The governor of Guatemala’s embattled frontier province Peten has asked the federal government to declare a state of siege in his department as Mexico’s cartels continue to spread their tentacles into Central America.
Once the heart of Mayan civilization, Peten is now the Guatemalan equivalent of the Wild West, where the rule of law is weak and illicit activities are common. Although crime and violence have long been a hallmark of life in Peten, its governor, Rudel Alvarez, made headlines Wednesday when he met with the Guatemalan Attorney General to publicly ask the federal government to declare a “state of siege” in Peten, similar to the emergency crackdown in neighboring Alta Verapaz.
In an interview with Guatemala’s Prensa Libre, Alvarez cited increasing crime in the department’s bio-reserve as the reason for his request, saying that “80 percent of protected areas are being used by criminal organizations for environmental crimes and illicit trafficking.” The governor went on to explain that he was influenced by increasingly concerned reports of criminal activities from Peten’s mayors.
The announcement comes just one day after unidentified gunmen killed Eddy Caceres Rodriguez, a civil judge, outside his home in Peten. As Guatemalan daily el Periodico reports, Caceres is the third judicial authority to have been killed in the department since 2009.
The deaths, as well as reports of threats to officials in the region, have prompted the Guatemalan Association of Judges and Magistrates (Asociacion de Jueces y Magistrados del Organismo Judicial - AJMOJ) to demand that the federal government establish a comprehensive security plan that provides court authorities with armed protection.
If President Colom does in fact declare a state of siege in Peten, it would likely require a much more expansive operation. The vast, sparsely-populated stretches of jungle that make it an ideal storage and transit region for drug traffickers also make it dfficult for officials to locate and crack down on drug-smuggling operations.
Additionally, the department's large size (it accounts for roughly a third of the country's territory) would require a major increase in troop presence in order to effectively police it. As the BBC reported in December, only 250 soldiers are currently in charge of patrolling its 5,000 square kilometers. A large army presence in Peten could be politically difficult, however, as distrust of the government is still common in the region, a legacy of the army's abysmal human rights record during the country's 40-year long civil war.
In order for such a large-scale operation to be politically successul, Guatemalan authorities must make more headway in Peten than they have so far in Alta Verapaz. Two months after Colom first declared a “state of siege” there, authorities have made little progress, as military officials have made only 22 arrests since the campaign began in late December. None of them have been conclusively linked to the Zetas, the Mexican cartel that operates in the region.
The Prensa Libre video can be accessed here.