WikiLeaks: Zetas in Seven Guatemalan Provinces

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A classified State Department cable, written in February 2009 and released recently by WikiLeaks, shows that the United States had long ago identified the threats to Guatemala posed by Mexican drug cartels, which have now taken root.

As Guatemalan officials prepare for a full-scale counter narcotics operation, the document indicates the scale of corruption in the country. According to United States Ambassador Stephen McFarland, without outside intervention the rule of law in Guatemala would deteriorate significantly, something that has already come to pass.

In the document (reproduced below), United States Ambassador Stephen McFarland expresses his concern with the deteriorating rule of law in Coban, the capital of Alta Verapaz, where the government has declared a “state of siege.” If the U.S. does not intervene, he warns, “Coban will join the growing list of areas lost to narcotraffickers.” On this list, Ambassador McFarland includes the eastern border provinces of Zacapa, Izabal, Jutiapa and Chiquimula, as well as the western province of San Marcos and the densely forested Peten to the north.

McFarland cites reports from various officials in these embattled regions, and outlines several impediments to Guatemalan officials’ capacity to enforce the rule of law. Although he is highlights police corruption, the need for judicial reform and the lack of political will to tackle organized crime, he points to examples where some local officials are making headway. Specifically, the ambassador applauds the efforts in the small village of Tactic, Alta Verapaz, where the mayor has capitalized on the town’s indigenous ethnic identity to keep crime low.

Full Cable:



E.O. 12958: DECL: 02/04/2019

REF: A. 2008 GUATEMALA 387
B. 2008 GUATEMALA 1593

Classified By: Pol/Econ Counselor Drew Blakeney for reasons 1.4 (b&d).

1. (C) Confronted by the threat from three narcotrafficking
groups, including recently arrived “Zetas” from Mexico, the
local Rule of Law (ROL) apparatus in the northern city of
Coban is no longer capable of dealing with the most serious
kinds of crime. What is happening there is typical of many
rural areas of Guatemala. Sources tell us that Coban’s
police are corrupt and allied with traffickers, and sometimes
even provide them escort. Some judges and prosecutors are
too frightened to do their jobs properly; others are in
league with the traffickers. Asserting that security is not
his job, the mayor is turning a blind eye to the
narco-violence in Coban’s streets. Wholesale restructuring
of the ROL apparatus — not mere personnel changes — would
be required for the state to adequately reassert its
authority. End Introduction.

Mexican Zetas Settling Down in Coban…
2. (C) Prompted by accounts that more than 100 Mexican
“Zetas” (the armed wing of the Gulf Cartel, members of which
are former soldiers) have taken up residence, Pol/Econ
Counselor visited the northern city of Coban, Guatemala,
January 11-13. AID officer made a follow-on trip to the
region Jan. 20-22. Coban, which is the capital of Alta
Verapaz Department, and its surrounding areas have a
population of approximately 150,000. Most inhabitants are
from the Q’Eqchi’ and Poqomchi’ indigenous groups, though the
area has many Spanish-speaking Ladinos as well. A September
2, 2008 shoot-out in front of the shopping mall involving
Mexican and Guatemalan traffickers armed with military
weapons brought Coban’s growing narcotrafficking problem to
national attention. Coban is no longer the peaceful place it
was just a year and a half ago, although some interlocutors
reported that the Zetas are now trying to keep a lower
profile in order to avoid national and international

…with Help from Local Authorities
3. (C) XXXXXXXXXXXX, a ten-year resident of Coban, said there were
three main narcotrafficking groups/leaders in Coban: Walter
Overdic Mejia, the local representative of the Guatemalan
Lorenzana Family of Zacapa; “El Loco” Turcios, the local
representative of the Mendoza drug trafficking family of
Izabal; and most recently, more than 100 Mexican Zetas.
Overdic had invited the Zetas in, thinking he could arrange a
lucrative partnership, but now the Zetas are taking over,
XXXXXXXXXXXX said. They are buying land forming a corridor to
the Mexican border, and have met with local African palm
growers to tell them which land they can buy and which they
cannot. They kidnapped some of the growers, employees to
underline their point.

4. (C) According to XXXXXXXXXXXX, scores of mid- and
lower-ranking Zetas have taken up residence in “El Esfuerzo
1″ and “El Esfuerzo 2,” two poor neighborhoods in Coban,s
western Zone 12, adjacent to the airport. (Comment: During
a visit to the two impoverished neighborhoods, Pol/Econ
Qa visit to the two impoverished neighborhoods, Pol/Econ
Counselor observed many idle youths. It appeared that they
could easily be manipulated by outsiders with money.)
XXXXXXXXXXXX said immigration authorities are helping the Zetas
obtain Guatemalan passports and other documents to normalize
their status in the country. The Zetas also are believed to
operate a training camp in the area. In separate
conversations with AID officer, XXXXXXXXXXXX, native of Coban, 
said Zetas freely use the airport, even during daylight hours.

5. (C) XXXXXXXXXXXX said he had seen police XXXXXXXXXXXX personally
escorting the Zetas. In addition to assisting the Zetas,
XXXXXXXXXXXX has been in the employ of both of the main
Guatemalan rival traffickers, Turcios and Overdic, and has
betrayed both, according to XXXXXXXXXXXX. One or the other may
assassinate him soon, XXXXXXXXXXXX speculated. He noted that
the September firefight with military weapons occurred in
front of the shopping mall, 500 meters from the police
station. The PNC did not respond. The genesis of the
firefight, according to XXXXXXXXXXXX, was Overdic had sent
Jorge Flores to ambush the Zetas in retaliation for their
March 25 murder of Juan Leon in Zacapa (ref b). When the
SAIA (Counternarcotics Analysis and Information Service)
briefly detained Overdic,s wife and son, Overdic announced
on local radio that if they were not immediately freed, he
would “blow up the shopping mall, and the commercial center
of town.” Storekeepers duly closed for the day, and the mall
was evacuated. Mrs. Overdic was released. (Note: During a
search of the Overdics’ bodyguards’ quarters, investigators
allegedly found three checks to Army Colonel Carlos Adolfo
Mancilla, according to the International Commission Against
Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Mancilla has since been
promoted to Brigadier General and made Deputy Chief of Staff,
ref b.)

Mayor, Police Chief Don’t See a Problem
6. (C) From Coban but not having lived there since
childhood, Mayor Leonel Chacon of the FRG left the textile
business in Guatemala City to return home to run for mayor.
He was eager to discuss his economic development plans with
Pol/Econ Counselor, but was visibly nervous when asked to
discuss security and narcotics trafficking. He said that
narcotraffickers could at times be seen in Coban, but had no
negative impact on local life. He dismissed reports of Zetas
in Coban as “rumors,” and did not react to mention of the
September shoot-out, Walter Overdic, and Overdic,s alleged
murder of an appellate court judge two years ago. “I don’t
have a problem with anybody,” Chacon said. He mentioned that
common crime has long remained at a constant, low level.
Despite the mayor’s assurances, XXXXXXXXXXXX told AID
officer that local cocaine consumption was growing, and that
the narcotraffickers’ local transportation network now
includes many taxi drivers and small farmers.

7. (C) Police XXXXXXXXXXXX told Pol/Econ Counselor that narcotraffickers
occasionally use the Coban area as a transportation corridor,
but do not disrupt local life. He said the September
shoot-out was Juan Leon’s supporters ambushing Mexican Zetas.
“It doesn’t worry me if they want to kill each other,”
XXXXXXXXXXXX said. Key to interrupting narcotraffickers’
operations is more patrolling, he asserted, but with just 280
PNC officers to cover the whole of Alta Verapaz Department,
that was not possible. XXXXXXXXXXXX said he personally had
transported Walter “The Tiger” Overdic to jail on several
occasions during his previous assignment to the area, but
since judges freed him each time, there was little point in
going after him or other narcotraffickers again. Common
crime has long remained at a constant, low level. Youths
from impoverished Zone 12, at the western end of Coban, are
trying to imitate Guatemala City gang members, but so far
haven’t been much of a problem, XXXXXXXXXXXX said. (Note: Mayor
separately told AID officer that Alta Verapaz residents tend
to report drug crimes to municipal authorities rather than to
the police because they are convinced that Chief Sandoval and
his officers are in league with traffickers. End Note.)

Judicial Workers Intimidated
8. (C) XXXXXXXXXXXX said his conscience was
clear, and that he was doing the best job he could while
bearing in mind Coban,s “new realities.” (Note: XXXXXXXXXXXX is
one of three judges who may have made decisions helpful to
Overdic, according to CICIG.) “I do not wish to become a
martyr,” XXXXXXXXXXXX said, noting that he drives himself to work,
has no security, and his family lives nearby. Local police
are corrupt, XXXXXXXXXXXX said, and he did not know whom to trust
within local rule of law institutions. XXXXXXXXXXXX acknowledged the
local presence of Zetas and other traffickers, but would not
go into details. He said it was time to consider a new,
extraordinary arrangement that would provide protection for
judicial workers and their families. Anonymity would have to
be part of the arrangement, which would need to include far
more robust investigative and policing capabilities.

9. (C) Criminal Prosecutor XXXXXXXXXXXX of the
Public Ministry (MP, the Attorney General’s Office) told
Pol/Econ Counselor that she “had never intended to join the
army, or do any other job likely to get (her) killed” when
she became a prosecutor decades ago. XXXXXXXXXXXX.
When she drives herself to work each morning, she goes past a
line of inmates, family members, who are awaiting access to
their loved ones inside, she said. “I put some of those
inmates in that prison. Do you think their family members
notice me when I drive by? Do you think they point at me?
They do,” she said. Mentioning that she regularly rides
public busses alone, XXXXXXXXXXXX said she would like to vigorously
pursue cases against narcotraffickers, but feels too
vulnerable to do so. Furthermore, she said, local police
were not trustworthy. Her workload is on the rise: the Coban
MP’s common criminal case load had increased from
300-400/month two years ago to 600-800 now, and was
distributed among three prosecutors and four assistants. “We
cannot go on like this … something has got to change,” she
concluded. There was consensus among AID officer’s
interlocutors that judges and prosecutors are turning a blind
eye to narcotraffickers because they fear for their lives,
and those of their family members.

Better Leadership in Neighboring Tactic
10. (C) Pol/Econ Counselor also traveled to three ethnic
Poqomchi, towns immediately south of Coban — Santa Cruz,
San Cristobal Verapaz, and Tactic. Unsatisfied with the
usual mayors, answer that they do not deal with security
issues, Hugo Rolando Caal Co, the newly-elected Mayor of
Tactic, decided he would. He organized neighborhood
“intelligence committees” to gather information on outsiders
and criminals, which report information to the Mayor’s
Office, which then reports it to ROL authorities. He is also
installing street cameras that will be monitored from a
central site at the municipality building. Caal said he is
considering joint security initiatives with the mayors of the
other three ethnic Poqomchi’ towns — Tamahu, Santa Cruz
Verapaz, and San Cristobal Verapaz. He noted that it is easy
for residents of the four Poqomchi’ towns to spot outsiders
because they generally do not speak Poqomchi’. Caal Co hoped
to capitalize on the Poqomchis’ unique linguistic identity
for the community’s security benefit.

11. (C) Caal said a recent, gruesome murder made him think
for the first time that perhaps narcotraffickers had come to
Tactic. Hundreds of townspeople had attempted to lynch the
suspected perpetrators on the morning of January 13 (during
Pol/Econ Counselor’s visit), but PNC Chief Sandoval and his
men arrived to take the suspects into custody. Caal was
critical of ROL authorities, saying they needed to be more
efficient and vigilant. He and other municipal leaders told
AID officer that the PNC’s living and working conditions are
not such as to inspire loyalty to the state, and that the GOG
needs to do more for its police, starting with better
Qneeds to do more for its police, starting with better
salaries. In the meantime, Caal Co told AID officer, the
army, which is a stronger institution, should do more joint
patrolling with the police. This would serve to strengthen
the state’s law enforcement presence and might encourage
better police comportment.

12. (C) Judge XXXXXXXXXXXX opined that the ROL
apparatus is broken. The PNC and MP often accuse judges of
freeing criminals, but the Penal Code was written in such as
a way as to make that the likeliest outcome. Guatemala
desperately needs to reform its Penal Code, he said. In
cases in which laws, sentencing provisions conflict, such as
in the case of the Femicide Law (a copy of which he had on
his desk) and the Penal Code, judges were forced to apply the
lesser sentence. Despairing of the status quo, XXXXXXXXXXXX said,
“Soon there will be no choice but to resort to martial law.”
While Tactic had remained relatively quiet, XXXXXXXXXXXX said Coban
was out of control. He related that three truckloads of
Zetas recently stopped a police patrol to inform the two PNC
officers that a narcotrafficking operation was imminent. The
PNC officers should remain silent and go on their way,
“unless either of you are dissatisfied with your salaries, in
which case you should come with us,” the Zetas had told the

13. (C) Coban’s ROL infrastructure was never intended to
deal with the kind of threats to public order that it now
faces, and is collapsing. The process of loss of state
control now underway in Coban has already occurred in other
parts of the country, including Zacapa and Izabal
Departments, as well as parts of Jutiapa, Chiquimula, San
Marcos, and Peten Departments. Without outside intervention,
Coban will join the growing list of areas lost to

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