In Guatemala, State of Siege Sees Little Progress Against Zetas

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The President of Guatemala, Alvaro Colom, announced that he plans to evaluate whether to extend the state of siege declared on December 19 in the central province of Alta Verapaz, to combat the Mexican drug gang known as the Zetas

Although the government has made eighteen arrests related to the decree, a deep level of political corruption has ensured the Zetas’ continued operation in the region.

According to the Guatemalan daily La Prensa Libre, Colom told reporters that his administration is analyzing the effects of the measure, which granted broad search and seizure powers to security forces and is set to expire on Wednesday.

Since December, the police and military have arrested eighteen people allegedly linked to organized crime and have seized about $853,200 in cash and other illicit assets such as vehicles and weapons. However, so far the government has only been able to link two of the detainees to the Zetas, a fact which has caused some to doubt the sincerity of the government’s hardline rhetoric.

The Zetas first entered 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 powerbrokers. According to a recent Miami Herald report, the Zetas allegedly gave two choices to the wealthy family 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.

As InSight reported in December, the Zetas also began intimidating or buying up most of the judicial authorities in Alta Verapaz, and in some cases even allegedly work directly with politicians. One of these politicians was reportedly Obdulio Solorzano, a director of the National Fund for Peace (FONAPAZ), a governmental organization that has implemented development projects to help fulfill the peace accords signed with the leftist guerrillas in the 1990s.

Before his assassination by unknown gunmen in July, Solorzano was charged repeatedly with corruption and misuse of public funds. An investigation into FONAPAZ, for instance, showed that at least 22 public works projects were overvalued, leading some to speculate that Solorzano and others were taking kickbacks. The politician also allegedly worked as the Zetas’ bagman, collecting and dispatching money for the group, including $11.5 million that, according to a communique released by the Zetas, was given to Colom for his presidential campaign.

Because of the entrenched level of crime in Alta Verapaz, it is unlikely that the month-long state of siege has made any significant dent in criminal activities in the province. Until security officials make more high-level arrests or the Colom administration decides to go after the Zetas’ political connections, the Mexican drug cartel will continue to expand its operations.

Update: Guatemala’s el Periodico reports that President Colom has extended the state of siege in Alta Verapaz for 30 days, maintaining that progress has been made and will continue in the province. In addition to the 300 soldiers now stationed in the area, Colom has promised to send two more military detachments to assist in counter-narcotics operations.

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