As Mexican drug traffickers continue to operate with impunity in Guatemala’s dense borderland jungles, the Guatemalan military is readying itself for a major counter-narcotics operation, though officials are concerned that it lacks the technical capacity to effectively dismantle the Mexican cartels operating on its territory.
Nearly two months after President Alvaro Colom first declared a “state of siege” meant to crack down on drug trafficking operations in the province of Alta Verapaz, authorities have made little progress. Although officials have arrested 22 suspects since the campaign began in December, none of them have been conclusively linked to the Zetas, the Mexican cartel that operates in the region.
The Zetas – who broke off from Mexico’s Gulf Cartel last year – first moved from Mexico to Guatemala in 2008, setting up operations in the city of Coban, Alta Verapaz, in a remote but strategic region in Guatemala’s interior. With the help of smaller local gangs, they began taking territory from the area’s rural oligarchs and traditional criminals. According to the Miami Herald, upon arrival the Zetas allegedly gave two choices to the wealthy family then in charge of criminal enterprises in Alta Verapaz: merge drug trafficking operations with the Mexican cartel or pay a $1.5 million down payment and a monthly “rent” of $700,000.
Since then, the group have largely been able to maintain a low profile, evading Guatemalan security officials while continuing their drug smuggling operations.
Despite this slow progress, Guatemalan authorities say they are pushing ahead with a plan to deploy the military to other remote zones in the country. The troops are likely to be stationed along the country’s 550-mile long border with Mexico, 70 percent of which, according to an anonymous official cited in a recent Washington Post report, is controlled by the Zetas.
This announcement comes as Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom and other Central American leaders have proposed a strategy for Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to create a combined counter-narcotics force, funded by the United States. Although the region already receives $165 million in aid under the terms of the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), they say the amount is not nearly enough to strengthen the region’s relatively weak judicial institutions and modernize its police and military forces.
If such a large-scale security plan is employed, and Guatemala is able to effectively police its notoriously porous border, the Zetas may be forced to re-channel their smuggling routes through neighboring Honduras. As a December 2010 report commissioned by the Woodrow Wilson Center indicates, a rise in organized crime is may already be under way in that country, which experienced a freeze on foreign aid and intelligence-sharing, prompted by the 2009 coup.