An anti-narcotics operation targeting an alleged trafficking ring in Guatemala has shed light on the increasing importance of small, often discrete transport networks in the country's cocaine trade.
On February 11, the Guatemala Attorney General's Office (Ministerio Público -- MP) conducted a series of raids aimed at breaking up a suspected cocaine-smuggling group, known as "Los Pelones," who are active along the country's eastern border with Honduras.
Guatemalan authorities arrested 25 people, including six police officers accused of collaborating with the group, according to a statement released by the MP following the raids.
SEE ALSO: GameChangers 2020: The Resurgence of the Central American Cocaine Highway
Alan Ajiatas, subdirector of the MP's anti-narcotics unit, told InSight Crime that the officers took bribes and in exchange provided information on local security operations and helped shield Los Pelones members from arrest and possible investigations.
The group -- based in Gualán, a town in Guatemala's eastern Zacapa department -- had operations that spanned the neighboring departments of Izabal and Chiquimula. Ajiatas said the group shipped cocaine cross-country, from the Guatemala-Honduras border to the western department of Huehuetenango that borders Mexico.
Authorities made a string of drug and money seizures connected to the group, which moved modest amounts of cocaine -- about 30 to 50 packages at a time -- in small vehicles like tow trucks and pickups.
The Attorney General's Office estimated that the seizures and raids have deprived the group of approximately Q106 million ($13.7 million) in potential revenue.
InSight Crime Analysis
Small-scale operations like Los Pelones are part of a wider pattern that in recent years has seen the decline of dominant groups make way for a host of smaller networks that control minor stretches of the land routes crisscrossing Guatemala.
These groups often have a limited capacity to move drugs. But even trafficking small amounts of cocaine -- worth around $13,500 per kilogram when transiting through Guatemala, according to estimates by the Attorney General's Office -- remains a lucrative trade.
Along Guatemala's border with Honduras, little known transport networks now compete with remnants of historically powerful groups like the Lorenzanas and Mendozas for control of a criminal economy that reaches into the hundreds of millions of dollars annually, according to InSight Crime field investigations in Zacapa, Izabal and Chiquimula.
SEE ALSO: Border Crime: The Northern Triangle and the Tri-Border Area
With such cash, even smaller operations have little trouble bribing local security officials. Los Pelones, for instance, allegedly targeted police officers stationed throughout eastern Guatemala, according to Alan Ajiatas.
"That's what these groups look for to control the territory," Ajiatas told InSight Crime. "They try and see who is susceptible to being corrupted or who might provide them information."
But unlike the Lorenzanas and Mendozas, who once enjoyed extensive connections to Guatemalan political elites, these smaller networks do not necessarily have access to high-level political connections, instead focusing their efforts on local authorities.
For Los Pelones, this meant targeting the police. But other traffickers in the region have sought to influence municipal elections and the appointment of departmental governors, according to interviews that InSight Crime conducted with security officials, government employees, journalists and human rights officials in Guatemala City and in key drug-trafficking territories.