala over the past five years, the alliances between the local cartels weakened and the DEA’s work in the region led to the capture of their leaders: Juan Ortiz Chamale, Waldemar Lorenzana, Mario Ponce. All of the arrests took place in the previous two years. The last of these was Overdick himself, captured in early April this year. The pieces on the board switched around.

Currently, the Zetas have complete control over the so-called “Ingenieros route” -- drugs arrive from Honduras and pass through Izabel department, through Raxruja (Alta Verapaz), cross the border with Mexico in Ingenieros (Quiche) and arrive in San Cristobal de las Casas [Mexico], after which the routes vary. The 33 percent reduction of Guatemala's army, a consequence of the Peace Agreements, resulted in this zone, previously protected by military outposts, remaining as unprotected as the southern coast, according to Manuel Galeano.

In his opinion, the Zetas' territory in Guatemala is like a circle that they started to draw in Peten, later taking control of parts of Quiche, Alta Verapaz and Izabel, in the south of the country. After that, they struck out into Huehuetenango and are currently fighting for Zacapa, Escuintla and Chiquimula, where they operate in Puerto Quetzal -- one of the coastal regions with the greatest volume of drug trafficking. To close the circle, only San Marcos and the capital, Guatemala City, remain.

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