Guatemala’s criminal organizations are among the most sophisticated and dangerous in Central America. Some of them have been in operation for decades. These networks include former members of the military, intelligence agencies and active members of the police. Transporting illegal drugs north comprises the bulk of their activity, but crime groups in Guatemala are also involved in marijuana and opium poppy cultivation, as well as human trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, money laundering, arms smuggling, adoption rings, eco trafficking and other illegal enterprises. They often work with groups from Mexico, Colombia and other Central American nations, and they have the potential to expand and command other Central American nations’ underworlds.
Guatemala is Central America’s largest country. It has 400 kilometers of coastline, most of it on the Pacific Ocean, from which it receives and dispatches much of the contraband entering and departing the country. The mountainous interior, combined with the vast, sparsely populated stretches of jungle in the north make the country an ideal storage and transit nation.
Guatemala shares borders with Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico and Belize.
Guatemala’s current turmoil and pronounced problems of violence, crime and impunity have their roots in a historically weak state, protracted periods of direct military rule or interference by the armed forces in politics, and deep-seated socioeconomic and cultural inequality. The country has long had one of the most unequal distributions of resources and capital in the world, concentrating wealth in the hands of a small elite. The indigenous population, which represents around 40 percent of Guatemala, according to 2011 statistics, has been systematically marginalized socially and politically since colonial times. These groups have had a difficult time forming a cohesive political movement and have faced years of repression by Guatemala’s military and police forces.
During much of its history, Guatemala’s political regime was akin to apartheid in South Africa. White elites sought to maintain long-established patterns of control of the means of economic production at the expense of the majority of its population. At the same time, these elite interests have sought to keep the state weak in terms of its ability to exert control over their wealth. While Guatemala has had some strong institutions, in particular the military, a strong central government and state were never established. The government is perpetually in debt, in part because of its difficulties in collecting taxes as well as the economic elite’s disinterest in reforming the tax and legal codes that oversee their interests.
During the past three decades, Guatemala has seen institutional and political change and modernization, including the return to democracy after a long period of mostly military rule and the enactment of a new constitution in 1985. However, the pattern whereby the government serves as a tool to advance private interests rather than the public good has been hard to break. The most visible disputes in Guatemala have been centered in rural areas, where struggles over land and labor laid the foundations for political resistance movements and the internal armed conflict that began in 1960 when the military government quashed a rebellion by a small group of young army officers. Declaring the government corrupt, the officers fled to the countryside and mountains to begin an insurgency.
The 36-year civil war that followed the 1960 insurrection led to the formation of several leftist guerrilla organizations. But these groups failed to gain any significant traction. Instead, the Guatemalan military used the rise of the rebels as a pretext to extend its power and influence over the hobbled, corrupt and incompetent state. Part of the military’s strategy included creating civilian militia groups. Known as Civil Defense Patrols (Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil – PAC), these groups were used to control and repress the largely rural populations that formed the core of the leftist groups. The fighting left an estimated 200,000 people dead or “disappeared” and over a million Guatemalans displaced, most of them from rural indigenous populations. The Historical Clarification Commission (Comisión de Esclarecimiento Histórico – CEH), a United Nations truth commission that began working in 1997 after the signature of the final peace accords between the government and the insurgents, found that the government and the PAC were responsible for the vast majority of these deaths, “disappearances” and displacement.
Throughout the war, criminal organizations — including small bands of human smugglers, drug traffickers and “contrabandistas” — operated in relative obscurity. Most of them were family-run operations that emerged near the border crossings, ports or in the unpopulated jungles in the north of the country. They were a secondary concern and often provided services for all sides in the conflict, especially as military officers and police units became more deeply involved in organized crime. These state actors began in petty corruption schemes but soon branched into drug trafficking. By the early 1980s, there were hundreds, if not thousands of clandestine airstrips, most of them in the northern province of Petén. State security forces often facilitated the movement of illegal goods, which mostly made their way north toward the United States. Military and police officers also began to control the large and unmonitored arms trafficking networks in the region. These networks furnished weapons to all the illegal armed groups in the region, including the Guatemalan and Salvadoran rebel groups.
The peace process between the government and the coalition of rebel groups, known as the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca – URNG), did not resolve any of the core issues that divide this nation. The actual accords were linked to a constitutional referendum, which did not pass. The new police force included 11,000 members of the old police. The military, which was whittled down to 44,000 and later 31,000 troops, was called in to help the police with law and order issues. But with little training and a diminished mandate, the army could not control the spiraling crime rate. This, coupled with massive repatriations of Central American migrants from the United States, including hundreds of criminals and gang members, confronted Guatemala — and its neighbors — with a crisis perhaps worse than at any time during the civil war.
Taking advantage of a hungry and divided population and a weak and corrupt state, the major criminal groups operating in Guatemala are involved in myriad illicit activities. The most disruptive is drug trafficking. The groups controlling this trade are popularly known as “transportistas,” or transporters. They are remnants of the contraband traders that have moved illicit products across Guatemala’s largely ungoverned territory for decades. These include the Mendoza, Lorenzana, Ortíz López and León families, each of which controls strategic areas near the borders and has strong contacts in the security forces and political circles. But there are also a smattering of smaller, lesser known groups that have established themselves in strategic corridors like the Alta Verapaz, Huehuetenango and San Marcos provinces. A string of arrests in recent years has weakened some of the countries more prominent groups, creating space for the emergence of new networks, such as that led by Jairo Orellana Morales, alias “El Pelón.” Orellana, who controlled three land trafficking routes, was arrested in May 2014, raising questions as to who might fill the power vacuum left by his capture.
Transportistas move produce for larger groups, mostly Colombian and Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). Facing pressure in their own country, Mexican DTOs have established a firm foothold in Guatemala — two groups in particular, the Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel. The Zetas’ advance on Guatemala was rapid and brutally violent. At one point they had established some level of control over almost all of the country’s key strategic drug trafficking locations and had infiltrated the authorities at the highest levels. However, the Zetas’ power peaked in 2011 and in 2012, a series of blows against their organization both in Guatemala and Mexico saw their grip loosened. The Sinaloa Cartel meanwhile, which favored forging alliances over the Zetas’ tactic of extreme violence, remains entrenched in the country’s illicit trades and has access to a broad network of local criminal operators.
The power weilded by criminal organizations in Guatemala displays similar characteristics to an insurgency, with several provinces considered to be under the traffickers’ control. The United States estimates that 400 tons of cocaine move through Guatemala every year.
Drug trafficking groups are just one facet of organized crime in Guatemala. Kidnapping, extortion, arms trafficking, illegal adoption rings and eco trafficking (logging, illegal fisheries, theft of rare artifacts, etc.) flourish in this Central American nation. The reasons for this go beyond the failure of the peace accords or the inability of the government to implement tax reform. At the center of this crisis is a failure of political leaders and security officials to institute and follow through on critical reforms of the legal, justice and security systems, as well as an inability to extract and prosecute corrupt military, security and government officials from the government.
To be sure, both active and former members of the military are a key part of the illicit networks, which are collectively named the Illegal Clandestine Security Apparatuses (Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad – CIACS).
Guatemala’s high levels of organized crime also result from a permissive and often complicit police force. Poorly paid, poorly educated and faced with the options of corruption or death, many police officials choose the former. The police are not controlled by any particular organization; they act autonomously, in groups or sometimes in the temporary employ of traffickers. In some cases, there have been battles between different sections of police employed by rival organizations. Their primary function is to facilitate the transportation of drugs, but they also engage in drug robberies called “tumbes,” extortion, kidnapping, arms trafficking and black market adoption rings. Despite some high-profile arrests, this corruption continues.
Meanwhile, the country’s murder rate, which was one of the highest in the world in 2008 with 48 murders per 100,000 people, declined to 27.3 murders per 100,000 people in 2016. Former President Otto Pérez Molina attributed the decrease to new elite special police task forces that focus on violent crimes.
Authorities say as much as 45 percent of the homicides are connected to drug trafficking activities, while over 60 percent of Guatemalans reportedly possess a firearm.
Guatemala has a multitude of criminal groups that range from very sophisticated to rudimentary. They include former and active members of the security forces and police as well as long-time smugglers, human traffickers and some Mexican and Colombian drug trafficking organizations. All of these groups work closely with sectors of the government that facilitate their business, but none are interested controlling or overthrowing the state apparatus, which has long served them by being weak and beholden to their interests.
Two of the Americas’ most notorious gangs — the rival MS13 and Barrio 18 — have an especially strong influence in Guatemala and its Northern Triangle neighbors, Honduras and El Salvador.
Criminal elements of Guatemala’s military and intelligence apparatus are collectively named the Illegal Clandestine Security Apparatuses (Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad – CIACS). The CIACS have their origins in government intelligence units and think tanks. Their behind-the-scenes influence in the government has led some to see them as the “hidden powers” who secretly run the country. These men reached the height of their power between 1997 and 2005, and have since splintered into several smaller groups. They remain powerful actors in the criminal underworld and maintain close ties to political parties. Former Guatemalan president and ex-General Otto Pérez Molina was allegedly a member of the CIACS.
Guatemala has 15,500 active frontline military personnel and 35,000 National Civil Police (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC) officers. Guatemala’s military force has been greatly reduced since the end of the Civil War in 1996.
The intelligence apparatus is still in transition after a tumultuous history in which many of its members were part of a repressive state accused of widespread human rights abuses and the killing of civilians, and many others were part of organized criminal gangs. When the intelligence services were dismantled, many of their former members went to work with organized criminal gangs or formed their own criminal syndicates.
The fiscal year 2017 budget proposal recommended 5.4 billion quetzales ($730 million) for the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police and prison system, and 2.1 billion quetzales ($286 million) for the Defense Ministry — the combined equivalent of about 9 percent of the total budget.
Guatemala’s Judicial Organ (Organismo Judicial- OJ) is technically an independent entity, and its highest judicial institution is the Supreme Court. It also consists of a number of other smaller courts and tribunals.
The Public Ministry (Ministerio Público – MP), also known as the Attorney General’s Office, is an autonomous body whose duty is to promote criminal justice, conduct investigations, and ensure that national laws are adhered to.
Guatemala’s criminal justice system has been plagued by institutional weakness, a lack of resources, high impunity rates and corruption. The appointment of Claudia Paz y Paz as Attorney General in 2010 helped to greatly reduce impunity in the country and bring previously “untouchable” criminals to justice. However, she made significant enemies within the country’s elite and organized crime circles, and her term was questionably cut short in 2014.
Since its establishment in 2007, the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) has also taken major steps in fighting corruption. In 2015, a CICIG-led investigation into a high-reaching customs fraud network named “La Linea” led to the resignation and jailing of the president and vice-president. However, the body has yet to make significant advances in strengthening the country’s judicial system in the long term.
In 2014–2015 the World Economic Forum ranked Guatemala 105 out of 144 countries for judicial independence.
Guatemala’s jails are immensely overcrowded, overwhelmed, home to violent prison gangs, and the site of frequent massacres of both internees and staff.
In 2016, there were 19,974 people in Guatemala’s prisons, despite the system’s maximum capacity being 6,809 inmates. Men represent the vast majority of the prison population, with 18,138 versus 1,836 women.
Other than overcrowding, violence is also caused by inconformity and revolt, as the system’s poor infrastructure fails to meet inmates’ requests for better living conditions.
Prisoners are known to run extortion rackets, black market networks and drug sales from within jails. In 2014, 90 percent of extortions in Guatemala were linked to prisons, according to the police.
Gangs within Guatemala’s prisons are known as “cholos,” while common criminals are referred to as “paisas.” Gangs like the MS13 and Barrio 18 seek to control penitentiaries, at times leading to clashes with cholos. These gangs also use the prison system to organize, train members, and run their networks. Top leaders of the two main gangs have been known to operate from Guatemalan jails.
Corrupt prison guards and staff are complicit in abusive behavior, forming mafias together with inmates that effectively control the penitentiaries. Prison staff at the highest levels have been implicated in bribery and influence-peddling networks.