While Guatemala is attempting to crack down on the Zetas' growing presence inside the country, the Mexican gang has proven itself to be a determined foe and is even expanding its operations, clashing with rival groups and driving up violence.
On May 25 Guatemalan authorities began a trial against 37 alleged Zetas, all of whom are accused of committing violent crimes in the country, including the May 2011 murder and dismemberment of prosecutor Allan Stowlinsky Vidaurre. The murder was likely in reaction to the increased government pressure placed on the Mexican cartel, following their massacre last year of 27 laborers on a ranch in Peten department.
But aside from this trial, the Guatemalan government appears to have made little progress against the ongoing Zetas incursion into the Central American country. The Peten massacre prompted then President Alvaro Colom to declare a state of emergency in the department, imposing a curfew and granting broad search and seizure powers to security forces. This saw an initially promising wave of arrests, and 80 Zetas were held in connection to the massacre. However, this measure failed to curb the group’s power, and many of these detentions did not result in trials. Even the arrest last year of Hugo Alvaro Gomez Vasquez, alias "Comandante Bruja," a supposed leader of the Zetas faction in Guatemala, did not appear to significantly debilitate the criminal group.
Indeed, not only has the Mexican organization resisted the government’s attempts to counter its influence, but it seems to have thrived. Since cementing their hold on key trafficking routes in the northern departments of Peten, Alta Verapaz and Zacapa in 2008, the Zetas have expanded their operations in the country. On May 31 the Interior Ministry announced that the cartel now operates in more than one third of country, or eight of its 22 departments. Three of these (Zacapa, Chiquimula and Guatemala) are among the five most violent departments in the entire country.
Lately much of the violence has been focused in Zacapa, in the country’s southeast. In 2011, the homicide rate in Zacapa jumped by 23 percent, making it the most violent department in the country, with 94 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. This is·likely related to the province’s importance to the drug trade: Zacapa borders Honduras, the main cocaine transit nation in Central America, making Zacapa a highly strategic corridor for drug shipments.
The Zetas are not the only players here. The Sinaloa Cartel, which has also set up shop in the country, has reportedly begun to clash with their rivals in Zacapa.·On May 19, a “narcomanta” or banner appeared on a major highway in the department, accusing the mayor of Zacapa City of links to the Zetas and a local drug trafficking outfit known as the Mendoza crime family. It was signed by the “Carteles Unidos,” a reference to the alliance of cartels headed by the Sinaloans in Mexico. A recent gun battle in Zacapa City that reportedly involved both the Zetas and the Sinaloans is further evidence of the increased tensions in the department.·
The alleged Sinaloa band believed to have participated in the firefight, a group led by Howard Wilfredo Barillas, was tracked down and arrested shortly afterwards. The Zetas saw two low-level arrests of their own, and an arsenal of theirs was reportedly seized, but their leadership structure remains intact.
President Otto Perez has vowed to crack down on organized crime in the country with an “iron fist.” However, he may find that this strategy is easier said than done. With Perez ramping up the military’s role in counternarcotics operations and violence erupting in strategic drug plazas like Zacapa, the security situation is increasingly beginning to resemble that of Mexico, a worrisome omen for the country’s future.