Part III: A Guatemalan Response?

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On December 18, 2010, a local soccer league in Coban held its championship match. One team featured Alta Verapaz’s governor at the time, Jose Adrian Lopez. The other team featured Horst Walther Overdick, one of Guatemala’s most powerful drug traffickers. Overdick’s team won, but as a local newspaper said, the governor got his “revenge” when the government sent in troops and extra police as part of a state of siege in Alta Verapaz the next day. The siege lasted two months during which time military personnel arrested 22 suspects, and seized small amounts of cash, as well as 41 vehicles, 39 mostly Kalashnikov assault rifles and 23 German-made machine guns.

It was hailed by the government as a success. However, former government officials from Alta Verapaz said those captured were not big players. Indeed, many said they saw large caravans departing Alta Verapaz both before and after the soccer match. The tip about the pending state of siege, they said, came from the local police. The Zetas reportedly relocated to San Miguel Chicaj, a small town in the neighboring Baja Verapaz province where the group also recruits heavily from the many unemployed ex-soldiers who come from that area. For his part, Overdick may have briefly vacated the area, but he did not hide. He is not facing criminal charges in Guatemala, and he has appeared at public events with high-level public officials.

The state of siege was, in part, a response to the Zetas’ expansion during 2010. After consolidating their hold on Coban, the Zetas went on the offensive. Part of this may be related to the fact that they severed relations with their progenitors the Gulf Cartel. In January 2010, following the murder of one of their commanders at the hands of the Gulf, the Zetas demanded the shooters. When the Gulf Cartel leaders refused their request, the two split definitively. Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon states in northern Mexico have since then become battle zones.

The end of Zetas–Gulf Cartel relations has made Guatemala that much more important for the Zetas. They sent a brash new commander to the area in early 2010. Alias “Z-200” is reportedly a young man in his late 20s or early 30s. The nephew of a high-ranking Zeta leader in Mexico, Z-200’s abrasive style has alienated even some of his Zeta colleagues and local allies. The change in tactics has also been immediate. On June 26, 2010, suspected Zetas killed Giovanny España—the man who had taken over the Leon empire after Juancho Leon’s death – and four of his bodyguards as they were driving along a rural highway in the Zacapa state. In September 2010, they intercepted another presumed Leon family ally as he was driving with a caravan of seven cars filled with bodyguards in Zacapa.

In October, in a prelude to the May 2011 massacre in Los Cocos, Peten, a large caravan of SUVs and pickups traveled from Coban to that northern state. The armed men made a number of stops over the next few days, including one in which they killed a man, another in which they ransacked a gasoline station belonging to rival drug trafficking family the Mendoza clan, and a third in which they attacked a group of men that were protecting España’s widow in Menchor de Mencos, a municipality along the Belize border. On their way back through Peten, via the road that leads to Tikal, they battled police and military. In the months leading up to the May massacre in Los Cocos, they ransacked two more gasoline stations, both properties of the España clan: one of them in Zacapa, the other in Peten.

The October rampage was a message to the Zetas’ rivals that they were not content with Alta Verapaz. Indeed, the Zetas’ focus is on two key states: Zacapa and Peten. Both are crucial corridors and consolidating them makes the Zetas the most formidable trafficking group in Guatemala. Zacapa is a critical crossing point for drugs entering from Honduras or coming up from El Salvador. Peten represents the top one-third of the country’s territory; its vast jungle, unmanned borders with Belize and Mexico, and back roads and clandestine airstrips make it the ideal place for moving illicit product.

Zacapa is currently assigned to Jairo Orellana, alias “El Pelon,” according to local and foreign counterdrug agents. Orellana has fathered a child with Marta Lorenzana, the widow of Juan Leon and daughter of Waldemar Lorenzana, law enforcement sources told InSight Crime. The relationship ties the Lorenzanas to the Overdick–Zetas alliance, making them the most formidable trafficking group in the country.

In Peten, the Zetas are establishing bases in the municipalities of Poptun and Sayaxche. Poptun borders Belize and offers fertile recruiting ground as it is where the Kaibiles are trained. But Sayaxche has more strategic value. Its border with Mexico has no formal checkpoints and offers myriad passageways and smuggling routes. The Pasion River and many of its tributaries that run through the municipality converge along the border with the Usumacinta River. This connects the group to another strategic stronghold, Playa Grande in the Ixcan jungle, and to a highway in Mexico that runs parallel to Guatemala’s northern border and leads directly to the heart of Chiapas.

Sayaxche is also well connected to Alta Verapaz to the south where the country’s primary infrastructure project, the Franja Transversal del Norte, is being built. The highway will eventually connect the country east to west creating what may become the illegal drug superhighway par excellence. Sayaxche is connected to the Laguna del Tigre area to the north where the Zetas and others receive drugs via airplane, boat and land, and move it across the Mexican border. And In La Libertad province between Laguna del Tigre and Sayaxche, there are numerous “blind” passage points large enough to accommodate trucks. (The weak security along the Mexico-Guatemala border is noted in this U.S. cable released by WikiLeaks.)

Not surprisingly, Sayaxche has long been a strategic corridor for small and big traffickers. The Leon and Mendoza crime families bought large tracts of land in this municipality. The Leon family was particularly savvy in purchasing or stealing numerous pieces of land in strategic trafficking corridors to help them do their business. Their alliances stretch into neighboring La Libertad, the place where the Zetas focused their efforts in May of this year. It is not clear what the source of the dispute which led to the May massacre was. The public message was towards Otto Salguero, an alleged ally of the Leon clan, giving the appearance that the Zetas are determined to eliminate the last of what was left of Leon’s network.

After the state of siege in Coban ended in February, the Zetas trickled back into the area with a slightly lower profile and a new structure that seems to share services with other local organizations. The Hummers were replaced by Corollas, one local businessman told InSight Crime. The Mexican operatives stayed away from Coban, sending instead Nicaraguan and Hondurans to do their dirty work. These lower level echelons of the organization jump started the extortion and “piso” collection racket again and have made a push to control the expanding local drug market in the area as well.

The Zetas have also teamed with another Guatemalan based group popularly known as the “chulamicos,” who provide weapons, intelligence, cars, safe houses, and additional soldiers to various groups when needed. Two of the “chulamicos” top leaders are related by blood to some members of Overdick’s security team. Between them they seem to share pieces of a loose hitman network whose center remains firmly under the command of Z-200. That does not mean, however, that the other factions of this network do not maintain their own security forces. The result is a seemingly defuse but functional network, each part with their own specialty or service that make them necessary to the whole.

The Zetas, for example, may run the core of the security team but they still seem to rely on Overdick and other local operatives for everything from illegal product to money laundering opportunities. Overdick has reportedly taken over the drug trafficking network of another powerful trafficker who was captured and extradited to the U.S. This network stretches from Colombia to Guatemala. The Zetas reportedly buy into his cocaine loads rather than the other way around. To be sure, whether the Zetas’ contacts reach all the way to Colombia is still up for debate. The Zetas’ recent violent spasm bolsters the theory that do not have their own suppliers; that they need to maintain control on this critical chokepoint in the distribution chain in order to keep their competitive advantage with others such as the Gulf Cartel.

What is next for this amorphous but strong network is not clear. The May rampage in Peten and Alta Verapaz set the stage for an all-out war against the remaining criminal families in Guatemala. That appeared to be gathering steam. In Peten, one alleged political ally of the Mendoza family complained of threats by the Zetas and exiled his family from the country while election season continued apace. However, there are many strong Guatemalan groups left. The Mendoza family maintains a strong network in Peten and other parts of the country. Another network headed up the brother of recently captured trafficker is still operational in San Marcos, along the Mexican border. Other Guatemalans run the main highway through the Huehuetenango corridor, just north of San Marcos. These groups work closely with the Sinaloa Cartel, the Zetas’ foremost rival in Central America.

The Zetas’ attempts to muscle these local players in other Guatemalan provinces have failed. In November 2008, for instance, the Zetas launched a surprise attack against a group of local operatives in Huehuetenango. The locals repelled the attack. News reports say 17 died. When InSight Crime visited the area in early 2010, local security watchers said the number was closer to 60, most of those, they said, were Zetas. The Zetas have been fighting, unsuccessfully, to wrestle that area from those groups ever since.

What’s more, the government has also shown itself more capable in recent weeks. Following the massacre it called a state of siege in Peten, which it has prolonged through September. Authorities also arrested several more alleged members of the Zetas, including several top commanders who were operating in the Coban area. In recent weeks, another sting netted ten more operatives, including the head of the “chulamicos” group.

Many, possibly even some of the Zetas’ erstwhile allies, might have also have had some second thoughts about their attention-grabbing tactics, brutality, and reliability. Some who have had business dealings with the group have been killed, and several who survived the Zetas are in jail. Violent criminal tactics, like those favored by the Zetas, served to scare rivals and citizens alike into falling in line, but they undermine business operations as well. Z-200 has made more than his share of enemies, and there was talk of discontent in the Coban underworld.

But questions remain about the locals’ capacity to deal with the Zetas. Their psychological war appeared to have also taken a toll on their friends and foes alike. And while the Zetas may be weakened by an unprecedented government assault, they remain the region’s most formidable military structure.

What happens next may depend on one of those unholy alliances seen in other parts of the region. Local businessmen in Coban that InSight Crime contacted are trying to figure out how to respond, perhaps with the same unsavory tactics as the Zetas use. Some are also working closely with the military in an attempt to purge the “invaders.” While InSight Crime was in Coban, two Zeta operatives were reportedly found assassinated on the edge of town, perhaps in a prelude of things to come.

However, the Zetas model and structure is something that Guatemala has never experienced. Its large security team and loose alliances do not depend on blood relations and open up the criminal game for a large array of small groups. It is something that is evident in Mexico, where factions of once large criminal groups are increasingly fighting amongst each other. So even if the Zetas were eliminated, another like-minded group would probably take their place, attempting to replicate the Zetas’ model of creating a large military structure in order to monopolize “piso” and buy into the international drug distribution market. Stability, therefore, may now require more than a purge of the Zetas.

But questions remain about the locals’ capacity to deal with the Zetas. Their psychological war appeared to have also taken a toll on their friends and foes alike. And while the Zetas may be weakened by an unprecedented government assault, they remain the region’s most formidable military structure.

What happens next may depend on one of those unholy alliances seen in other parts of the region. Local businessmen in Coban that InSight Crime contacted are trying to figure out how to respond, perhaps with the same unsavory tactics as the Zetas use. Some are also working closely with the military in an attempt to purge the “invaders.” While InSight Crime was in Coban, two Zeta operatives were reportedly found assassinated on the edge of town, perhaps in a prelude of things to come.

However, the Zetas model and structure is something that Guatemala has never experienced. Its large security team and loose alliances do not depend on blood relations and open up the criminal game for a large array of small groups. It is something that is evident in Mexico, where factions of once large criminal groups are increasingly fighting amongst each other. So even if the Zetas were eliminated, another like-minded group would probably take their place, attempting to replicate the Zetas’ model of creating a large military structure in order to monopolize “piso” and buy into the international drug distribution market. Stability, therefore, may now require more than a purge of the Zetas.

More stories in this series:

Part I: The Incursion

Part II: The Modus Operandi

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