Guatemala’s criminal organizations are among the most sophisticated and dangerous in Central America. Some of them have been in operation for decades. They include former members of the military, intelligence agencies active members of the police, as well as public officials and drug traffickers. In recent years, these networks have fractured after their leaders were captured.
Transporting illegal drugs north comprises the bulk of their activity, but organized crime in Guatemala is also involved in marijuana, poppy, and coca cultivation, as well as human trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, money laundering, arms smuggling, adoption rings, environmental crimes and other illegal enterprises. They often work with groups from Mexico, Colombia, and other Central American nations. They have shown the ability to expand and command other criminal economies in neighboring countries.
Guatemala has 400 km of coastline, most of it on the Pacific Ocean, from which it receives and dispatches much of the contraband entering and departing the country. The mountainous interior, combined with the vast, sparsely populated stretches of jungle in the north make the country an ideal storage and transit nation.
Guatemala’s varied climate and terrain make it a suitable location for growing various illicit crops. Marijuana is grown all over the country and authorities have discovered substantial quantities of poppy crops in high-altitude areas, particularly near the western border with Mexico.
In recent years, security forces have also discovered small-scale coca plantations hidden in the mountains in a few of the country’s north-eastern provinces —most notably Izabal.
Guatemala shares a border with Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, and Belize.
Guatemala’s current turmoil and pronounced problems of violence, crime, and impunity have their roots in a historically weak state, protracted periods of direct military rule or interference by the armed forces in politics, and deep-seated economic, social and cultural inequality. One of the largest countries in Central America has long had one of the most unequal distribution of resources and capital in the world, concentrating wealth in the hands of a small elite. The indigenous population, which represents almost 45 percent of Guatemala (2018 statistics), has been systematically marginalized socially and politically since colonial times. These groups have had a difficult time forming a cohesive political movement and have faced years of repression by Guatemala’s military and police forces.
During much of its history, Guatemala’s political regime was akin to apartheid in South Africa. White elites sought to maintain long-established patterns of control of the means of economic production at the expense of the majority of its population. At the same time, these elite interests have sought to keep the state weak in terms of its ability to exert control over their wealth. While Guatemala has had some strong institutions, in particular the military, a strong central government and state were never established. The government is perpetually in debt, in part because of its difficulties in collecting taxes, in part because of the economic elite’s disinterest in reforming the tax and legal codes that oversee their interests.
During the past quarter-century, Guatemala has seen institutional and political change and modernization, including the return to democracy after a long period of mostly military rule and the enactment of a new constitution in 1985. However, the pattern whereby the government serves as a tool to advance private interests rather than the public good has been hard to break. The most visible disputes in Guatemala have been centered in rural areas, where struggles over land and labor disputes laid the foundations for political resistance movements and the internal armed conflict that began in 1960 when the military government quashed a rebellion by a small group of young army officers. Declaring the government corrupt, the officers fled to the countryside and mountains and began an insurgency.
The 36-year civil war that followed the 1960-insurrection led to the formation of several leftist guerrilla organizations. But these groups failed to gain any significant traction. Instead, the Guatemalan military used the rise of the rebels as a pretext to extend its power and influence over the hobbled, corrupt and incompetent state. Part of the military’s strategy included creating civilian militia groups. Known as Civil Defense Patrols (Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil – PAC), these groups were used to control and repress the largely rural populations that formed the core of the leftist groups. The fighting left an estimated 200,000 people dead or “disappeared” and over a million Guatemalans displaced, most of them from rural indigenous populations. The Historical Clarification Commission (Comisión de Esclarecimiento Histórico – CEH), a United Nations truth commission that began working in 1997 after the signature of the final peace accords between the government and the insurgents, found that the government and the PAC were responsible for the vast majority of these deaths, “disappearances” and displacement.
Throughout the war, criminal organizations —including small bands of human smugglers, drug traffickers, and “contrabandistas”— operated in relative obscurity. Most of them were family-run operations that emerged near the border crossings, ports, or in the unpopulated jungles in the north of the country. They were a secondary concern and often provided services for all sides in the conflict, especially as military officers and police units became more deeply involved in organized crime. These state actors began in petty corruption schemes but soon branched into drug trafficking. By the early 1980s, there were hundreds, if not thousands of clandestine airstrips, most of them in the northern province of Petén. State security forces often facilitated the movement of illegal goods, which mostly made their way north toward the United States. Military and police officers also began to control the large and unmonitored arms trafficking networks in the region. These networks furnished weapons to all the illegal armed groups in the region, including the Guatemalan and Salvadoran rebel groups.
The peace process between the government and the coalition of rebel groups, known as the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca – URNG), did not resolve any of the core issues that divide this nation. The actual accords were linked to a constitutional referendum, which did not pass. The new police force included 11,000 members of the old police. The military, which was whittled down to 44,000 and later 31,000 troops, was called in to help the police with law and order issues. But with little training and a diminished mandate, the army could not control the spiraling crime rate. This, coupled with massive repatriations of Central American migrants from the United States, including hundreds of criminals and gang members, and Guatemala, along with its neighbors, was suddenly confronted with a security crisis that is perhaps worse than at any time during the civil war.
Taking advantage of a hungry and divided population and a weak and corrupt state, the major criminal groups operating in Guatemala are involved in myriad illicit activities. The most disruptive is drug trafficking. The groups controlling this trade are popularly known as “transportistas,” or transporters. They are remnants of the contraband traders that have moved illicit products across Guatemala’s largely ungoverned territory for decades. These include the Mendoza, Lorenzana, Ortiz López, and León families, each of which has historically controlled strategic areas near the borders and maintained strong contacts in the security forces and political circles. But there are also a smattering of smaller, lesser-known groups that have established themselves in strategic corridors like the Alta Verapaz, Huehuetenango, and San Marcos provinces. A string of arrests in recent years has weakened some of the country’s more prominent groups, accelerating the emergence of new networks in border regions, often allied with mayors and security agents in their areas of influence.
Nonetheless, the continuing arrests of family members from historically powerful groups, like the Lorenzanas, are a sign that these organizations remain active in the drug trade.
Transportistas move produce for larger groups, mostly Colombian and Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). Facing pressure in their own country, Mexican DTOs tried to establish a firm foothold in Guatemala —two groups in particular, the Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel. The Zetas’ advance on Guatemala was rapid and brutally violent. At one point they had established some level of control over almost all of the country’s key strategic drug trafficking locations and had infiltrated the authorities at the highest levels. However, the Zetas’ power peaked in 2011 and 2012, a series of blows against their organization both in Guatemala and Mexico saw their grip loosened, eventually petering out. The Sinaloa Cartel meanwhile, which favored forging alliances over the Zetas’ tactic of extreme violence, remains entrenched in the country’s illicit trades and has access to a broad network of local criminal operators.
The criminal organizations’ power in Guatemala displays similar characteristics to an insurgency, with several provinces considered to be under the DTOs’ control. The United States government estimated that criminal groups smuggled 1,400 tons of cocaine through Guatemala in 2018.
DTOs are just one facet of organized crime in Guatemala. Kidnapping, extortion, arms trafficking, illegal adoption rings and environmental crimes (logging, illegal fisheries, theft of rare artifacts, etc.) flourish in this Central American nation. The reasons for this go beyond the failure of the peace accords or the inability of the government to implement tax reform. At the center of this crisis is a failure of political leaders and security officials to institute and follow through on critical reforms of the legal, justice, and security systems; and an inability to extract and prosecute corrupt military, security, and government officials from the government.
To be sure, both active and former members of the military are a key part of the illicit networks, which are collectively named the (Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad – CIACS).
The high level of organized crime in Guatemala is also largely thanks to a permissive and often complicit police force. Poorly paid, poorly educated, and faced with the options of corruption or death, many police officials elect the former. The police are not controlled by any particular organization —they act autonomously, in groups or sometimes in the temporary employ of traffickers. In some cases, there have been battles between different sections of police employed by rival organizations. Their primary function is to facilitate the transportation of drugs, but they also engage in drug robberies —called “tumbes”— extortion, kidnapping, arms trafficking, and black market adoption rings. Despite some high-profile arrests, this corruption continues.
Meanwhile, the country’s murder rate, which was one of the highest in the world in 2008 with 48 murders per 100,000 people, has been in steady decline for over a decade, dropping to 21.5 murders per 100,000 people in 2019. Despite the reduction, this remains one of the highest homicide rates in Latin America.
According to police data, the vast majority of homicides in Guatemala are committed with a firearm (2018 statistics), with much of the violence linked to drug trafficking and gang activity. Permissive gun laws mean that firearms are widely available to Guatemala’s citizens. In addition to legal arms, there were an estimated 1 million illegal arms in circulation in the country in 2018, down from 1.5 million in 2011.
Guatemala has a multitude of criminal groups that range from very sophisticated to rudimentary. They include former and active members of the security forces and police as well as long-time smugglers, human traffickers, and some Mexican and Colombian drug trafficking organizations. All of these groups work closely with sectors of the government that facilitate their business, but none are interested in controlling or overthrowing the state apparatus, which has long served them by being weak and beholden to their interests.
Two of the Americas’ most notorious street gangs — the rival Mara Salvatrucha, or MS13, and 18th Street Gang, or Barrio 18 —have an especially strong influence in Guatemala and its Northern Triangle neighbors, Honduras and El Salvador.
Criminal elements of Guatemala’s military and intelligence apparatus are collectively named the Illegal Corps and Clandestine Security Apparatus (Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad – CIACS). The CIACS have their origins in government intelligence units and think tanks. Their behind-the-scenes influence in the government has led some to see them as the “hidden powers” who secretly run the country. These men reached the height of their power between 1997 and 2005, and have since splintered into several smaller groups. They remain powerful actors in the criminal underworld and maintain close ties to political parties. Former Guatemalan president and ex-General Otto Pérez Molina was allegedly a member of the CIACS.
Guatemala has 20,000 active frontline military personnel and over 42,000 National Civil Police (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC) officers. The intelligence apparatus is still in transition after a tumultuous history in which many of its members were part of a repressive state accused of widespread human rights abuses and the killing of civilians, and many others were part of organized criminal gangs. When the intelligence services were dismantled, many of its former members went to work with organized criminal gangs or formed their own criminal syndicates.
Guatemala’s military force has been greatly reduced since the end of the Civil War in 1996.
The country spent 0.35 percent of its GDP on “military expenditure” in 2014.
Guatemala’s Judicial Organ (Organismo Judicial – OJ) is technically an independent entity, and its highest judicial institutions are the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court. It also consists of a number of other smaller courts and tribunals.
The Attorney General’s Office (Ministerio Público – MP) is an autonomous body whose duty is to promote criminal justice, conduct investigations, and ensure that national laws are adhered to.
Guatemala’s criminal justice system has been plagued by institutional weakness, a lack of resources, high impunity rates, and corruption. The appointment of Claudia Paz y Paz as Attorney General in 2010 helped to greatly reduce impunity in the country and bring previously “untouchable” criminals to justice. However, she made significant enemies within the country’s elite and organized crime circles, and her term was questionably cut short in 2014.
Under the leadership of Colombian prosecutor Iván Velasquez and former Attorney General, Thelma Aldana, the CICIG took on several complex corruption cases against corrupt politicians, drug traffickers and other criminal networks that had until then operated with relative impunity.
Most notably, in 2015, a CICIG-led investigation into a high-reaching customs fraud network named “La Linea” led to the resignation of then President Otto Pérez Molina and his vice-president Roxana Baldetti.
However, the CICIG eventually became a victim of its own success. Faced with mounting discontent among the influential criminal elites being investigated by the commission, former President Jimmy Morales – who himself was being investigated by the CICIG – decided not to renew the commission’s mandate, which expired in September 2019, thus ousting the body from the country.
Despite its landmark achievements, the CICIG’s tenure did not manage to root out the embedded corruption and institutional frailties that compromise the country’s judicial system.
In the wake of the CICIG’s exit, powerful criminal groups have launched attacks on the few remaining justice institutions capable of taking on corruption – most notably the Constitutional Court and the specialist anti-impunity unit of the Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía Especial Contra la Impunidad – FECI).
Guatemala’s jails are immensely overcrowded, overwhelmed, home to violent prison gangs, and the site of frequent massacres of both internees and staff. Between 2017 and October 2019, the Guatemalan human rights ombudsman (Procurador de Derechos Humanos – PDH) reported 99 violent inmate deaths within the Guatemala penitentiary system.
At the end of 2019, there were 25,303 people in Guatemala’s prisons, despite the system’s maximum capacity being 6,997 inmates —an overpopulation rate of 363 percent. Men represent the vast majority of the prison population, with 22,487 versus 2,816 women.
In addition to overcrowding, violence is also caused by unrest and revolt, as the system’s poor infrastructure fails to meet inmates’ requests for better living conditions.
Prisoners are known to run extortion rackets, black market networks and drug sales from within jails. 70 percent of reported extortion cases relate to calls that come from within prisons, according to Guatemalan anti-gang police.
Gangs within Guatemala’s prisons are known as “cholos,” while common criminals are referred to as “paisas”. Mara groups — the MS13 and Barrio 18 — seek to control penitentiaries, at times leading to clashes with cholos. These street gangs also use the prison system to organize, train members, and run their networks. Top leaders of the two main gangs have been known to operate from Guatemalan jails.
Corrupt prison guards and staff are complicit in abusive behavior, forming mafias together with inmates that effectively control the penitentiaries. Prison staff at the highest levels have been implicated in bribery and influence-peddling networks.