It started with a video posted on social media last September, in which heavily armed men, with thick Mexican accents, claimed allegiance to the CJNG and accused Guatemalan police of stealing a drug shipment.
“We’re coming for you,” said the masked subject recording the video, which was directed at police. “You have 24 hours to return everything.”
Alarm bells sounded. Was the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG), which has left a bloody trail across Mexico, making inroads into Guatemala?
A few months later, an investigation came to light linking the CJNG to Guatemalan drug networks and military officials. And in March of this year, the US Treasury Department alleged that an infamous Guatemalan drug clan smuggled cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine to the United States using the CJNG.
For decades, Mexico’s most powerful groups – including the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels, and the once-mighty Zetas – have partnered with Guatemalan drug networks to ensure a steady supply of cocaine from Central America. Yet the reports of CJNG involvement are both new and distressing. The group is one of Mexico’s most murderous cartels, and Guatemala still holds traumatic memories of when the Zetas stormed the country in the late 2000s and early 2010s, slaughtering rival traffickers, police and civilians in their quest for new territory.
SEE ALSO: The Zetas in Guatemala
But the CJNG’s approach appears to be different: the group has not created a permanent armed cell in Guatemala, nor has it made a rapid violent expansion there, as the Zetas once did.
Rather, early investigations and intelligence indicate that the CJNG is striking partnerships with drug rings in Guatemala – active on the Pacific Coast and the western border with Mexico – that receive shipments of cocaine from Colombia and Venezuela and deliver them to the cartel.
No Permanent Cell, but Links to Guatemala Drug Clans
Guatemalan authorities first detected the CJNG’s presence in 2019, during an investigation into aerial cocaine trafficking that uncovered connections between the cartel and local drug smugglers.
During that operation, dubbed Criminal Triangle (Triángulo Criminal), prosecutors intercepted phone calls between members of a drug ring on Guatemala’s Pacific coast and a Mexican national who authorities believe worked for the CJNG, according to Alan Ajiatas, sub-director of the Guatemala Attorney General’s Office’s anti-narcotics unit.
“We presume he’s from the Jalisco Cartel,” Ajiatas said, adding that the individual was the only suspected CJNG member with possible links to Guatemalan drug groups detected during the investigation, which surfaced after a series of raids across Guatemala in late 2021. The probe found that the suspect was operating in Mexico and not within Guatemalan territory.
“[The CJNG is] probably designating people to manage certain territories,” Ajiatas said. And this strategy is not limited to the Guatemalan Pacific.
During a separate anti-narcotics investigation, which began in 2021, the Guatemala Attorney General’s Office identified another suspected Mexican drug trafficker working with a smuggling ring in the northern province of Petén, a vast jungle region on the border with Mexico long used to traffic cocaine north. This time, authorities confirmed the trafficker was a member of the CJNG who could be moving between the two countries, Ajiatas told InSight Crime.
“The CJNG probably has influence [in Petén] as well,” said Ajiatas.
The US government, which often partners with Guatemala in anti-narcotics investigations, is also alert to the cartel’s presence there.
A State Department official told InSight Crime in an email that information from Guatemala “indicates the CJNG has recently started to have a physical presence” in Petén and Huehuetenango.
The cartel’s activity in Huehuetenango, a province in northwest Guatemala bordering Mexico, appears to be a partnership with a well-established drug ring known as the Huistas, one of the country’s most enduring clans and a decades-old partner of Mexican groups.
The same State Department official told InSight Crime that top Huistas members have coordinated with members of the CJNG in Mexico City to arrange drug shipments from Guatemala through Mexico.
Ajiatas said that joint investigations between the Guatemala Attorney General’s Office and US authorities had uncovered links between the CJNG and the Huistas. He added that the dynamic is similar to the cartel’s relationship with groups on the Pacific Coast and in Petén, with the CJNG looking for local partners.
The Military: ‘A Tertiary Connection’
Three years into the Criminal Triangle investigation, in December 2021, the Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office carried out over 30 raids in six provinces, arresting more than a dozen alleged traffickers implicated in the probe.
Among those arrested were three officials from the country’s military, who were suspected of using army intelligence to facilitate drug trafficking and slow the state’s response in intercepting drug planes. The Attorney General's Office has since charged the officials with drug trafficking, bribery, and revealing confidential information.
The arrests raised questions as to whether the CJNG’s expansion plans included recruiting Guatemala’s security forces, drawing comparisons to the once-powerful Zetas. The Zetas enlisted retired military officers and cultivated a vast bribery scheme used to secure police informants as part of a campaign aimed at usurping territory from Guatemalan drug networks in the late 2000s.
But in the CJNG’s case, there was no direct connection between any of the arrested army officials and the cartel, according to Ajiatas. Rather, two of the officials happened to work for the Pacific Coast smuggling ring investigated in the Criminal Triangle case, and that group was linked to the Mexican national connected to the CJNG by anti-narcotics prosecutors.
“It’s a tertiary connection,” said Ajiatas.
‘Less Visible’ Than the Zetas
In mid-2021, armed skirmishes erupted in a handful of small towns and along highways on both sides of the Guatemala-Mexico border, leaving vehicles torched and sounding the alarm on possible turf wars between drug groups.
Weeks later came the video of the self-proclaimed CJNG members, threatening Guatemalan police and claiming to have “cleansed” one of the Guatemalan towns hit by conflict – La Mesilla in Huehuetenango. The video’s dark tone was a throwback to the days of the Zetas.
The Zetas emerged in the late 1990s, first as the enforcement arm of the Gulf Cartel and then as its own group. Founded by former elite soldiers, the group was known for violent displays, including beheadings and videotaped torture videos. When the Zetas arrived in Guatemala in the 2000s, they came “with a strong contingent of Mexican recruits and entered into armed clashes with local drug traffickers,” said Carlos Menocal, the country’s former Interior Minister (2010-2012).
The Zetas went after some of Guatemala’s then most notorious groups, including prominent family clans like the Leones, whose leader was killed by the Zetas in an attack using assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. The Mexican cartel also sought to displace the Huistas, but failed when the Huehuetenango group quashed an attempted attack in 2008 by Zeta hitmen.
The Zetas also targeted civilians, infamously massacring a group of farm laborers at a ranch in Petén, decapitating most and using mutilated body parts to scrawl a message in blood to the farm’s owner, who had purportedly stolen drugs from the group.
During operations aimed at curbing the group’s influence in the early 2010s, Guatemala authorities seized some 1.5 tons of cocaine, machine guns, assault rifles and bazookas from the group, along with a long list of police and military officers on the group’s payroll, according to Menocal.
“The violence became worse than that of any other drug trafficking group before them,” said Menocal.
The CJNG appears to be taking a different path. As it stands, Guatemala prosecutors believe the cartel is operating discreetly and has no plans to replicate the barbaric incursions of the Zetas.
Ajiatas told InSight Crime that in all their current investigations, anti-narcotics prosecutors have not detected conflicts between Mexican and Guatemalan drug trafficking groups.
The same State Department official also told InSight Crime that there have been no confirmed turf wars in Guatemala or along the Guatemala-Mexico border related to the CJNG.
There is also little to suggest the CJNG possesses the same physical or operational capacity in Guatemala as the Zetas once did, or that the group wants to snatch territory from Guatemalan drug clans.
There is a logic to this. Open conflict would run counter to the goal of securing new partners in Guatemala. Bloody turf wars draw attention, and in Mexico, the CJNG is already embroiled in dozens of disputes, including with heavily armed groups like the Sinaloa Cartel and Carteles Unidos (United Cartels).
Seeking alliances instead of conflict with clans like the Huistas – a group that dominates drug trafficking in Huehuetenango and boasts an extensive influence network in politics – not only grants the cartel access to drug routes, but can also provide valuable connections with authorities.
For the Zetas, the group’s shockingly bloody campaigns eventually drew a fierce response from Guatemala authorities that drove the cartel back into Mexico. If the CJNG has long-term plans for Guatemala, it may pay to stay under the radar.
“They aren’t as visible,” said Ajiatas.