Guatemalans (and a Gringo) Talk ‘State of Siege’

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After the Guatemalan government extended its “State of Siege” in the province of Alta Verapaz, where Mexican drug cartels like the Zetas are allegedly based, a local newspaper published a special edition looking at the after-effects of the unprecedented government offensive against drug trafficking.

With permission from Coban newspaper El Comunitario, InSight has translated some of the interviews included in the print issue.

Polls taken in Coban, the capital of Alta Verapaz, show that the local population generally approves of the emergency measures, first declared by President Alvaro Colom on December 19, and later extended by 30 days in mid-January. Only two alleged members of the Zetas were arrested during the troop surge in the province, leading some to question whether the Siege had achieved its stated objective to strike hard against organized crime in Guatemala.

Polls taken by the newspaper show that 71 percent of those surveyed in Coban thought that the Alta Verapaz siege was successful. Forty-two percent said they felt more safe after the State of Siege was declared, compared with 45 percent who said they felt “the same.” Seventy-eight percent said declaring the State of Siege was “absolutely necessarry,” and 52 percent said they approved of the security measure.

Interview with U.S. Ambassador Stephen McFarland:

El Comunitario: Plan Merida allocates most aid for Mexico. Are there intentions to expand to Guatemala?

There is a Plan Merida for Guatemala and the rest of Central America, now called the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), which is moving on forward. We are always analyzing how to better implement these resources and we are also in discussions with the government, because there’s been requests for greater support and we are studying those requests.

Are there any plans to build a U.S. military base in Alta Verapaz?

No, no plans, no interest. This phenomenon needs to be confronted with greater presence from the Guatemalan state, police, attorney general’s office, judiciary and most of all support and interest from the citizenry. There is a supporting role for the armed forces in Guatemala, but militarization is not the answer, let alone with North American military.

How much is the economic aid for Guatemala?

Last year humanitarian and socio-economic aid was about $120 million dollars, and another $20 to $25 million in security programs.

Specifically for the security outpost in Alta Verapaz?

I don’t know, we’re still talking with the government about what our support should be.

Excerpts from an interview with Mario Merida, security analyst and former Director of Intelligence at the Guatemalan Defense Ministry:

(…) How would you analyze the fact that among the detainees, only two are Zetas?

It means that the upper ranks of these kinds of organizations are based in other areas and they can direct their operations from departments like Puerto Barrios, Queltzaltenango, and on the other side Tabasco and Chiapas. I think this is very important. Additionally, the Guatemalans, especially the authorities, have fallen into the trap that anyone who’s ever arrested and has something to do with drug trafficking is automatically called a “Zeta,” and therefore we’re seeing an army of Zetas operating in Guatemala. I think the government needs to be more cautious, more precise, when it comes to putting the adjective “Zeta” before the name of every detainee.

We just heard some declarations from Ambassador Ibarrola in Mexico saying that there are no Zetas in Guatemala. How would you evaluate this, and how great would you really consider is Zeta presence in the country?

I think the ambassador is expressing that view because that’s a diplomatic way of putting it. Why a diplomatic way of putting it? Because in other times it would have caused grave problems between the two countries. If you would recall that some days ago Guatemala questioned and criticized Mexico over the murders and kidnappings of migrants that we’re seeing in that country. So I think that was an eminently diplomatic declaration, it was correct, but neither do the Mexicans exactly know how the drug trafficking cartels are moving in Mexico, in Colombia and now there are some reports emerging about these groups having a presence in Peru and Ecuador. I don’t think we should accept the idea that the Zetas are here in the entire national territory, but the Mexican drug cartels are operating and enforcing their routes inside our territory.

Interview with Hector Nuila, member of the URNG-MAIZ party and member of the Congressional National Security and Intelligence Commission:

What has the State of Siege in Alto Verapaz achieved?

It was an extreme measure to deal with the lack of governance in the area. It was adequate, but nonetheless the prolongation of the measure within a security and judicial system that needs reform, well, it’s not enough. I don’t think new laws need to be approved, I think the government needs to enforce the laws already in place.

What errors were committed?

The fundamental error was conceiving the State of Siege as the only way to go in there. The State of Siege removed some of the tumors, but the cancer is still there. Many of the citizens who were arrested were let go because of lack of evidence, that is, they were mistaken arrests. They didn’t find the chiefs of the drug trade, they didn’t dismantle the criminal leadership in the department.

Do you think the State of Siege should have been extended?

The danger is that they’ll keep on extending it and even expand it during an election year. One of the negative effects would be carrying out general elections in a department in a State of Siege, an anti-democratic and unstable situation that politically Guatemala has never had.

Is this really a fight against drug trafficking?

No, in my opinion in these moments the government needs to strengthen its branches of public security, because on a national level, we don’t have the operational capacity to confront a problem of this nature. Part of the problem started when Oscar Berger (former president, 2004-2008) reduced the army to a minimal capacity. It is not the army’s job to absolutely handle matters of internal security. The Guatemalan state needs to do what it can to strengthen the civil apparatus for handling internal security. A civilian intelligence agency should be created.

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