The Jalisco Cartel New Generation, which has rapidly expanded to become Mexico's greatest criminal threat, may now be spreading its influence in a new area: the border with Guatemala.
Much of the border area is a no-man's-land, where traffickers can easily avoid the police. A recent wave of violence began as a response by Mexican drug gangs after some of their product was allegedly stolen in Guatemala. Guatemalan authorities have displayed caution, but the situation is reminiscent of the days when Los Zetas entered Guatemala.
"This message goes out to [a] crooked and thieving policeman," was the introduction at the start of an edited video circulating on social media on September 7.
The video message was recorded by a subject with their face covered by a ski mask. The man introduced himself as a member of a Mexican cartel and accused, by name, a Guatemalan police inspector and three officers of stealing a drug shipment between the municipalities of Raxruhá and Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, near the country's border with Mexico.
"On May 12, they stole from the boss," continued the subject, speaking with a notable Mexican accent and surrounded by three men wielding assault rifles, their faces also covered.
"We are already going after you [...]; you have 24 hours to return everything. If not, we are going to kill you, we will even kill your children […] This is the last chance we will give you ... we are not playing, we have already cleaned the town of La Mesilla. ... Listen closely, no one messes with Señor Nemesio's people. These items belong to someone and the owner is the Jalisco Cartel New Generation [Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG].”
“Señor Nemesio,” or Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, alias “El Mencho,” is the leader of the CJNG. While the group began life in the northwest of the country, it is now engaged in a fight with the Sinaloa Cartel for control of the state of Chiapas along the Guatemalan border. This fight echoes other clashes between the two Mexican groups across the country.
*This investigation was carried out by El Faro. It has been edited for clarity and reprinted with permission. It does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. Read the original in Spanish here.
These threats are similar to the last time drug traffickers got even with Guatemalan police over stolen money or drugs in June 2013, when eight agents and an inspector from the substation in Salcajá, Quetzaltenango (western Guatemala), were murdered. Eduardo Villatoro Cano, alias "Guayo Cano," of the Zetas, was found to be the intellectual author of the murders.
Now, all signs indicate that a similar vendetta is underway.
A Looming Threat
In the video, the masked man claimed to have already established order in La Mesilla, a Guatemalan town right on the Mexican border, seemingly claiming responsibility for a series of armed attacks there in July and August.
Signs of a new organized crime vendetta began on June 12, when media reported a checkpoint on the road between Nentón in Guatemala and Comitán in Mexico.
Press reports indicated that residents of Nentón, another border town, saw men with ski masks and assault rifles inspecting vehicles for migrants, firearms or drugs on the Guatemalan side of the border.
El Faro contacted the Guatemalan Defense Ministry, but its spokesman, Colonel Rubén Téllez, claimed that the checkpoint was on the Mexico side of the border.
"There was no confirmation. [No one] came forward and said, 'yes, they stopped me and asked me for this,'" said Téllez, who added that military and police patrols were sent to reinforce the border.
However, Téllez stated that while it's typical to see organized crime groups moving along the border, a new armed group had recently started entering and leaving Guatemala regularly.
Since June, the violent acts occurring near the border suggest that this armed group is, or could be related to, the CJNG, as the man in the video claims.
This has caused alarm among local towns because, while the area is home to frequent drug trafficking, migrant smuggling, contraband and more, there has not been any large-scale violence in this part of Guatemala in 2020. Huehuetenango, the department along the border where these attacks were reported, has one of the lowest homicide rates in Guatemala.
On July 28, a shootout took place along a highway in Chiapas, mere kilometers from the border. Mexican authorities found at least 300 shell casings of various calibers and six abandoned vehicles. One was on fire, the rest had bullet holes and Guatemalan license plates.
On July 31, a voice message from an unidentified source circulated in Mexico and Guatemala on social media. Despite claiming no criminal affiliation, it warned to "please step aside ... because we are entering Guatemala, and there will be bloodshed. You messed with our people, now deal with it. Whoever is on the street, we will obliterate them. ... We won't say what day, but it is approaching. We are already there. Chamic, Comalapa, La Mesilla, Cuauhtémoc, all those places we are going to come by shooting.”
A former investigator for Guatemala's Attorney General's Office, who knows about the situation on the border but asked to remain anonymous, told El Faro that drug and contraband trafficking at the border happen with help from authorities.
"There are always at least two Guatemalan police officers collecting tax on those who bring merchandise across," said a merchant in the area that had witnessed these transactions. "The Army is there. If you go, you see them. It is uncommon for Mexicans to enter Guatemala, and if they enter, they are known to be narcos [who come] to buy and transport [drugs]."
On August 12, there was another shootout in Mexico on the highway between Ciudad Cuauhtémoc and Potrerillo in Chiapas, 10 minutes from Guatemala. The outcome: a minibus and a pickup truck were left in flames on the side of the highway. The pickup had Guatemalan license plates. Press reports cited Mexican authorities as saying that the shootout took place between Mexican and Guatemalan drug traffickers and that it extended inside Guatemala in the town of Vueltamina. Again, the Army denied any violence inside Guatemala and that soldiers had verified the claim.
The list grows longer. On August 16, Mexican authorities claimed to have arrested 48 CJNG members in Chiapas. On August 24, two people were shot dead on board a minibus in La Democracia, a town in Huehuetenango just 15 kilometers from the border with Mexico. Then just two weeks later, on September 7, came the video with the CJNG claiming to have already cleaned up La Mesilla.
Reactions and Background
The government spokesman, Castillo, told El Faro that authorities have not ruled out that the purpose of the video may have been to destabilize "the [government's] good results in the fight against drug trafficking."
By early September, Guatemala had arrested 36 people wanted for extradition to the United States, seized almost six tons of cocaine and stopped dozens of drug planes in 2021, Castillo stated.
But the CJNG video harks back to the very real Mexican cartel incursions into Guatemala. The municipality of Raxruhá, where police were accused of stealing a CJNG drug shipment, was an important cocaine transit point for the Zetas, which maintained a strong presence in Guatemala between 2008 and 2013.
They lost ground in the country as they splintered, and in recent years the CJNG has begun to take over drug trafficking spots once controlled by the Zetas.
SEE ALSO: The Zetas in Guatemala
The history of police corruption in the region is also a real problem. Carlos Menocal, a former interior minister, revealed that the police officers who made the seizure in Raxruhá had their phone numbers leaked and began to receive death threats.
In 2017, an anti-drug trafficking investigator stated that drug traffickers had contacts in all police stations. Stopping short of saying that all police officers were corrupt, he revealed that these contacts were substantial enough to prevent key seizures and arrests. Despite this, the number of police prosecutions for drug-related offenses remains very low.
What the Facts Tell Us
Gerson Alegría, the current head of Guatemala's anti-drug prosecutor's office, told El Faro that the outbreaks of violence along the border shared by Huehuetenango and Chiapas may be due to poor negotiations between drug trafficking groups.
"When the straw breaks the camel's back, violence is unleashed," said the prosecutor.
That said, spikes in violence on the Guatemalan side are unusual.
The situation at the Mexico-Guatemala border is highly different from the country's borders with Honduras and El Salvador, where the prevalence of smaller drug gangs has made that area the most murderous in Guatemala.
Over the last 15 years, shootings and multiple homicides have been rare in Huehuetenango. The most famous outbreak of violence was the Agua Zarca massacre in November 2008, when a firefight between the Zetas and the Huistas, a local group associated with the Sinaloa Cartel, left 19 dead.
The Huistas remain the dominant criminal structure in Huehuetenango. Authorities had not arrested any Huista since 2012 until two arrests in 2021 showed that they remain active.
Beyond Drug Trafficking
Another investigator for the Attorney General's office also stated that collusion at the Mexico-Guatemala border between authorities and criminal groups extends beyond drug trafficking.
For instance, he claimed that police are warned when buses loaded with migrants are headed to Huehuetenango to stop them and demand money to let them travel to the border. This is a common practice.
In 2019, a journalist for El Faro traveled pretending to be a migrant and was assaulted by police twice before reaching the border.
Disputes over the spoil also provoke violence against police officers. In July, two agents investigating the disappearance of a minor in the remote area of Huehuetenango were beaten by five alleged coyotes (human smugglers).
Another link is that drug trafficking groups are allegedly also taking in human smuggling. On August 27, Guatemalan police in the border department of Petén warned that they were on alert for "possible members of Mexican cartels" that intended to attack migrants, headquarters and immigration checkpoints in Guatemala.
The investigator claimed the attacks across the border, especially those where minibuses were torched on August 12 and 24, could be linked to human smuggling. Government sources stated that two bodies of Salvadoran nationals were found next to the minibus in the August 24 attack.
An investigation is underway to establish if the attackers of the minibus were Mexican and if they crossed the border.
"There are many news reports about the arrival of the Jalisco Cartel in Chiapas. Some say they are being hit hard in Jalisco and are dabbling in businesses outside drug trafficking to avoid attracting the attention of the DEA [US Drug Enforcement Administration]," Raúl Benítez Manaut, an investigator with Mexico's National Autonomous University, told El Faro.
"The Zetas tried to do this years ago. It is now suspected the CJNG intends to do the same," he added.
In the meantime, the Guatemalan government continues to downplay the importance of events at the border. But the violence has not gone down, and the indicators suggest the CJNG may well be responsible.