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The Battle for Guatemala's Heart Has Begun

GUATEMALA / 28 DEC 2010 BY STEVEN DUDLEY EN

It's appropriate that Alta Verapaz, the province where the Guatemalan government has decided to start its fight against organized crime, is in the heart of the country, because the battle is already raising Guatemala's blood pressure at the highest levels of government and in the underworld.

On December 19, the government declared a state of siege in the province, sending 400 army troops, a new batch of police and some intelligence officials there, in an attempt to purge the place of what many locals had been talking about for nearly two years: the open and often brazen presence of armed men belonging to, or working with, the Mexican criminal gang known as the Zetas.

The Zetas entered the country in 2008, and, with the help of local gangs, such as that run by Ottoniel Turcios, began taking territory from the traditional powerbrokers. They ruled by force and intimidation, and soon the zone was under their control.

Coban is a critical depot and dispatch point for drugs passing through the isthmus. It is connected to the country's northernmost province, the Peten, which also has a strong Zeta presence, and is the middle point for the country's newests megaproject, the Transversal Franja Norte, a cross-country highway that will undoubtely facilitate the movement of all goods, including illegal drugs, across this nation that U.S. authorities say already sees upwards of 300 tons of cocaine go across its borders every year.

When InSight visited Coban in February 2010, armed men rode openly in the back of pickup trucks, and the police cowered in their station. The Zetas had intimidated or bought most of the judicial authorities and were working openly with politicians, locals told InSight.

One of these politicians was reportedly Obdulio Solorzano, a former congressman from Escuintla, who was the director of the National Fund for Peace (FONAPAZ), a governmental organization that has implemented development projects to help fulfill the peace accords signed with the leftist guerrillas in the 1990s. He was also a ranking member of the National Unity for Hope (UNE), a coalition party that currently has its first president in power, Alvaro Colom.

Colom was also the head of FONAPAZ, an organization that has been charged repeatedly with corruption and misuse of public funds. An investigation into Solorzano, for instance, showed that at least 22 public works projects were overvalued, leading to the presumption that the UNE politician and others were taking kickbacks.

But Solorzano's time at FONAPAZ was only part of his resume. The UNE politician was also allegedly the Zetas' bagman, collecting and dispatching money for the group, including $11.5 million the group said in a comunique read over the radio in Coban it had given to Colom for his presidential campaign.

Solorzano was killed in July, and in the statement issued via La Buena radio in Coban on Monday (and available below), the Zetas say Colom is responsible.

The Zetas also say that Colom turned in another partner, Turcios, to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Turcios was captured in October in Belize. Of note is that Turcios's daughter, Lorena, was the head of the Verapaz Rural Development Program (PRODEVER), which incidently, got its money from FONAPAZ.

The government is obviously not talking about corruption in FONAPAZ or Alta Verapaz, or the death of Solorzano. Instead, it said it had arrested 22 suspected members of the Zetas, and captured a number of small aircraft and weapons since the state of siege began. But locals in Coban told InSight Crime that the major leaders of the Zetas had simply escaped into the surrounding countryside and are waiting out the military's increased presence in order to lauch a counterassault on the new police force.

And if the message the Zetas emmitted via radio was any indication, this battle will be as much about politics as it is about weapons and territorial control. The Zetas appear ready to up the ante by bringing the country's president down into the mud with them.

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