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GUATEMALA: Caught in the crossfire


GUATEMALA: Caught in the crossfire*



altMy friend — from an eastern region of Guatemala that empties into the Gulf of Honduras — spoke in hushed tones as we met in a coffee shop in that Central American country recently.

One of the region’s wealthiest families, whose interests run to transportation and construction endeavors but also to more illicit forms of entrepreneurship, had recently received an offer that they couldn’t refuse.

Called to a meeting in the jungle-covered department of El Petén, the family’s scions found themselves face to face with members of Los Zetas.

Originally members of a Mexican army unit, the Zetas (named after a radio code for high-ranking officers) defected from the military to become enforcers for the Cártel del Golfo in the late 1990s. Subsequently jettisoning their new employers to become an international organized-crime entity in their own right, in recent months the two groups have waged a brutal battle for control of drug-smuggling routes in the Mexican states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo León.

The Zetas’ message to their erstwhile Guatemalan competitors was clear and chilling: Join forces with the Mexican cartel or make a $1.5 million down payment and deliver monthly payments in the sum of $700,000. There would be no negotiation.

Since Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared war on that country’s drug cartels in late 2006, two of Mexico’s largest cartels, Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán’s Cartel de Sinaloa and the Zetas themselves, have sought the path of least resistance, filtering through the 541-mile border that Guatemala shares with its northern neighbor.

Though the presence of Mexican drug-trafficking organizations in Guatemala is nothing new — Guzmán was arrested there in 1993, and Guatemalan soldiers have joined the Zetas in the past — the intensity of the groups’ invasion of the country over the past two years has been unparalleled.

In Guatemala, the cartels have found a country with a state designed to be weak and ineffective by a rapacious oligarchy. Only 15,000 solders and 26,000 police patrol its rugged terrain, though there are more than 100,000 active private security personnel. Scaled down after the country’s 1996 peace accords following decades of atrocities, today’s numerically small and poorly trained Guatemalan security forces have made way for the armed enforcers of the country’s various criminal monarchies.

This past November, the government of Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom declared a state of siege in the department of Alta Verapaz, a stronghold of the Zetas. In response, men claiming to be from the cartel took to the airwaves of three radio stations and threatened to attack shopping centers, schools and police stations if government pressure did not cease.

Further afield, the region between the border town of Tecún Umán and the Pacific coast municipality of Ocos has become a no-man’s land, the redoubt of Juan Alberto “Chamalé” Ortiz López, an alleged Guatemalan drug kingpin who is said to have been the first person to bring the Zetas into Guatemala in 2007.

Unexplained assassinations, such as that of former government deputy Obdulio Solórzano this past July, have once again become the norm, and a United Nations-mandated commission tasked with looking into criminal entities and their links to the state can barely keep up with its ever-expanding caseload.

With multiple-casualty shootouts occurring throughout the country, Guatemalans could be forgiven for looking to their politicians for protection. However, the wide perception in Guatemala is that the major political parties have been so deeply penetrated by organized crime that they themselves are part of the problem.

“You have no idea what kind of power they have,” a former Guatemalan official told me recently, speaking of organized crime’s influence on the upper echelons of the Guatemalan political establishment. Faced with such violence, a social movement to demand effective, capable law-enforcement and a transparent, non-corrupt judiciary has yet to emerge from Guatemala’s fragile civil society.

Fourteen years after the end of Guatemala’s civil war, successive governments have failed to break the stranglehold of corruption and impunity on the country. For many poor Guatemalans who survived that conflict, the very concept of Guatemala as a country at all was mostly a theoretical one until the army came calling.

It is an equal tragedy to see them once again victimized by today’s conflict, a war in all but name.

Michael Deibert is a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies at Coventry University and the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti.


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