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Guatemala fears Mexico drug spillover

By James Painter
BBC Latin America analyst

The US justice department warned this week that Mexican drug gangs pose the biggest organised crime threat to the US. But Mexico's southern neighbours are also increasingly worried by the drug trafficking threat.

Children walk past soldiers and a police officer who patrol the slum of El Milagro, in Mixco, Guatemala on 2 December
Guatemala suffers high rates of crime and impunity

Concern is particularly acute in Guatemala, amid fears that the burgeoning presence of Mexican drug traffickers is adding another layer of violence to a country already ridden by crime.

Some of the many voices raised in alarm have warned that the Guatemalan security forces will need a major overhaul to keep the Mexican drug gangs in check.

Carlos Castresana, head of the UN's International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), is one of those loudly expressing his worries.

"If the Guatemalan authorities are unable to stop the infiltration of Mexican drug cartels in two years they could take over Guatemala City," Mr Castresana warned earlier this month.

The Guatemalan ambassador to Mexico, Jose Luis Chea, is another to voice his alarm over the drug gangs.

"We are becoming like Mexico, similar to when it was said that Mexico was becoming like Colombia," he told the Mexican newspaper El Financiero.

"We now have in Guatemala killings, clashes between drug traffickers, and kidnappings like we have never had before."

Los Zetas

In the latest incident at the end of November, at least 17 people were left dead in the department of Huehuetenango on the border with Mexico in what was widely seen as a clash between Guatemalan and Mexican drug gangs.

It was the third major clash of this type this year. In March, 11 people were killed in a drug gang shootout in front of a hotel in the eastern department of Zacapa.

Mexican police display the customized gold-plated handgun of an alleged  founder of the hitmen alled the Zetas in Novmber 2008
The Zetas: Moved from being hitmen to traffickers in their own right

In early November, a dispute between rival gangs over a cocaine shipment from Nicaragua left 16, apparently innocent, people incinerated in a bus, also in Zacapa.

Two Guatemalan gangs, one of them supported by Los Zetas, the armed wing of the Mexican Gulf Cartel, were apparently fighting over territory.

One explanation is that some elements of the Mexican drug gangs are being forced to move into Guatemala because of the large-scale anti-drug operations launched by Mexican President Felipe Calderon since he came to power two years ago.

The Guatemalan Attorney General's Office says it has identified nearly 80 of the 300 members of Los Zetas it estimates are in Guatemala.

"We are certainly seeing a greater presence both of Mexican drugs traffickers and of the armed Zetas," Carmen Aida Ibarra, an analyst at the Myrna Mack Foundation, told the BBC.

"Guatemala is now a key country for these groups. They use us as a rearguard, and as a place to do new business and to strengthen their operations."

Spreading menace

The Mexican drug gangs are adding another source of violence to a country that is already one of the most violent in Latin America.

In December, Guatemala's Human Rights ombudsman said violent crime had worsened in the first 11 months of 2008: more than 5,400 violent deaths compared to 4,600 for the whole of last year.

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Analysts of the drugs trade say that Guatemala is not the only Central American country being targeted by the Mexicans to expand their operations.

Recent press reports in Honduras said that the Zetas were also stepping up their operations there.

El Salvador's La Prensa Grafica quoted an intelligence report this month suggesting that the Zetas apparently held a special meeting with members of the local gangs known as "maras" to discuss contract killings of rival drug gangs.

Guatemala in particular is seen by analysts as an ideal transit point for the hundreds of tonnes of cocaine travelling from Colombia through Mexico to the US.

  • It has 950km (590 miles) of border with Mexico, much of it remote and under-populated
  • It has ports on the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico
  • It has hundreds of grass airstrips near large plantations, suitable for light aircraft, even before the clearing of land for clandestine ones
  • It has a large number of unregistered firearms in civilian hands - far more than the under-resourced security forces hold
  • Corruption is widespread, the criminal system is ineffective and impunity is rife.

The head of the landowners' association, Carlos Zuniga, says Mexican drug traffickers are increasingly forcing property owners in border regions to sell their land to them.

They then use these properties for money-laundering operations, storing drugs or as places of refuge.

"In some cases drug traffickers offer good amounts of money for the farms," says Mr Zuniga. "But if owners refuse to sell to them, then they can kill them."

Guatemala's president, Alvaro Colom, has admitted that Mexican traffickers now control land corridors which he said would take time to regain.

Mr Colom is expected to deploy several hundred soldiers to the border with Mexico in the coming weeks.

New war

Guatemala is also due to receive about US$20m (13m) from the US over the next three years as part of the Merida Initiative but critics say it is not enough.

Soldiers and police officers patrol the slum of El Milagro, in Mixco, Guatemala, on 2 December
The fear is that the security forces are being outgunned by the gangs

CICIG's Carlos Castresana points to the deficiencies in the law enforcement agencies.

"The current security system is from the 19th Century," he says. "Organised crime operates with technology from the 21st Century."

He highlights the lack of telephone wiretaps, proper investigation techniques and a reliable witness programme.

He is also critical of a law which limits police raids to between 6am and 6pm.

"You cannot break up the Gulf Cartel at 10am in the morning," he says. "It has to be at 3am if you want to surprise them."

Guatemala suffered a long civil war between 1960 and 1996, in which at least 200,000 people were killed in a conflict between the army and left-wing guerrillas.

"We are now in a new war," says Carmen Aida Ibarra, "but a very different war to the one we had before."

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