Guatemala’s 40-year civil war laid the groundwork for many criminal organizations, including several that spawned from state intelligence and military services. These organizations, collectively known as Illegal Clandestine Security Apparatuses (Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad – CIACS), are still operational, assisting in drug trafficking and illegal adoptions, the making of false passports and contraband. They include several ex-generals and former high-ranking intelligence officers, and their connections to the private side security services in Guatemala, plus their understanding of how to penetrate and corrupt the government make them useful partners and potent individual actors in the underworld.


The origins of the Illegal Clandestine Security Apparatuses (Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad – CIACS) are in Guatemala’s civil conflict. What began as a fight for land and labor rights in the 1950s became a full-scale civil war in the 1960s. Several guerrilla groups emerged, both urban and rural, some of which included former military officers. Amidst the turmoil, the Guatemalan army seized power and held it until the mid-1980s. Along the way they created an elaborate and somewhat sophisticated intelligence apparatus, the most important part of which was the Estado Mayor Presidencial (EMP).

CIACS Factbox




Criminal Activities
Drug trafficking, drug sales, arms dealing, falsifying documents, adoption rings, contraband

Guatemala Factbox

Homicide Rate

Criminal Activities

Drug transit, human trafficking, extortion, kidnapping, prostitution rings

Principal criminal groups

MS13, Barrio 18, CIACS, Lorenzanas, Mendozas, Leones

The government set up the EMP in the mid-1970s to protect the president and his family. But with time, it evolved into an intelligence gathering service. Staffed by military personnel, most of whom had worked in the military’s most feared intelligence services, it soon turned its attention to opposition forces and political movements who threatened its control over the government and its ability to cover up its past war crimes. The information was placed in files, or “archivos,” giving the EMP its moniker: “los archivos.”

During the 1980s, as the country shifted from military to civilian rule, the EMP worked to keep opposition in check and ensure that past abuses during the civil war went unpunished. It did this by systematically tracking, harrassing, and in some cases arresting human rights workers, union members and student activists, among others. Some faced torture. Others were simply executed or disappeared. One military intelligence document, obtained from Guatemala’s government archives by the National Security Archives, listed 183 Guatemalans that the EMP disappeared between 1983 and 1985. The EMP was also responsible for the 1990 murder of the anthropologist Myrna Mack in 1990. And its personnel were behind the 1998 murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi, who had led an investigation into war crimes during the country’s civil conflict.

The EMP was abolished in 2003, but it was at the heart of what many called the “hidden powers,” or CIACS, that continued to have a strong hand in running the Guatemalan government for years thereafter. Military intelligence services such as the G-2 and the D-2 were also part of these powers. They drew from their past connections to become a type of parallel government. Some of them took on names like the Cofradia or La Montaña and battled for control with each other over the lucrative businesses they managed. These businesses included providing intelligence and weapons, hitmen services and fake passports to criminal groups. They were facilitators more than operators, and their vast knowledge of the state and political connections within it, made them invaluable to other underworld operators and political parties alike. Some eventually formed their own political movements. A former EMP commander, Otto Perez Molina, is now the Guatemala’s president.

In 2007, the government opened the door for the United Nations International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which has been working to dismantle the CIACS. Its case against former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo is illustrative of the CICIG’s mixed results. According to the US indictment against the ex-president, retired General Francisco Ortega Menaldo orchestrated at least part of the pillaging of state resources that led to the arrest of the former president and his defense minister.

The US pulled Ortega’s visa in 2002, for his alleged contacts with drug trafficking organizations. He is also thought to have ties to an organization that sells Guatemalan passports to foreigners. However, Guatemalan authorities have never indicted Ortega, and Ortega has consistently denied any wrongdoing or connections to these “hidden powers.” Portillo and two of Ortega’s close associates, however, spent time in jail for embezzlement, and Portillo was extradited to the US where he was convicted of money laundering charges. After spending a year and a half in US prison, Portillo returned to Guatemala in February 2015.

Given his background in the EMP, many expected President Perez Molina not to renew the CICIG’s mandate on coming to power. However, after assuming the presidency, Perez extended CICIG’s mandate for a further two years until September 2015. In April 2015, after much debate and political maneuvering — and amidst a crisis in his administration due to a customs fraud scandal — Perez renewed CICIG’s mandate for another two years. 


Membership in the CIACS included active and ex-military officers, special forces operatives, and high-level government officials; many of whom operated in intelligence branches such as the EMP, the G-2 or the D-2. The “Cofradia” or “The Brotherhood,” was composed of an elite group of Guatemalan intelligence officers.


The CIACS operates throughout Guatemala, but its core groups are centered in the Guatemala City, near the halls of government power.

Allies and Enemies

Given the status of their members, the CIACS enjoyed wide support among the Guatemalan government, with considerable access to the president and other leaders.


The Portillo case and the activities of the CICIG notwithstanding, reducing the activities of organized crime in Guatemala to the CIACS may be simplistic and outdated. The CIACS have blended with various criminal enterprises, formed their own or have tried to become legitimate political and economic actors. While their legacy is strong — witness the customs fraud scandal — the CIACS themselves are symbols of how power works in Guatemala: via a mafia-like control over the levers of government bureaucracy. 

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