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Zacapa, Guatemala


In the department of Zacapa, long a transit point for cocaine and marijuana bound for Mexico and the US, drug traffickers exert much influence. 

Drug smugglers exploit widespread poverty and unemployment to recruit local dealers, assassins and marijuana growers, often winning the support of local communities. Drug proceeds are used to co-opt municipal governments by influencing local election campaigns and political appointments. 

Historically powerful drug clans, such as the Lorenzana family, among others, are still major players in drug transit, and violent disputes between these groups are the main driver of homicides. In some areas, groups have supposedly branched out into marijuana production. 

The department also houses a well-established illegal jade mining industry thought to involve national political officials, Taiwanese businesspeople and possibly drug traffickers.

Criminal Actors 

Lorenzanas: The Lorenzanas are one of Guatemala’s most infamous drug trafficking clans. Based in the Huité and Cabañas municipalities of Zacapa, the group has been coordinating transnational cocaine shipments through Guatemala for over two decades.

The patriarch of the group, Waldemar Lorenzana, was arrested in 2008 and again in 2011. He and two of his sons were later extradited to the US, in 2014 and 2015. Despite the leader arrests, Waldemar’s other children and relatives took control of the business in Zacapa and the clan has remained one of the principal protagonists in the drug trade along the Guatemala-Honduras border, though its power has diminished with the emergence of rival drug clansOne of Waldemar’s sons, Haroldo Jeremías Lorenzana, was detained in Zacapa on November 15, 2019, over ten years after a warrant had been put for his arrest. 

Criminal Economies

Arms Trafficking: Residents of Zacapa have easy access to small firearms from legal arms dealerships, and can be seen openly carrying? weapons. Nonetheless, the presence of major drug trafficking groups and the department's position on an important smuggling route appears to have brought with it a moderate illicit weapons economyPolice in Zacapa have seized diverse firearms, including an arsenal of rifles, grenadesand pistolsheading for Guatemala City in 2019.  

Cocaine: Zacapa has been a cocaine hub for several decades, dominated by powerful drug trafficking families that enjoy near total territorial and political control in the department. By co-opting local government and winning the support of communities, these groups traffic vast quantities of cocaine through the department with minimal state interference, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in the process. 

Cannabis: There is clear evidence of cannabis production and consumption in Zacapa. Transnational drug trafficking groups allegedly control marijuana cultivation in rural areas, generating work opportunities for farmers and the rural poor. However, the criminal economy is not extensive when compared to other drugs, most notably cocaine. The attempts of drug trafficking groups to enter the marijuana trade can also be seen as a means of asserting their territorial dominance in the department.  

Environmental crime: The main threat in terms of environmental crime in Zacapa appears to be illegal logging in the Granadillas mountain range, where local communities have submitted several complaints against purported illicit loggers.

Local police have allegedly helped protect trucks transporting timber and cracked down on the opponents of illegal logging. However, this criminal economy does not appear to be among Zacapa’s most lucrative. 

Heroin (opiates): There are no signs of heroin production or consumption in Zacapa. Police seized just 3 kilograms of heroin in 2018, suggesting small quantities of the drug are trafficked through the department. In past years, major drug trafficking groups have used Zacapa as a transit point for heroin shipments.

Although some of these groups are still active in the narcotics trade, there is no indication that heroin trafficking currently generates significant revenues for any criminal actor in Zacapa.  

Human Trafficking: While there are few reported cases of human trafficking in the departmentthere are signs that criminal groups generate modest revenues through sexual and labor exploitation. In 2019, four possible human trafficking victims were identified by Guatemalan authorities in Zacapa. Within the department, bars have been inspected in order to verify reports of human trafficking.  

Human Smuggling: Around 650 Guatemalan migrants were returned to Zacapa from the US in 2019, a percentage of those who made the trip. This is a fairly low figure in comparison to other departments, but it does suggest Zacapa is a recruitment area for smuggling networks.  The arrests of foreign undocumented migrants in Zacapa suggests the department is also transit point on route to the USHowever, the lack of an official border crossing in Zacapa may mean that less migrants pass through in comparison to other Guatemalan border departments. 

Mineral Resources: Zacapa has housed illicit jade mining operations for several decades. Today, criminal actors in the department appear to use heavy machinery to extract the mineral, suggesting these illegal mining operations generate healthy profits for those involved. Lucrative jade trafficking operations have in the past included high-ranking national politicians.

The main extraction area for mineral resources is the Sierra de las Minas biosphere reserve, from where jade can be transported to the Río Hondo municipality – strategically located on a highway that connects Zacapa with the country’s Caribbean ports and Guatemala City.  

Extortion: Zacapa sees minimal extortion, reportedly due to the large degree of territorial control exerted by local drug trafficking groups. MS13 and Barrio 18  ordinarily protagonists of extortion in Guatemala – do not appear to maintain a presence in the department.  

Sources: This profile is based on a field investigation in Zacapa and research in Guatemala City where InSight Crime interviewed high-ranking officials in the Governor’s Office, diplomatic and intelligence sources working on drug trafficking in Guatemala, police, the human rights ombudsman, and local religious leaders, 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. 

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