Bloodshed in Guatemala as Cartels and Street Gangs Wage War

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On December 19, 2010, Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom declared a state of siege in the northern province of Alta Verapaz in an effort to curb the rapidly growing influence of the Zetas, a notorious Mexican criminal organization. Colom’s dramatic response came after a disturbing report found that the Zetas had taken effective control of the area nearly two years earlier.

A month later, Colom decided to extend the Guatemalan military’s deployment to the north. Finally, on February 18, he called off the siege and stated that the military measures had accomplished what they had set out to do. First, his forces captured 20 suspected members of the Zetas organization and, secondly, the military presence lowered the number of homicides in the area from 28 murders in two months to only 6 killings throughout the two month-long siege.1

According to Reuters, Guatemalan security officials estimate that the Zetas operate in 75 percent of Guatemala.2 In the Northern province of Coban, residents complained of extortion plots, kidnappings of women and girls, and deadly shootouts within the two years since the Zetas first took control of the area. According to one inhabitant quoted by a December 2010 Fox News article, “These gangs cruised the streets with assault weapons and their armored cars. They’d honk their horns and get out of their car and beat you, or abduct a woman they liked and send her to be raped.”3 In an effort to combat such lawlessness in the north, the government took drastic measures this past December and January.

During the siege, Guatemalan authorities confiscated 239 assault weapons, a heap of explosive materials, 28 vehicles (many with armored plates), and five small planes.4 Colombian producers have begun to transport cocaine in small aircraft, landing these on airstrips in the Northern region of Guatemala, where Mexican distributors pick up and transport the supply to consumers. Mounting pressure from the Mexican and U.S. governments caused Colom to declare the siege this past December. This declaration gave Guatemalan law enforcement free reign throughout the province. The constitution does allow for the declaration of a state of siege in response to “acts of terrorism, sedition, and rebellion” or when the “constitutional order and state of security” come under threat.5 However, some see this siege as a violation of the country’s 1996 peace accords.

Throughout the siege, the army became the ultimate authority in the area, with the ability to both detain suspects and conduct searches without warrants. The military also has the power to control the local media and prohibit public gatherings. In a country so recently torn by a violent civil war and rampant corruption, allocating these powers to military officials could have proven disastrous. As the influence of the cartels spreads however, the government must continue to take concrete steps to protect its citizens. President Colom, in a press conference during the siege, justified the military’s enhanced role by saying that “drug traffickers have us cornered,” but argued that the “state of siege was beginning to accomplish its objective.”6 Moving forward from the recent military action, Colom plans to keep “security forces” in the area.7 In Guatemala, there is a fine line between security forces that protect the citizens and military forces that will oppress the populace.

Guatemala: A Haven for Criminal Activities

With Guatemala’s location along the drug corridor from Colombia to Mexico, and its already high rate of corruption and poverty, it is far from surprising that drug cartels have gained a significant foothold in the country. In a recent BBC article, Julian Miglierini, described the northern border area of Guatemala that encompasses the vast region of jungle named Petén, as a “haven for criminal activities.”8 In addition to drug trafficking, criminal organizations in the region are involved in human trafficking and illegal logging. These criminals operate with near impunity in the country due to the lack of law enforcement.

One example of the lack of police presence is in Petén, where 250 police officers patrol an area of over 5,000 square kilometers, providing a modest, if not ineffective presence. According to human rights activist Norma Cruz, this tiny force is even more impotent than it would seem owing to the prevalence of rampant corruption.9 The drug cartels offer financial opportunities where few existed previously—for both residents and local authorities. As a result, many are unofficial auxiliary gang members as they align with the criminal organizations to take payoffs for their families. According to a recent Reuters story, Guatemalan soldiers earn as little as USD 150 a month, and the “[high] salaries offered by the drug cartels often convince troops to switch sides.”10 The issues of corruption and poverty must be effectively addressed by the Colom administration if the country intends to thwart the power of the drug cartels and increase the professionalism of the security forces.

The Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street Gangs

Drug cartels are criminal organizations established for the sole purpose of facilitating drug trafficking operations. The term “cartel” generally refers to an arrangement between producers and distributors to fix prices. While drug cartels no longer operate in collusion necessarily, as the word “cartel” would suggest, the term popularly applies to the main drug running organizations. The gangs discussed here, on the other hand, are organized groups of youth who carry out a range of illegal activities including theft, extortion, assault, kidnapping, illegal immigration, drug smuggling, human trafficking, and murder. Much of the violence in Guatemala City, and elsewhere in the country, results from the criminal activities between rival gangs and drug cartels.

Both Mara 18 (the 18th Street gang) and Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) originated in Los Angeles, California. Mara 18 has the largest presence in L.A. and has extended its influence along the Central American corridor. The high murder tally in Guatemala’s capital is a result of retribution killings and territorial battles between these two violent youth gangs. Both Mara 18 and Mara Salvatrucha operate extortion rings to generate income for the gang and impose their authority. These youth gangs are also hired out to assist in the transport of drugs and humans across the country. Mara Salvatrucha, for example, has been contracted by the Sinaloa Cartel, a rival of the Zetas, to aid in the movement of narcotics and people from Colombia through Mexico to the U.S. border.

Violence Rages in Guatemala’s Cities and on its Highways

In 2010, Miglierini reported for the BBC that 3,949 murders were recorded in Guatemala, making it the fourth most violent country in the Western Hemisphere. This past year marked the highest number of homicides recorded in the small Central American country, even more than the highest yearly homicide toll during the 30-year civil war. According to a February 2011 BBC article, the nation has a murder rate of 52 homicides per 100,000 residents, which is eight times higher than that of the U.S. and three times more than neighboring Mexico.11 The violence continues to escalate because so few of the killers are brought to justice. More than 96 percent of all murders in Guatemala go unsolved, creating a veritable paradise for killers.12

Jobs in Guatemala’s transportation industry have become some of the most dangerous occupations in the country. Gangs target bus drivers and their assistants, or ayudantes, demanding money in return for safety. When the drivers refuse payment, they are killed by hired guns. In 2009, 119 drivers and 59 ayudantes were shot dead, many killed while the bus was in motion, endangering the lives of the innocent passengers on board.13 The bus war, as it became known, has escalated since February 2008 when the drivers, tired of paying money to the gangs, hired assassins to kill gang members boarding the bus.14

In the weeks following the bus war, the violence escalated to a terrifying level, endangering the lives of many users of public transportation. According to Daniel LeClair, a Reuters photographer based in Guatemala City, “A driver would be on his route, his bus full of passengers. Suddenly a young man would stand up, approach the driver shooting him at close range in the head, then jump off the moving bus to a waiting motorcycle. The bus would careen down the street, crashing into anything in its path.” He continued on to describe how drivers turned on one another because one “non-compliant” individual on a route could put all other drivers at risk. As the bus war raged, four transportation workers were killed each day, a shocking wave of violence. Three years and over 450 murders later, bus drivers and ayudantes climb aboard each day knowing their lives are in danger.

Early this year, a female member of the violent Mara 18 stepped aboard a local bus, deposited her luggage, and then climbed down. Safely outside the bus, she detonated hidden explosives using her cell phone. The attack killed seven people and wounded fifteen individuals. Authorities believe that an incarcerated gang member arranged the bus bombing in response to the driver’s failure to pay the “protection money” requested by the gang.15 According to human rights officials based in Guatemala City, gangs murdered 170 transit workers between January and November 2010. During this same 11-month period, the gangs extorted USD1.5 million. In addition to the violent gangs, Guatemala faces the billowing spillover from Mexico’s drug war.

The Zetas: A Formidable Enemy

The criminal organization known as Los Zetas, who now battles Guatemalan law enforcement in the Northern provinces, initially began in Mexico as a group of well-trained gunmen hired by the Gulf Cartel to be a private mercenary army. In a recent CNN commentary, Michael Ware wrote that the U.S. government believes the Zetas to be “the most technologically advanced, sophisticated and dangerous cartel operating in Mexico.”16 Ware continued, writing that with their store of sophisticated weaponry and intensive military training, “Los Zetas are considered the most formidable enemy in the drug war.” Early this year, the turf war between three of the main rival cartels, Los Zetas, the Sinaloa Cartel, and La Familia, spilled over into Guatemala and finally attracted the attention of Colom.

The Zetas’ membership has grown from a small group of deserters from the Special Forces branch of the Mexican military to now include corrupt law enforcement and ex-Kaibiles from Guatemala. The term Kaibil refers to a specially trained Guatemalan soldier who is particularly adept at jungle warfare. Kaibil training is held twice a year and lasts for 60 days in the northern jungle region of Petén. While 64 hopefuls are recruited at a time, no more than 10 participants have ever graduated at once. According to Daniel Wilkinson in Silence on the Mountain, Kaibil candidates are given a puppy at the beginning of their training. They are completely responsible for the care of this little animal until the completion of training, when they have to kill the puppy with their bare hands. This type of brutality, aligned with the violent nature of the Zetas, makes the cartel’s influence in the already murderous Guatemalan culture particularly ominous.

Moving Forward Amid Corruption

Much of the difficulty in fighting such gangs stems from corruption within the government and law enforcement. Fifteen years after signing peace accords that ended a 36-year civil war, Guatemala still struggles to rid its law enforcement, justice system, and government of rampant corruption. One of the immediate effects of the siege was to highlight the need to clean up the country’s police force. Within days of the declaration, 335 police officers of “questionable loyalties” were removed from duty in Alta Verapaz.17 Unfortunately, these members of law enforcement were not removed from the force but were reassigned to other provinces throughout the country. In a recent article, Annie Bird, a human rights activist, pointed out the irony of corruption in Guatemala, saying, “Paradoxically, though drug trafficking in Guatemala originated in the military, the military is increasingly being called upon for policing activities.” If Colom truly hopes to win the fight against corruption in Guatemala, he must make a stronger effort to clean up the police force. Additionally, the government needs to increase the wages of police officers and levy stricter policies to eliminate dirty deals between officers and gang members. Without higher salaries for law enforcement, personal corruption will continue to offer a viable economic reward for struggling families.

The challenge of fighting organized crime in Guatemala, not only means eliminating corruption, but also promoting justice. Currently, a mind-blowing 96 percent of murders in Guatemala remain unsolved. This shocking rate of impunity further compounds the issue of corruption within the police force: why expect the polícia to pass up side opportunities and do their jobs when the justice system allows guilty individuals to go free every day? Furthermore, jailing gang members has not necessarily limited their influence. For example, in the bus bombing discussed previously, the plot was allegedly orchestrated by one of Mara 18’s leaders from behind prison walls.

Once wracked by a devastating civil war, and with a reputation as one of the hemisphere’s worst human rights violators, Guatemala now faces an escalation in violence and firmer entrenchment of organized crime due to uncontrollable corruption. As evidenced by President Colom’s declaration against the Zetas, the “War on Drugs” must be discussed in the larger context of Central America’s struggle against organized crime. With the end of Colom’s tenure approaching, the recent events in Guatemala’s north and its city centers might change the course of voting. According to The Guardian, the perception of chaos could benefit the militant right-wing candidate Otto Pérez Molina in the upcoming September elections, a frightening prospect given his history of human rights abuses. More than likely, however, is that Sandra Torres, the wife of current President Colom, will benefit from the publicity garnered by the siege.18 No matter who is the favorite, the presidential elections will be important to the future of the nation. The next leader of Guatemala must take firm action to curb the rising violence, to thwart the spreading influence of the cartels, and to combat the corruption plaguing its law enforcement and justice systems.

References for this article can be found here.