Drug trafficking has been reconfigured in Guatemala. The large clans that traditionally dominated the business have broken up. Now the main actors are small groups consisting of members of public security forces, politicians and criminals, who fight to control a combination of land and maritime routes. Guatemala’s border departments illustrate these trends and are part of a region of the country where the anti-corruption struggle has not gained footing.
These were the central issues discussed during a seminar in which InSight Crime's Co-director Steven Dudley and investigators Héctor Silva Ávalos and Alex Papadovassilakis presented the results of a long-term investigation on criminal dynamics within Guatemala’s border region. The discussion was moderated by Marielos Monzón, the general coordinator of Cycles of Updates for Journalists (Ciclos de Actualización para Periodistas -CAP).
The event was the first in a six-part series in which InSight Crime will present the results of this two-year project, focused on six countries located within two tri-border regions: Central America’s Northern Triangle and the Southern Cone’s Triple Frontier.
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Cocaine Still Rules
Dudley started by introducing the project and demonstrating InSight Crime’s new interactive panel, which illustrates data collected on the impact of criminal economies and actors, as well department profiles compiled during the investigation.
In the case of Guatemala, the most important criminal economy continues to be cocaine trafficking, said Silva. The maritime routes that traditionally led in the country, are now combined with land routes – primarily crossing the border into Guatemala from Honduras – that have been reactivated in recent years and now receive hundreds of tons of drugs coming from Venezuela and Colombia.
Silva Ávalos explained that the trend of revitalized land routes in Central America has been developing for several years, but was accentuated during 2019 and 2020, partially due to dynamics generated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The four departments studied for this project – Chiquimula, Zacapa, Izabal and Jutiapa – are key territories for cocaine trafficking, as they receive the drugs entering through these routes.
Silva stressed that these criminal actors are no longer large, vertical organizations, but rather small splinter groups, where roles and affiliations are now more diffuse and operating capacity is lower. In fact, there are no longer criminal organizations that manage to control entire regions or departments. They now share territories.
“What has changed is that they now have to share this control with other actors that have emerged and gained strength,” explained Silva.
These new actors include public officials, state agents, members of the public security forces and politicians that that be just as powerful, or even more powerful, than large drug traffickers in the region.
“We found the clearest example of this to be in Morales, in Izabal, which has been a stronghold of the Los Mendoza group for years,” said Silva Ávalos. “The group continues to maintain control and influence over state entities […] but this dominance is no longer absolute.”
Papadovassilakis spoke in depth in regards to the criminal dynamics within Izabal, emphasizing that this department encapsulates all of the characteristics necessary to be a key cocaine trafficking territory.
“It is the only department in Guatemala with a combination of commercial ports, clandestine landing strips, land routes, coca cultivations and laboratories to produce cocaine,” said the investigator.
Local Corruption: the Moyuta Case
The panelists highlighted that these dynamics are facilitated by the deep-seated corruption running through Guatemalan institutions, which has led to a symbiotic relationship with crime within the border region.
“In recent years we have seen how alliances have been created and strengthened between the elites, organized criminal groups and parts of the public and political institutions so as to maintain corruption and impunity in Guatemala,” said Monzón.
Silva explained that the strengthening of public institutions and civil society in the capital city metropolitan areas over the past five years – such as the cases carried out by the CICIG and the strengthening of institutions such as the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against impunity (Fiscalía Especial Contra la Impunidad - FECI) – does not seem to have reached the rest of the country.
“The anticorruption revolution, what some call the ‘Primavera Chapina’ (the Guatemalan Spring), in reality, never reached those border territories,” said Silva.
In order to illustrate how local corruption pairs with cocaine trafficking, Papadovassilakis presented the results of an investigation on the municipality of Moyuta, in Jutiapa, and current mayor Roberto Marroquín.
“Moyuta has become a sort of battleground for drug trafficking groups, which have long understood that controlling the Mayor’s Office facilitates business,” said the investigator, referring to several political conflicts in which Marroquín and other mayoral candidates have been victims of attacks.
This is a trend that has been observed in the Northern Triangle, where the decentralization of power and lack of resources among local institutions, have allowed for the mayors to become allies of the drug traffickers, thereby allowing them to establish connections with the political world while offering economic benefits in exchange.
Marroquín has so far denied any links to organized crime.
The investigators also highlighted that, in addition to cocaine trafficking, the endemic corruption in the country has made way for other criminal economies along the border, such as jade trafficking and migrant trafficking. The latter generates millions, or even tens of millions of dollars, in illicit profits.
The floor was then opened for questions from the public, a number of which dealt with possible state responses to these cross-border crime dynamics.
InSight Crime's investigation concluded that while Guatemala has a relatively strong judicial system, its anti-corruption institutions are becoming weaker, especially after the disappearance of CICIG. Additionally, the separation of powers is not always respected and the power of the executive branch often interferes with the legislature and tries to influence the actions of the judiciary.
Strengthening these democratic institutions would be a first step towards meeting the challenges posed by organized crime and corruption.
But throughout the seminar, InSight Crime's Co-director, Steven Dudley, emphasized that there are no quick-fixes to these issues, which require strategic, long-term responses and lasting international cooperation.