Jutiapa is a transit point for narcotics shipments and a hotspot for illegal firearm possession. Criminal groups smuggle illicit weapons into the department via its porous eastern border with El Salvador. Jutiapa consistently ranks among the Guatemalan departments with the highest rates of illicit weapon seizures and homicides committed with firearms.
There are also indications of marijuana and cocaine trafficking in the department – both drug transit and local sale – involving some municipal officials, including mayors. Drug seizures rarely occur, but this likely does not reflect actual drug trafficking activity.
Hardline security policies in El Salvador have caused waves of gang migration into Guatemala, with many gang members taking refuge in Jutiapa and continuing to engage in illicit economies such as extortion, in turn increasing criminal activity within the department.
MS13: The Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) street gang is present in the department.
Salvadoran gang members take advantage of Jutiapa’s proximity to El Salvador to seek temporary refuge when authorities in the neighboring country are cracking down on the gang.
Corrupt politicians: Throughout Jutiapa, drug traffickers have succeeded in co-opting municipal politics and influencing elections. Many mayors have suspected links to narcotics smuggling, and may use their powers to protect drug shipments and guarantee impunity for larger drug clans. Other mayors appear to have set up their own operations, protected by the immunity afforded to them while in office.
Arms Trafficking: Most illicit firearms in Jutiapa are used by small groups of thieves, drug traffickers and members of street gangs, including the MS13, who have access to rifles, shotguns and small arms, such as 9mm pistols. The presence of gangs and drug trafficking groups in the department appears to be driving a mid-sized firearm trafficking economy.
Cocaine: Large cocaine seizures are rare in Jutiapa, but this is not necessarily a reflection of the amount of cocaine passing through the department. Jutiapa is in fact a principal entry point for maritime cocaine shipments landing on Guatemala’s Pacific coast, meaning cocaine trafficking is one of the most lucrative criminal activities in the department. Jutiapa also shares a porous land border with El Salvador, connecting it to a region where freight transport networks have long specialized in moving drugs into Guatemala.
Cannabis: Criminal groups move marijuana from neighboring El Salvador into Jutiapa, destined for local sale. The principal consumers of cannabis appear to be gang members, adolescents and children. Some children are purportedly forced into consuming marijuana and then selling the drug in schools. Despite the clear evidence of marijuana peddling, seizures of processed cannabis and marijuana crops are low and the size of the department’s cannabis consumption market appears modest.
Human Trafficking: Jutiapa is an important transit hub for migrants, who are vulnerable to human trafficking. This flow of migrants provides ample opportunity for human trafficking groups to exploit and recruit victims in the department. We estimate that the recruitment of sex trafficking victims generates moderate revenues compared to other criminal economies, potentially reaching into hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Human Smuggling: In 2019, just over 2,000 Guatemalan migrants were returned to Jutiapa from the US. Given the cost of hiring a smuggler in the area (roughly $10,000), this appears to be a lucrative criminal economy, reaching into the tens of millions of dollars. Aside from Guatemalans, Jutiapa is also a transit department for US-bound migrants smuggled into Guatemala from neighboring El Salvador.
Extortion: In 2016, Jutiapa had the highest per capita extortion rate in Guatemala. Extortion rackets are primarily operated by street gangs the MS13 and Barrio 18, along with other groups posing as gang members to intimidate victims. The arrival of gang members from El Salvador has seemingly fueled further extortion and aggression between gangs and communities in and around the municipality of Jutiapa.
Sources: This profile is based on a field investigation in Jutiapa and research in Guatemala City where InSight Crime interviewed high-ranking officials in the Governor’s Office, local and national police officials, a former national prosecutor with experience working drug cases, NGOs supporting underprivileged communities, and local journalists, most of whom requested anonymity. InSight Crime also drew from information provided by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the Guatemalan anti-narcotics police (Subdirección General de Análisis de Información Antinarcótica – SGAIA), the Guatemala National Security Council, the National Statistics Institute of Guatemala, Diálogos and local press.