Police Withdraw from Key Drug Zones of Guatemala

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The Guatemalan government has withdrawn national police from 32 municipalities, many of them key for the drug trade, pointing to the need for the country to develop a larger, more professional police force to counter the rise of Mexican drug cartels.

On October 17, Guatemalan Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez announced that in the past four years, the government has withdrawn the National Civil Police (PNC) from 32 municipalities in eight provinces, the majority of which lie close to the country’s western border with Mexico. As Lopez told public news agency AGN, 24 of these municipalities are in the western provinces of San Marcos and Huehuetenago (18 and six municipalities without police, respectively), which both border Mexico. The rest are in Quiche, Chimaltenango, Alta Verapaz, Suchitepequez, Solola and Totonicapan provinces (see map, below).

Guatemalamapa

According to Lopez, these municipalities are “areas of high risk for organized crime.” He claimed that the government plans to gradually restore police presence in the most violent central provinces, and then extend it to the border in coordination with local governments. This year police have already returned to four municipalities in San Marcos, the minister said.

AGN reports that the governors of San Marcos and Huehuetenango say that one of the main issues with returning police to these areas is the population’s strong distrust of the security forces. This is in part a legacy of the country’s brutal 1960-1996 civil war, in which violence against the rural, largely indigenous population reached the level of genocide. These tensions flared up recently as a result of the death of eight protestors at the hands of soldiers in Totonicapan on October 4, raising new criticism about the use of the military in internal security.

Distrust of security forces in rural Guatemala came to a head again on October 13, when 200 residents of a small town in Peten accused police of harassing locals, and briefly took several police and military personnel hostage. Lopez, however, downplayed this, attributing such incidents to individuals “acting in the interests of organized crime.”

InSight Crime Analysis

The 32 areas without police presence amount to nearly 10 percent of Guatemala’s 332 municipalities. As InSight Crime has reported, parts of the country’s border with Mexico have been overrun by Mexican drug trafficking organizations like the Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel.

Interestingly, the two provinces with the most “problem municipalities,” San Marcos and Huehuetenango, have a reputation as home to a group of local drug smugglers loyal to the Sinaloa Cartel. When InSight Crime visited the province in 2010, locals said that the Zetas had been attempting to wrest control of the area from the Sinaloans, though without success, as our map of Mexican cartel influence in the country illustrates. 

While Lopez’s comments about locals serving “criminal interests” by confronting security forces are very likely misleading, there is precedent for drug traffickers manipulating Guatemalan communities in their favor. In April 2011, for instance, drug kingpin Juan Alberto Ortiz Lopez, alias “Juan Chamale,” was able to gather hundreds of demonstrators from his strongholds in the rural provinces of San Marcos, Quetzaltenango and Retalhuleu to rally for his release from prison in front of the Supreme Court in Guatemala City.

Ultimately, however, the news points to a lack of sufficient police resources to effectively address organized crime in the more isolated parts of the country. In addition to being notoriously corrupt, Guatemala’s police are understaffed and unable to effectively meet the country’s security needs. According to former head of Guatemala’s Police Reform Commission Helen Mack, the PNC would need 80,000 police officers to ensure citizen security, as elPeriodico reports. Other estimates put the number slightly lower, at 50,000. Either way, today’s police force of just 25,000 agents is inadequate, and the sluggish pace of its current growth (1,500 agents are trained every nine months) is not likely to fix this any time soon.  

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