Since the rise and subsequent fall of the Zetas, Guatemala’s underworld has experienced a tremendous upheaval. The turmoil has left a number of smaller groups to battle with each other, most of which are trying to satisfy the insatiable appetite of the remaining powerhouse in the region: the Sinaloa Cartel.

By 2011, the bells were tolling for Guatemala, a country that seemed on the verge of succumbing to the terrible plague of the Zetas. Mexico’s most violent and divisive group tore through the provinces of Peten to the north, and Huehuetenango and Quiche to the west, in an effort to establish control of what remains a vital chokepoint in Central American drug trafficking routes.

An estimated 350 tons of cocaine passes through this nation of 15 million people, according to foreign law enforcement. The $2,000 to $2,500 per kilo the local transport groups can collect for moving it through this country make it close to a billion dollar market.

For their part, the Zetas need Guatemala as a reception and purchase point. Unlike their main rivals, the Sinaloa Cartel, the Zetas do not have strong contacts in the source countries, and purchase their cocaine mostly in Guatemala and Honduras, financial records obtained by InSight Crime show. In essence, the Zetas sought to monopolize this chokepoint for themselves.

However, it did not work. The Zetas’ offensive — which began in 2008 and included the assassinations of traditional power brokers Juancho Leon, Haroldo Leon, and Giovanny España; threats against political powers such as the family of Manuel Baldizon; the assassination of a prosecutor; and the massacre of 27 farmworkers at Raul Otto Salguero’s ranch in Peten — stirred the Guatemalan underworld and opened an opportunity for the government.

SEE ALSO: The Zetas in Guatemala

Information began flowing in, often from rivals, but sometimes from would-be allies, and following a bloody rampage in May 2011, the government directed its resources towards reining in this organization. The results are a powerful illustration of the importance of political will and good local intelligence. Under the skillful direction of Claudia Paz y Paz, the Attorney General’s Office began rounding up Zetas. Those arrested were some of the most important members of the organization in Guatemala: Hugo Alvaro Gomez Vasquez, Horst Walther Overdick and Abner Milian Quijada, to name a few.

Others were arrested in Mexico, including William de Jesus Torres Solorzano, alias “W,” the financial head of the group in Guatemala, and Mauricio Guizar Cardenas, alias “El Amarillo” or “Z200.” The Zetas have since lost their top leader, Miguel Treviño, alias “Z40,” who was captured in July in Mexico, and the group is struggling to maintain a cohesive structure.

In all, over 100 were jailed. Overdick represented the most important as he provided the infrastructure of the political, social and financial pieces of the group. He was extradited to the United States where the presumption is that he has helped authorities outline what is left of the group. Gomez Vasquez was the muscle. In 2012, he and 35 others were found guilty in a Guatemalan court and each sentenced to between 2 and 158 years in prison.

New and Old Groups Fill Vacuum

The resulting vacuum has been filled quickly and ably, in part by the traditional transport groups, in part by new groups, some of whom worked closely with what is left of the Zetas, who remain a big buyer of cocaine but have less of a physical and psychological presence.

The most important of these groups is run by Jairo Orellana Morales, alias “El Pelon.” Orellana comes from a network that began under the wing of the Lorenzanas, an infamous trafficking and contraband family that included Mario Ponce Rodriguez and Carlos Andres Alvarenga. He has a child with Marta Lorenzana, the daughter of the family patriarch, Waldemar Lorenzana, and may still work with what is left of that organization, although his relations with Alvarenga have apparently soured.Guatemala - Groups

These days, Orellana is more often associated with the Zetas, but allegedly bristles at this notion as well. To be sure, Orellana considers himself independent, and there are many indications that this perception is accurate. Ponce was captured in Honduras in 2012, and after being extradited to the United States was found guilty of drug trafficking in a Miami court and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Alvarenga is on the run. A recently converted protestant preacher (authorities once tacked wanted signs on his church in Izabal), he allegedly spends most of his time in neighboring Honduras now. The top Lorezanas have been captured and extradited to the United States, including Waldemar.

Guatemalan and foreign law enforcement believe Orellana is the Zetas’ principal cocaine supplier. He may also sell to the Sinaloa Cartel, another sign that the Zetas’ strategy of monopolizing this chokepoint has largely failed.

In a way, Orellana’s success was as much about luck as skill. The Guatemalan government, with strong US support, has effectively cut international air traffic, all of which appears to be moving through Honduras, and arrivals via the Pacific have slowed, local law enforcement said. The shift has made the land entry via places like El Florido, along the Honduran border, a critical corridor and increased the revenues of operators like Orellana who control it.

For their part, the Zetas are still major buyers, even though they are a shell of what they were, Guatemala and foreign intelligence officials told InSight Crime. At the center is alias “Yanki” (or “Yanqui”), who operates between Zacapa, Alta Verapaz and Peten. However, the Zetas can no longer push around the competitors, some of whom have much deeper pedigrees in the Guatemalan underworld.

Chief among these is the Mendoza family. The International Crisis Group calls the family one of “the untouchables.” There are still no charges against anyone in the family in Guatemala or the United States, but law enforcement officials and analysts agree that the family is a mainstay of the underworld, with a sizeable control over one of the country’s main trafficking routes from the Izabal province — running from the Honduras border through Peten.

Other traditional families, such as the Lorenzanas and the Españas, also remain operational although debilitated, law enforcement sources said. In this list, we can include the Ortiz Lopez clan, whose leader Juan Ortiz Lopez, alias “Juan Chamale,” was arrested in 2011 and is awaiting extradition.

The clan, whose traditional headquarters stretched from Escuintla to San Marcos, is now headed by Juan’s brother, Rony, and may, in part, be run from jail by Juan himself, according to Plaza Publica. However, there are also reports that Rony may have lost control of both his brother’s territory and his organization, and authorities say that he is on the run in Mexico.

Relative newcomers such as the Samayoa clan, referred to as the “Huistas” for their home base San Antonio Huista and Santa Ana Huista in Huehuetenango, are filling the void. Their leader, Aler Samayoa, is a longtime contraband trader who has since expanded his network into Guatemala City, where he obtains and moves cocaine through various routes that stretch through the northwest of the country and into Mexico.

Samayoa has total control in that corner of the country, local sources tell InSight Crime, but he is under some threats, from a local rival and recent law enforcement efforts to slow the violence in the region.

In June, eight police were assassinated, allegedly by members of another trafficking group operating just south of the Huistas. In an effort reminiscent of their operations against the Zetas, authorities struck back quickly, arresting nine members of the so called Villatoro organization, named for their leader, Eduardo Villatoro Cano, alias “El Guayo.”

The other relatively new name in the underworld is Marllory Dadiana Chacon Rossell, who the US Treasury Department placed on its kingpin list last year. In its press release, one US official was quoted as calling her “a critical figure” in the Central American distribution chain, with operations in Panama and Honduras. However, when asked, Guatemalan and foreign investigators based in Guatemala did not place her among the most important traffickers.

There could be a reason for this designation that goes beyond the size and importance of Chacon. Guatemala’s elPeriodico published a long report in April detailing claims of corruption and criminal activity by Guatemala’s Vice President Roxana Baldetti, who it says has ties to Chacon. The report, citing anonymous sources, says Chacon made an unexpected appearance at Baldetti’s 50th birthday party. Baldetti responded by saying that she is being attacked because she is a woman, and that “99.5 percent” of what has been said is false.

The Big Buyer: Sinaloa Cartel

Despite the upheaval in Guatemala, the main buyer of goods and services in the country remains the Sinaloa Cartel. The Mexican organization continues to do business with nearly every, if not every, Guatemalan transport organization. Its relations with some, such as the Mendozas and the Huistas, stretches back more than a decade, law enforcement officials told InSight Crime.

The group also continues to receive and traffic other illicit products, including large quantities of precursor chemicals, according to law enforcement sources. The size of this market became apparent after a series of seizures last year in which 320 barrels of monomethylamine were confiscated by authorities.

The seizures coincided with the dismantling of one large and several small methamphetamine laboratories. The movement of the chemicals sometimes confounded reason, with one tracked shipment moving from Mexico to Guatemala and back to Mexico.

The reasons why the Sinaloans have triumphed over their rivals go to the heart of what makes them a more important longer-term threat to regional stability, democracy and citizen security than the Zetas. Although violent in its own ways, the organization appears much more willing to develop local alliances and use these alliances to organize secure trafficking routes.

These alliances are, as Julie Lopez said in her overview of this very subject for Plaza Publica, “horizontal” and numerous, so even when important nodes are removed, the operations continue apace. Lopez, citing official sources, says the Sinaloa organization has also penetrated state forces on a higher level, giving itself more political and judicial top cover than its Zetas rivals.

In practice, these numerous alliances also mean more local political and social control, and a greater ability to foresee threats to the business and pre-empt them. In the Huistas’ territory, for instance, local operatives have established contacts with national politicians, who have seemingly helped them steer clear of judicial troubles, even though they too have killed police. These types of alliances cost more and may mean less profits per kilo for the Sinaloa Cartel, but they mean more stability and profits over the long term.

In contrast, the Zetas are known in the underworld for their inability to make or honor an agreement and their instabilty as an organization. Their volatile ways are not just bad for business, they lead to tremendous social upheaval in their areas of operation and upticks in all types of criminal activities. Huista territory, for example, is known for its relative peace and near zero tolerance for homicides, but the Zetas’ headquarters, Coban, has become home to what locals describe as an epidemic of rape and violence against women.

Violence Continues

Although the Zetas have been somewhat neutralized and the violence associated with their activities has dissipated, violence continues in the country’s main trafficking corridors. According to a recent analysis by the Central American Business Intelligence group provided to InSight Crime, the most violent provinces lie along the Honduras border and the southern Pacific coast. (See map below)

The intelligence group says Chiquimula, for instance, where Orellana operates, had 90 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2012, far above the country’s 34 homicides per 100,000 and putting it on par with the most violent places in the world.

Evidence of the scale of these fights was on full display in an exclusive area of Guatemala’s capital city in November 2012, when several heavily armed gunmen entered a private clinic in search of Orellana, who was getting plastic surgery.

Orellana’s security detail heard the shooting just prior to the doctors administering the anesthesia, and Orellana escaped, an anti-drug agent with knowledge of the attack told InSight Crime. But seven of his bodyguards were killed. The dispute, the agent said, was because Orellana had killed one of the man’s allies. Others have said Orellana is more a thief than a businessman, which has made him a target of many powerful groups inside and outside of Guatemala.

The Pacific coast also has a number of players competing for space, making the provinces of Escuintla and Santa Rosa two of the most deadly places in the country. The traditional clans such as the Sarceño organization, which operates in Escuintla and Santa Rosa, have to compete with smaller organizations that are making pushes for territory.

Violence also comes after the theft of drugs or money. In this realm, the police are themselves important players. Some police run their own operations, taking seizures and reselling them on the market to the highest bidder. Others have teamed up with criminal groups such as the Marroquin clan, which is dedicated to theft and resale, and operates west of Guatemala City.

Fighting for control of local drug trafficking is also increasing. Guatemala City, where the vast majority of homicides occur, has rising consumption rates and pockets where violence is extremely high. The most prominent local traffickers are known as “Los Caraduras,” roughly translated as “hardheads.” The leaders of the group, identified as the brothers Julio Jaime and Francisco Edgar Dominguez Higueros, run their operations from jail.

Finally, more extraditions and increased cooperation of those who are jailed in Guatemala are making for a more violent underworld. The price for collaborating with authorities in any country is high, and suspicions mount as identities of traffickers get revealed and indictments appear in the United States.

What’s Next

Guatemala’s underworld will remain a muddy, complicated place in the near future. The current disarray within the Zetas makes it unlikely the organization will make another strong push into Guatemala, but other, smaller Guatemalan organizations, will continue to fight for trafficking corridors, space in the local drug market and fringe-businesses surrounding the two. The violence related to this activity seems unlikely to abate, although there is no reason to believe it will get significantly worse, either. The Sinaloa Cartel will also remain the principal business partner and purchaser of illegal drugs. The horizontal nature of its relationships with the local groups, as well as the number of relationships it has has developed, make the organization a mainstay.

Guatemala Homicide Rates per Province 2012

What are your thoughts?

Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Steven Dudley is the co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime and a senior research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in Washington, DC. In 2020, Dudley...