Plaza Publica: The Ghost of the Zetas

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The state of siege had not yet ended and they had already returned.

“Did you hear a cardamom seller was killed? Well, it was them,” said a civilian intelligence agent, who was waiting for me in Coban.

The businessman was Boris Humberto Pinot, age 44. On the morning of February 17, he, who always participated in Coban’s half marathon, was training on a runners’ track in Jose Angel Rossi stadium, when two men showed up on a motorcycle. They made two circles around the track, and during the third circle they shot him, from less than a meter away.

When the agent speaks of “them,” he means the Zetas.

Are they really Zetas? I ask. “The leaders are Mexican, three or four. They bring people they trust over from Mexico, and there are Guatemalans too, most of them Peones. But call them J’s, M’s, L’s, whatever you want, they’re still violent,” explains the agent, selected by the security forces to track the movements of the group after the state of siege that started in December 19, and ended February 19. 

He didn’t have to wait long. On February 25, a group of men arrived at a car shop, six kilometers outside of Coban. They opened fire for three minutes with their automatic weapons, and later set fire to five vehicles. The shop’s security guard said it was strange how they yelled, “We’ve arrived, you sons of bitches.”

What does the murder of the businessman and the car shop burning have in common? “Well, there’s infomation that the businessman had problems with them because they wanted some of his land. The fire is more serious, but we’re still not sure,” said the agent.

No Nightlife

Everyone warns that the Zetas have returned. Walking around after eight o’clock at night gives the sensation of visiting a city in a coma: a small group of people eat meat tortillas in the corner of a park. Afterwards, nothing. Silence.

“Before it was lively. There were places open…you kept an eye on people on motorcycles, but not now,” says a hotel employee.

The Zetas came back. But no longer with their double traction vehicles or their guns with 30-round magazines or their Norteño ballads sung in tuneless voices and the pricey sound equipment in their cars set to maximum volume.

Now they move in sedans. They try, in their own way, to go unnoticed. 

“They’re here,” asserts a university professor, motioning his head in a semicircle. “But they’re no longer here with their money. They can no longer open up the businesses they bought out.”

The nightlife in Coban is over. It left with them. Because they bought out those businesses, the professor says.

“Everybody knows it. I had one student who sold, and they killed him,” he says.

Finding someone who talks on the record about the Zetas is complicated in this place: not the police, not the mayor’s office, not the universities, not the NGO’s. Nobody. For five days, I heard phrases like these: “But you can’t use my name”; “I’ll deny that you talked to me”; “I’ll say that you lied”; and “You could have my life in your hands, watch it.”

“There are three bars…and they changed owners. And since the state of siege they’ve been shut down,” says an independent journalist who used to frequent those places, places to celebrate life and relax like what happens anywhere else in the world. They were places that had life.

“There was a time when they wanted to pay for everything with Mexican pesos or U.S. dollars – can you believe it?” says the journalist, who fled to the capital years ago looking for peace.

For two nights I walked around these bars. I asked neighbors, and they said they didn’t know if they’d be opening again soon.

“They came here. They asked me how much I wanted for the business. I said it wasn’t for sale, and ha… I almost had to beg them to let me stay because it was sell or they’d kill me. Finally, I had to serve them meals on the house whenever they wanted to eat,” says a restaraunt owner.

He says they offered him a million dollars in cash.

“That’s how they bought land in Cahabon, Fray Bartolome de las Casas, Chisec, and Playa Grande, Quiche. They use the land for stores and training camps…Not even the military goes in there,” says someone who knew what information was being shared before it came out in WikiLeaks.

The Ex-friends who Took over Coban

“They fled to Coban, they fled to Coban,” the police repeated insistently by radio, the day in March 2008 when drug trafficker Juan Leon Ardon, alias “Juacho Leon,” was killed in Zacapa.

That was the first time that the name “Zetas” was heard in the country. They’d been present in Guatemala since 2007, but under the name of the Gulf Cartel, according to the anti-drug prosecutor’s office of the Public Ministry. In 2008, the Zetas began to split from the Gulf Cartel. The authorities had information that Juan Leon Ardon worked for the cartel.

According to a cable sent from the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala, published by WikiLeaks, the accused drug trafficker Walter Overdick had his base in Alta Verapaz and invited the Zetas into the country to take over a drug trafficking route from northern Honduras to Mexico, passing through Izabal, Alta Verapaz, Quiche, and Peten.

Leon Ardon was an “obstacle” for Overdick and the Zetas because he had contacts in Honduras and moved drugs via the route they wanted. That was why they killed him, according to the final accusation presented by the Public Ministry in the trial against six Mexicans and eight Guatemalans, who were sentenced last September to a combined 313 years in prison for the massacre.

For months, the prosecutors asked, why would a drug trafficker (Juacho Leon) leave his fiefdom and turn himself in to this rivals? The answer, they found out, was that Juancho Leon already knew some of his killers. Some time ago they worked together, before the Zetas split from the Gulf Cartel.

The way they betrayed Juancho Leon was how they betrayed Walter Overdick, after he invited them into Alta Verapaz.

“They kicked him out his farm, him and ‘Loco’ Turcios (Ottoniel Turcios),” says the source, who’d also worked as an informant for the authorities. Loco Turcios was a drug trafficker who’d come into power after the arrest of Jorge Mario Paredes, alias “El Gordo,” who was sentenced to 31 years of prison in the U.S.

“Everything was going well until they started giving orders and killing here in Coban without discussing it. Drug dealers died who didn’t want to sell to them, people who laundered money because they wanted to launder more [because they thought it was insufficient]. [They killed] innocent people who looked at them wrong or because of an altercation on the street…It was chaos,” the source explains.

And, he adds: “The government found out that even Overdick and Turcios were affected. And the cardamom businesses and the African palm. Because otherwise they would not get involved.”

Too Late

Investigations show that Guatemala is very important for the Zetas. The first who arrived to lead the group was Daniel Perez Rojas, alias “El Cachetes,” and Flavio Mendez Santiago, alias “El Amarillo.” The two are part of the first group of Zetas in Mexico and both were bodyguards for the top leader of the Gulf Cartel, Osiel Cardenas Guillen, arrested in 2003 and extradited to the U.S. in 2007.

They were hard guys. When Cachetes was captured the Zetas sent in new people. Among them, Raymundo Almanza Morales, alias “Ray” or “Commander Gori.”

He was arrested May 2009 in Monterrey. Now, according to authorities, the leader of the group is Miguel Treviño Morales, alias “Z-40,” the second-in-command of the Zetas in Mexico. 

The Zeta Corridor

According to the investigation by the Prosecutor General and information from Guatemalan intelligence, the Zetas achieved almost absolute control of drug trafficking from nothern Honduras and Guatemalan’s Caribbean coast. Meanwhile, they started a war in Chiquimula and Huehuetenango to control drug shipments. 

Documents found in safehouses indicate that control of the drug route began in the city of Tela, Honduras. A list was found of collaborators and their respective jobs. Also found was receipts for boatmen for up to $12,000, for picking up the drugs at sea and transferring them to stores.

There are also stores in the city of Omoa, where the director of the group is a man called “Zelaya” with the phone number (504) 95316157.

The shipments are transferred by land to Izabal. Some use boats to take the drugs into Guatemala via Estor municipality, and afterwards by the Cahabon river.

That is why it’s important for the Zetas to take control of Izabal and most of all Alta Verapaz, the natural distribution point. From here drugs can be sent to Peten, Quiche o Huehuetenango. Depending on the difficulty.

The principal contact in Mexico was identified as Margarito Mendoza Lopez, who is identified in notebooks and archives as “Z-50” and is based in Palenque. He was arrested last year for transporting weaponry.

A Circular Business

According to data found in a safehouse (notebooks keeping track of drug shipments and sales) between February and September 2009 one Zetas cell managed at least $110 million (some 880 million quetzales). The shipments arrived to Izabal from Honduras and left to Mexico moving through Sayaxche and Playa Grande, Quiche.

Some 8,000 kilos of cocaine was transported and an unspecified amount of heroin. Each kilo of cocaine was valued at $12,200 and heroin, up to $17,500.

There are also notes of purchases of AK-47 rifles at $1,900 and bulletproof jackes at $800. Grenades were bought at $200 each and explosives (TNT) at $450.

The Alta Verapaz group is made up of 100 people. 

This article was translated by InSight and republished with permission from Guatemalan news site Plaza Publica

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