As Elections Loom, Report Profiles Guatemala’s Drug Trafficking World

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International Crisis Group’s new report on Guatemala paints a bleak picture of a country overrun by Zetas and a government undermined by local drug lords, but it is as useful for what it does not say as for what it does.

For regular InSight Crime readers, the International Crisis Group (ICG) report will cover some familiar ground: the arrival of the Zetas criminal cartel from Mexico and its violent attempts to establish a firm foothold in the country; the weak and corrupt government entities that are only half-trying to slow trafficking activities; the nation’s multiple, long-established criminal families who have their tentacles in political and government circles at the highest levels.

The Zetas rightly hold ICG’s attention. Through a series of bold and bloody moves in recent months, the group has tried to make Guatemala its “plaza,” a territory through which it can move drugs, as well as buying or stealing them from others. It’s not clear to what extent they have achieved this goal, although ICG’s researchers make a nice effort to give us the range of estimates of how many Zetas are in the country (500, according to one researcher, and 100, according to the government).

What is missing is an ICG account of the Zetas’ relationship with the local trafficking groups. The report hints at a possible alliance (or at least detente) between the Zetas and the Mendozas, Guatemala’s most powerful and well-connected criminal family. But there is no mention of the powerful local enforcer and trafficker, Horst Walther Overdick, who has provided infrastructure and personnel to the Zetas since their arrival in 2007, and remains a major player in his own right.

To be fair, the report gives an excellent overview of the country’s criminal families. Drawing from extensive reporting done over the years, principally by elPeriodico, as well as dozens of ICG interviews with government officials and security analysts, the report gives the reader a clear picture of how these families have entrenched themselves as a landed political elite.

The extent of this powerbase is most evident in the report’s sections on the Lorenzana and Mendoza families, two of the biggest names in the Guatemalan underworld. The notion is not just that they own most of the businesses, but that they decide who can trade in the areas they control. As one lawyer told the ICG: “If you want to start a business … you don’t ask the city, you ask the Mendozas.”

The principal territory at issue is Peten state, a vast, largely undeveloped area to the north of the country that covers a third of Guatemala’s total area. To the ICG, Peten is the place where these underworld figures can store and move drugs, “diversify their business interests, and, perhaps more importantly, [acquire] a strategic and political base.”

ICG would have done well to explore this further, for at the heart of Guatemala’s underworld is always the issue of a political base. That is certainly the question surrounding the two candidates left vying for president in a run-off set for November, but one that ICG mostly sidesteps.

There is mention of possible support for Otto Perez’s political party in the state of Izabal by forces connected to the Mendoza clan. But the reader learns nothing of Perez’s rival, Manuel Baldizon, and his own possible connections to the same family. And it is taken for granted that the Zetas’ inroads into politics are yet to happen. The answer to these questions could help decipher the next few years in Guatemala.

Still, the ICG has a powerful voice (see list of board members) that resonates in the right government circles. One can imagine them weighing the pros and cons of going after the presidential candidates. Pros: the candidates are highly suspect characters that need to be mentioned in any report on drug trafficking. Cons: they can keep or dispose of the few positive elements the government has in place.

These positives, as the ICG points out, are the country’s Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz; the head of a police reform commission, Helen Mack; and the United Nations-backed judicial body, known by its acronym CICIG.

The group calls for the next government to keep these in place, but there is little chance they will last deep into the next administration·in a way that befits Guatemala, no matter who wins.

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