Obama visits El Salvador this week to discuss drug trafficking, poverty and street gangs, but it is Guatemala that is the new front line in the drug war as the Mexican cartels expand their operations to escape U.S.-backed pressure at home.
Guatemala’s main criminal threat is the Zetas, a Mexican cartel that has expanded operations in the country tremendously in the past few years. The Zetas – who definitively broke from Mexico’s Gulf Cartel last year – first moved from Mexico to Guatemala in 2008, setting up operations in the city of Coban, Alta Verapaz, in a remote but strategic region in Guatemala’s interior. According to a recent report by Central American news outlet El Faro, the Zetas were “invited” to the region by Walter Overdick, a representative of Guatemala’s powerful Lorenzana drug trafficking family.
With the help of smaller local gangs, they began taking territory from the wealthy family then in charge of criminal enterprises in Alta Verapaz. According to the Miami Herald, soon after arrival the Zetas allegedly gave the Lorenzanas two choices: merge drug trafficking operations with the Mexican cartel or pay $1.5 million upfront followed by a monthly “rent” of $700,000.
Since then, the group has largely been able to maintain a low profile, evading Guatemalan security officials while continuing their drug smuggling operations. This led Guatemalan president Alvaro Colom to declare a two-month “state of siege” meant to crack down on drug trafficking operations in the province of Alta Verapaz.
However, it appears that the project made little progress. Although officials arrested 22 suspects during the course of the campaign, only two of them have been conclusively linked to the Zetas. In fact, local sources told InSight that six detainees have since been released, apparently due to a lack of sufficient evidence.
It has been nearly a month since Colom ended the state of siege, and while the president has maintained that the operation was effective in “reducing violence,” some in the region disagree. Fredy Ochaeta, head of the Legal and Social Studies Department at Coban’s Rafael Landivar University, is one such skeptic. According to him, there has been no significant improvement in citizen security in the region since the state of siege was declared.
"The courts are all manned by the same judges that were in place before the siege, the same Public Ministry authorities, and the same municipal government officials,” Ochaeta told InSight. "The political leaders themselves are the same, as are the ones who fund them, financing all kinds of activities related to the illegal narcotics trade."
Ochaeta’s pessimism is backed by local crime statistics. According to police data for the department, although the number of murders spiked to 24 in January, numbers for December and February are nearly identical (17 and 16, respectively). Judging from these numbers, coupled with the fact that the military failed to seize a large-scale quantity of illicit drugs, it is clear that the government's rhetoric does not match up with the realities of the state of siege.
Despite this, Guatemalan authorities recently announced that they are pushing ahead with a plan to deploy the military to other remote zones in the country. ·The troops are likely to be stationed along the country’s 550-mile long border with Mexico, 70 percent of which, according to an anonymous official cited in a recent·Washington Post report, is controlled by the Zetas.
As InSIght has reported, this announcement comes as President Colom and other Central American leaders seek to convince the United States·to fund a combined regional counter-narcotics force. Although the region already receives $165 million in aid under the terms of the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), they say the amount is not nearly enough to strengthen the region’s relatively weak judicial institutions and modernize its police and military forces.··While it remains unclear whether this project has U.S. support, it will almost certainly be addressed by·President Obama's during his visit in the coming days.