Drug traffickers survive under one premise: adapting to change. At the regional level, the agents of change emerge from the interaction between traffickers and the authorities, as well as among drug trafficking structures. The group that does not adapt does not survive. The result is a molotov cocktail of both planned and unanticipated consequences, in which the authorities can act as a stimulus if they are corrupt, or even if they do their job. These circumstances have reconstructed drug trafficking in Guatemala in the past five years, and led to the fracturing of some groups, the violent territorial conquest of new actors, and the displacement of traditional actors.
The attack against nine policemen in Salcaja, Quetzaltenango on June 13 seemed like deja vu — something we had seen before. But it also seemed like something more serious: a possible sign that the Zetas were making an incursion into western Guatemala after securing the Franja Transversal de Norte route — the bridge between Honduras and Mexico — and contesting the eastern part of the country.
The case involved the murder of eight police in a police substation and the kidnapping of a police deputy-inspector, Julio Cesar Garcia Crotez, of whom only three fingers and a piece of his uniform have been found. The authorities revealed to the press that Garcia was suspected of participating in a robbery of the gang that presumably carried out the attack and the kidnapping. At the same time, a police source unofficially revealed that the massacre was vengeance for the robbery of a cocaine shipment, and that while the robbery did not involve all the victims, the gunmen had killed everyone in order to leave no witnesses.
On July 14, the authorities captured seven men and two women in La Democracia, Huehuetenango, who were suspected of the murders, but did not identify them as members of a particular criminal structure. Later, on July 16, a tenth suspect was captured in Chimaltenango. This time, the authorities linked him to an offshoot of the Gulf Cartel that is beleived to be active in Huehuetenango. But until the arrests, the police had suspected the Sinaloa Cartel and had given assurences that the Zetas had not perpetrated the massacre for three reasons: The first is that Quetzaltenango and Huehuetenango are territories of influence of Sinaloa Cartel associates and the killers used escape routes and even weapons that the group often uses. The second reason is that in Quetzaltenango Juan Ortiz, alias “Chamale,” is still in control, even though he was detained in March 2011 (and is still fighting his extradition to the United States), and that the murders were vengeance for the capture of one of Chamale’s bodyguards a few days before. Finally, Huehuetenango is also the territory of other Sinaloa Cartel allies, particularly the group supposedly led by Aler Samayoa, alias “Chicharra,” and to which Walter Alirio Montejo Merida, alias “El Zope,” who was captured in June 2012 after the United States requested his extradition, belonged.
However, the multiple murders would seem like an overreaction to the bodyguard’s capture, given that the arrest of Chamale himself two years earlier did not provoke this kind of reaction. The type of weapons used is also a very weak indicator — all criminal groups are able to obtain all kinds of firearms. Proof of this is that now the police are blaming the Gulf Cartel, not the Sinaloa. But what’s more, according to the sociologist Hector Rosada, the territories where drug traffickers operate are not set in stone. Therefore one cannot automatically attribute something that happens in Quetzaltenango or Huehuetenango to the Sinaloa Cartel. In addition, some authorities seem to have forgotten that drug trafficking is like plasticine — it has as many forms as hands, intentions, and events can shape it into, and one of the consequences of this is that more than one group can operate within the same province, even if it is not in the long term.
The Zetas’ Fingerprints
The multiple murders of the police in Salcaja recalls other events in the history of drug trafficking within the country that bore the Zetas’ signature. They have been familiar with the northwestern border of the country since they arrived in Guatemala in the mid-90s, when they were still part of the Gulf Cartel. What’s more, according to Public Ministry (MP) records, they entered into Guatemala via Huehuetenango in December 2007, proving — as Rosada says — that the territories in which drug trafficking has influence are not set in stone.
In November 2008, the Zetas initiated a shootout against Sinaloa Cartel allies in Agua Zarca, Huehuetenango. Later, during the first week of March, 2009, police captured two Mexican and eight Guatemalan Zetas that had stolen weapons from the National Civil Police (PNC) in Alta Verapaz and that knew how to move easily through five provinces to escape the authorities: Quiche, Huehuetenango, Solola, Totonicapan, and Suchitepequez.
In April 2009, the Zetas gunned down five anti-narcotics police investigators in Amatitlan, supposedly in revenge for the robbery of a cocaine shipment, according to the MP. Among those implicated in the case and arrested was Baltazar Gomez Barrios, then director of the PNC. But while government functionaries indicated that Gomez had ordered the police to steal the drug shipment (see US Embassy cable “09GUATEMALA776“), a prosecutor suspected that the then director of the PNC was the one who had alerted the Zetas about the robbery, and that the Zetas then killed the police in Amatitlan. Some months after his arrest, Gomez was seen in the Tribunals Tower in the Palace of Justice (where he was assisting with a hearing for a corruption case) greeting members of the Zetas who were attending a hearing for the case of the murder of Juan Jose “Juancho” Leon (and ten others) in Zacapa in 2009. When two guards were taking Gomez from one floor to another, he encountered the Zetas in the lobby in front of the elevator, and he shook each of their hands before continuing on his way to the next floor.
On May 14, 2011, the Zetas massacred 27 villagers with a chainsaw at a farm in La Libertad, Peten. Their motive was revenge against the property owner because he supposedly still trafficked drugs with the Gulf Cartel, according to a source in the MP. In the days before the murder, they had also killed one of the man’s employees and two of his relatives. Ten days after the massacre, they kidnapped and dismembered auxiliary prosecutor Allan Stowlinsky in Coban, Alta Verapaz, after the police and the MP intercepted a Zetas cocaine shipment in Raxruha, Alta Verapaz.
On September 26, last year, residents of the town of Santo Domingo Sinlaj, in Barillas, Huehuetenango (100 meters from the border with Mexico), reported that the Zetas had threatened them with death when they refused to join the organization. The MP later revealed that the Zetas had been operating in Barillas for 10 months (since before the police captured “El Zope”). Given these events, the Zetas’ presence in Quetzaltenango (where the murder of the police occurred) and in Huehuetenango (where the police found the sub-inspector’s fingers) does not appear strange.
The Zetas’ conduct over the past five years alone is just an indication — albeit a strong one — that they would have been capable of gunning down eight police in the substation and torturing the sub-commissioner. There are other drug trafficking groups capable of killings like the Salcaja murders. In fact, some authorities have revealed that those detained between July 14 and 16 are linked to the Gulf Cartel. However, the attorney general Claudia Paz y Paz said the MP suspsects that those detained for the attack in Salcaja, Quetzaltenango, are also linked to the murder of seven people in San Pedro Necta, Huehuetenango, in December 2012, which the Zetas are suspected of committing. Among the victims, who were burnt to ashes, was a prosecutor from Chiquimula, Yolanda Olivares. In addition, four months before, the MP had arrested and accused three people linked to the Zetas of planning an attack against an “official from the Chiquimula public prosecutor’s office.” The investigations are still ongoing.
SEE ALSO: The Zetas in Guatemala
The Only Pattern Is that There is No Pattern
In terms of drug trafficking behavior, no country shows a pattern. One cannot speak of the Mexicanization of Guatemala, the way that a few years ago one could not speak of the Colombianization of Mexico. No country plagued by drug trafficking becomes an identical copy of another, because the behavior of drug trafficking depends on the interaction between the drug traffickers, the reactions of the authorities and the geographical context, more than on any predetermined pattern, says Rosada. These factors mark the differences in the behaviour of drug traffickers between one country and the next.
Guatemala is not Colombia, where Plan Colombia (along with the capture of drug traffickers wanted for extradition and the destruction of coca laboratories) contributed to alleviating the war between the cartels and the sustained period of narco-violence. Later the cartels transformed into small cells that left production in the hands of the guerrillas and the paramilitaries. But neither is Guatemala Mexico, where the size of the cartels is much larger and their interaction with the authorities much more complex. Guatemala is a unique animal. But what is it? And why?
What happens and what is decided in the United States and in Mexico in terms of drug trafficking resonates through Guatemala and the rest of Central America. In the past five years, a new and aggressive actor entered Guatemala: the Zetas, with their violent conquest of territory; one of the Sinaloa Cartel’s allies in Guatemala fractured (the Lorenzana group); and the Gulf Cartel (Guatemala edition), ally of the weakened Mexican cartel of the same name that gave birth to the Zetas, practically disappeared. It now remains to be seen how the capture of Zetas leader Miguel Treviño Morales (alias “Z40”) in Mexico will affect the Zetas’ operation in Guatemala.
The Dividing Line
The engine of change in Guatemala can be divided into two. One on side are events that the United States unleashed in Mexico and Guatemala, and on the other side is the attention paid to requests made by the Public Ministry during the administrations of Amilcar Velazquez and Claudia Paz y Paz. The petitions for arrest and extradition were selectively executed by the Alvaro Colom government, when high-level leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel’s allies and only medium and low-level members of the Zetas were captured. It is during the current administration, under Otto Perez Molina, that Walter Overdick, an important Zetas associate, was captured. In contract, no important Gulf Cartel allies, such as members of the Mendoza group have been captured. The capacity of the drug traffickers for violence continues, as they continue bringing in contraband arms through the blind passes of the Guatemalan border, as a Woodrow Wilson Center report lays out.
One of the triggers for the reconstruction of drug trafficking in the region came from the United States in 2003, with the arrest of Osiel Cardenas Guillen, leader of the Gulf Cartel in Mexico, his extradition in 2007, and the resulting infighting within the cartel. Cardenas ran a vertical organization, a narco-dictatorship. A dictatorship is the most vulnerable structure, according to German political scientist Hannah Arendt, because it is managed by violence and not by legitimacy.
Cardenas was more feared than respected. Given that he believed he was infallible, he never prepared anyone to succeed him, and he surrounded himself with a security team made up of Mexican ex-military men known as the Zetas. After Cardenas’ extradition to the United States, his successors did not have the same control that Osiel had over the Zetas and they started to operate with some independence.
Internal divisions resulted in the Zetas definitively separating from the Gulf Cartel in January 2010. At the same time, the Zetas had used their three years of relative independence to fortify alliances in Guatemala and open their own routes between Honduras and Mexico. The blind pass of Ingenieros, to the north of Ixcan, en Quiche, which connects with Chiapas, became one of their routes for bringing drugs up to Mexico. The location was just a few kilometers from the farm where Guatemalan authorities found a Zetas arsenal in March 2009.
Walter Overdick (captured in April 2012 and extradited in December of that year along with his son, Kevin Overdick) was useful for the Zetas’ efforts to establish themselves in Guatemala, and he sheltered them, from at least 2007. Some sources indicate that Overdick “brought” the Zetas to Guatemala, but in that time period the Zetas didn’t need anyone to bring them into the country. They had already entered and left as they pleased since the mid 90s to watch over the Gulf Cartel’s drug trafficking for Osiel. What they sought in 2007 was a strategic alliance that would allow them to take over the Gulf Cartel’s routes in Guatemala. There were very few associates of that cartel who resisted the Zetas conquest, and who had the capacity to keep on trafficking.
Overdick also permitted the Zetas to get a foothold in Peten, where he had various properties. This allowed them to harass the Mendoza family, one of the few remaining bastions of the weakening Gulf Cartel in Guatemala — which meant the Zetas immediately considered the Mendoza their enemies.
The Zetas had learned something from experience: that it was helpful to ally with family-based drug trafficking groups, which had stronger ties to communities where they had lived for generations (like the Cardenas family in Tamaulipas). Although it was on a smaller scale, Overdick (and his strong presence in Alta Verapaz) offered them this in Guatemala.
By 2003, when Osiel was about to fall, the Lorenzana family were trafficking drugs in Guatemala that were sent by the remains of the Cali Cartel and then passed on to the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico, according to the US Department of Justice, and were part of the transport network of Otto Herrera in Central America. But by 2008, the Lorenzanas would make a decision that would change their history for forever.
By 2008, Juan Jose “Juancho” Leon has become a stone in the shoe. He was the partner of Marta Julia Lorenzana (also known as Yulissa or Yuli), the daughter of the family’s patriarch, Waldemar Lorenzana Lima. But Juancho was also stealing drugs from other traffickers in Guatemala and Honduras, and his robberies had created enemies for the Lorenzanas. Therefore when the Zetas approached them to ask for permission to enter Zacapa and kill Leon, the Lorenzanas didn’t blink and gave the go-ahead, according to Mexican and Honduran intelligence sources.
The Lorenzanas weren’t stupid. They knew the execution would occur with or without their consent. They knew to choose their battles, and they recognized that this was not the time for a violent war with the Zetas. It was a matter of honor among criminals. If the Zetas killed without permission on Lorenzana territory, they would have to respond. They didn’t have the luxury of not reacting, which would make them seem like an easy target for others aspiring to dominate drug trafficking in the zone. They knew they should wait, take their time, and then decide if they would make a strategic alliance with the Zetas, or if they would begin a war against them like the conflict seen in Mexico.
Juancho had stolen a Zetas shipment in Honduras, and he had killed two of their men, according to the same Mexican and Honduran intelligence sources. On March 25, 2008, the Zetas responded. They killed Juancho in a clash that left another ten dead (including Juanco’s bodyguards and some Mexican Zetas).
It was not simple revenge. The Zetas showed what would happen if anyone killed or robbed any of them (which is what might have happened with the Salcaja case). It was a lesson that the historian Thucydides proclaimed in ancient Greece: the emperor, or whoever aspired to be emperor, should always respond to attacks to show that he is not an easy target. In this way, the Zetas raised their profile in Guatemala and also took the pulse of other rival groups. On November 30, 2008 they interrupted a horse race organized by allies of the Sinaloa Cartel in the town of Agua Zarca, in Huehuetenango. The shootout left 17 dead, including people from both groups. This would be the signature of the Zetas in the following years, and they would become one of the principal factors behind the instability in drug trafficking in Guatemala — more even than the police.
Capture of the Lorenzanas
Guatemalan authorities, including the MP and the Ministry of the Interior, and the United States with their orders of capture and extradition, dealt the Lorenzanas a serious blow. In the list of people eligible for extradition to the United States, there were people from all the criminal groups. But in Guatemala, operations concentrated on allies of the Sinaloa Cartel. An ex-official with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Michael Braun, said that in Colombia the strategy was to attack one cartel at a time, and maybe that was the strategy also used in Guatemala. Regardless, whatever the intention was, the results ended up favoring the Zetas.
By 2001, the government of Alvaro Colom boasted of having captured at least a hundred Zetas, although two-thirds were Guatemalan (many, replaceable), and the majority were mid and low-level members. A third were Mexican, but no one important, according to DEA reports — not even Daniel Perez Rojas, alias “Cachetes,” who was detained in April 2009 for the murder of Juancho and the Zacapa massacre. Cachetes was a mid-level commander, in contrast with “Z40” Treviño Morales, who at that time was the Zetas’ second-in-command in Mexico (and the first from 2013 until last July 15, when authorities captured him in Mexico). In addition, according to a source from the 2010 government, “Z40” frequently went to Guatemala during those years. There are multiple accusations and arrest warrants against Treviño in the United States for drug trafficking and various murders committed in Texas that date back to those times.
SEE ALSO: Z40 profile
The decline of the Lorenzanas had begun in 2009, when the Attorney General’s Office in Washington, DC, presented a new accusation against them, and the DEA tried — in vain — to capture family members on three separate occasions. Between 2010 and 2011, the Interior Ministry signaled in an interview with a Spanish media outlet that the army was the source of leaks that alerted traffickers. But the police in Zacapa were also untrustworthy, according to a police investigator who worked the case. Between the US pressure and the Guatemalan authorities’ decision, large operations to capture the Lorenzanas were finally mounted.
In the following two years, the Lorenzanas’ umbrella, which had covered trafficking in the eastern part of the country, would start to spring leaks. The groups that had worked below them now had space to become independent, as the Zetas had done after Osiel’s arrest, when they were still part of the Gulf Cartel. With the Lorenzanas busy trying to keep a low profile without neglecting their business, the mid-level commanders and junior narcos assumed they had the green light to try and improve their positions.
Between 2010 and 2011, the arrest warrants and extradition orders from the United States and the arrests made in Guatemala by the MP and the PNC started molding drug trafficking in Guatemala like plasticine. This time, the Sinaloa Cartel’s allies in Guatemala bore the worst of it, in particular five bosses: Mauro Salomon Ramirez, captured on October 2, 2010; Juan Ortiz alias “Chamale,” captured on March 30, 2011; Waldemar Lorenzana Lima (the Lorenzana’s top leader) captured on April 26, 2011; Byron Gilberto Linares Cordon, captured on June 18, 2011; and Elio Lorenzana Cordon (Lorenzana Lima’s son), captured on November 8, 2011. In theory, these arrests should have taken down the whole structure. In practice, it did not. What factor saved it?
The Sinaloa Cartel has a horizontal structure; that is to say, that the loss of one head doesn’t paralyze the whole structure, according to the DEA’s former director of international operations, Michael Vigil. This is despite the ascendance of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman as the leader of the cartel. Another factor is corruption. Sources in the PNC say that Chamale directed all his drug trafficking operations from prison, which is an example of when interaction between drug traffickers and certain authorities favors the trafficker. At the same time, permitting Chamale to extend his arms out of the prison may have been why the west of the country avoided the type of narcoviolence that usually accompanies a power dispute (given the power vacuum left by Chamale) — something that the groups in the east couldn’t say after the capture of the Lorenzanas.
The groups in the west (led by Chamale) continued to operate, perhaps even with a higher level of influencee due to their geographic proximity to their Mexican counterparts. At the same time, the Lorenzanas were exposed to other factors, the biggest of which was the Zetas.
Alliances and the Conquest of Routes
In 2011, the arrests of the Lorenzanas cleared the path for the Zetas to force an alliance. The Zetas could take advantage of the Lorenzanas’ loyalties in the zone to co-opt the vacant leadership and maintain the monopoly on transit via Zacapa. Thus the moment arrived for the Lorenzanas to make the decision they had put off since 2008, when they gave the Zetas permission to kill Juancho.
The fact that overland cocaine trafficking from Honduras to Guatemala increased in 2009 certainly didn’t help the Lorenzanas, because an increase in military patrols in Peten decreased the number of drug flights that could land in Guatemala. In addition, the coup in Honduras in June 2009 facilitated an increase in aerial drug trafficking to the country because the security forces were more focused on controlling political violence (and Honduras’ congress refused to approve an extradition law, which finally passed in 2012). With more drugs moving overland, there were more routes to fight over and more violence on both sies of the border. It is not that there was more drug production for the narcos, but rather a greater volume of drugs was passing across the Honduras-Guatemala border that previously would have been transported by air from South America to Guatemala, meaning there were more drugs being transported overland that were vulnerable to robberies.
The arrests and the extraditions, in Guatemala and Mexico, and the expansion of the Zetas (allied with local drug trafficking groups) started to change the face of drug trafficking in the country. In 2007, they entered through Huehuetenango, but they made Alta Verapaz their base of operations. By 2009, they had dominated the corridor between Honduras and Mexico, starting with Izabal, following the Franja Transversal del Norte, passing through Alta Verapaz — its bridge to Quiche –, but they also moved toward Peten in the north, and toward the capital and the Pacific coast to the south, according to the MP.
In 2009 it was clear that the Zetas had found the path and access to arms in military storehouses. In March and April, the authorities found numerous weapons, thousands of bullets, and at least a thousand grenades in Ixcan, Quiche, and Amatitlan. In Amatitlan, the authorities found a rifle that belonged to a set purchased for the police during the government of Oscar Berger (2004-2008), said Carlos Menocal, who was the Ministry of the Interior for President Colom (2008-2012) from 2010 onwards.
Between 2010 and 2011, the Zetas fortified their extension towards the eastern part of the country with the same aggression they had employed in Mexico. The expansion occurred after the arrests — when the Lorenzanas were at their weakest and were keeping a low profile. They continued trafficking, but by now they did not have the power to maintain a monopoly over what went on in Zacapa. Their control over drug robbers on the border with Honduras and, to the south, with El Salvador, was further weakened. So the Zetas seized the moment.
The increase in the number of violent deaths in the provinces near the border with Honduras since 2011 could coincide with when the Zetas started charging the “tax” on routes they controlled. In Mexico, their modus operandi consisted of taking territory and then monopolizing criminal activity in the area. That is to say, they take control of a zone not just to engage in criminal activity, but also so that they can charge a tax on anyone who wants to pass through or engage in criminal activity in their territory — a kind of criminal tax. Thus they have agreements with migrant smugglers and human traffickers, among other criminal groups.
The killings included attacks against some landowners in the eastern part of the country (who the police linked to drug trafficking), some small-time drug dealers, and shipment thieves in the area. Among these cases, one that stands out is that of Jairo Orellana, who, according to civilian intelligence sources, the Zetas tried to execute for failing to pay the tax. The Zetas gunmen killed his seven bodyguards in front of a clinic building in Zone 15 of Guatemala City in an attack in November 2012 from which Orellana is beleived to have escaped unharmed. Orellana has also been identified as Marta Julia Lorenzana’s partner.
By 2012, the Zetas were already operating in the southern and western parts of Guatemala. By last December, they had received two shipments on a farm in Escuintla. The person who sent them from Zacapa is believed to be Marta Julia Lorenzana, according to unofficial information. This marked a dividing line in the history of the family, who for years had trafficked exclusively for the Sinaloa Cartel. For the Zetas, in contrast, the incursion into the southern coast was not unusual. Some of the Mexican Zetas detained in 2008 had identification documents that marked them as residents of municipalities along the southern coast, according to the MP (who investigated whether the documents were forged or whether they had been legally issued based on false identities). It is believed that once they were in Escuintla in 2012, the Zetas used another transporter to move the shipments to Mexico.
It is striking that Hans Breiner Lemus Lorenzana, ex-student of the Adolfo V. Hall Institute and 17-year-old son of Marta Julia Lorenzana, was detained last June in San Marcos with a shipment destined for the Sinaloa Cartel when a military source says his mother has been linked to the Zetas since December 2012 (although the US Treasury Department only links her to the Sinaloa Cartel). Guatemalan authorities determined that the 15 kilos of cocaine that were seized from Lemus Lorenzana were marked with a horseshoe, a characteristic symbol of the Sinaloa Cartel. The fact that it was a small shipment could indicate that it was meant as a demonstration, to prove the efficiency of a new route or sender before risking a larger shipment — a test that that the adolescent evidently failed, either through inexperience or because somebody informed on him.
One former government official suspects that the the fracturing of the power of the Lorenzanas left some members and allies of the family free to negotiate with people unrelated to the Sinaloa Cartel. From there, perhaps, Lemus Lorenzanas’ mother became linked to the Zetas. This is one of the open spaces underneath the Lorenzanas’ leaky umbrella, which now sets the stage for new conflicts.
Although it is true that drug traffickers’ territories are not set in stone, as Rosada says, they do at least have defined, untouchable routes, and the more people who get close to one group’s routes, the greater the potential for conflict — especially with the Zetas supposedly making their incursion into Escuintla, where the Sinaloa Cartel has traditionally controlled the routes. If some members of the Lorenzana family are trafficking with one group, and other members trafficking with another, the potential for conflict is even higher.
The current danger is that the Zetas appear to have formed an operational ring that extends one arm from the border with Honduras up to the northwest and the Gulf of Mexico (the group’s stronghold), and another that extends from the east down to the southern cost. If this is indeed the case, friction and an increase in violence in the western part of the country is only a matter of time. There is little to indicate that the associates of the Sinaloa Cartel, which traditionally owns the Pacific route, will take the Zetas’ expansion lying down. However, the recent capture of “Z40” in Mexico could change the course of events. His brother, Oscar Omar Treviño Morales (alias “Z42”), is the principal candidate to assume leadership of the group, but only time will tell if he is capable of keeping the Zetas from weakening and fracturing in Guatemala.
Until then, drug trafficking will remain subject to the hands that will write — both within and outside the law — its next chapter.
*This article originally appeared in Plaza Publica. It was translated and reprinted with permission.