Guatemala Fights Back

By Dialogo
October 01, 2011

In 2008, things began to unravel in Guatemala. That is when Los Zetas criminal organization crept from Mexico into wild spaces in Alta Verapaz, killing local drug lord Juan José “Juancho” León, threatening residents and taking over cocaine trafficking through the region.
Back then, U.S. radar tracking showed that about 44 percent of cocaine shipments headed north moved through Central America, The New York Times reported. In 2010, that number was closer to 84 percent. Violence has also remained high. In 2010, the country of 14 million people saw 6,500 homicides, according to the National Civil Police.
To stop the steady erosion of the security of his country, Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom in January 2011 called for the creation of a multinational force in Central America to combat organized crime, with the support of the United States, Mexico and Colombia. “We should unite to strike them, dominate them and reduce them to the minimum,” President Colom told the Mexican newspaper El Universal in January 2011, adding that the region is being “strangled” by drug trafficking routes. The plan for a coordinated security strategy was discussed at the Central American Integration System summit in June 2011.
The plea for security cooperation came amid another unprecedented action for President Colom — the call for a two-month state of siege in Alta Verapaz to retake territory from drug traffickers. Soldiers and police worked together to flush out Los Zetas criminal organization, arresting 18 suspected members, said Leslie Pérez, spokesperson for Guatemala’s Interior Ministry. During the state of siege, which allowed security forces to perform searches and make arrests without warrants, reported crimes decreased by 50 percent, Pérez said.

The government reported in February that the siege had netted several armored SUVs, 230 firearms — including assault rifles and grenade launchers — and five planes used by drug traffickers. “Organized crime is not just infiltrating us, it pains me to say it, but drug traffickers have us cornered,” President Colom told Congress. “Just the weapons seized in Alta Verapaz are more than those of some Army brigades.”
Threats Against Civilians
Amid the emergency measures, a sinister message was sent to citizens of Guatemala. Men claiming to be Los Zetas operatives stormed three radio stations in Alta Verapaz and threatened to burn them down if broadcasters did not pass on their threat of war, Interior Ministry spokesman Nery Morales told The Associated Press. The message said that if the president did not fulfill unspecified promises, “war will start in this country, in shopping malls, schools and police stations.” It was just the latest intimidation tactic employed by the ruthless drug traffickers who rolled into Guatemalan territory brandishing assault rifles. Posing as government officials, they asked locals for the names of former Guatemalan Special Forces Soldiers, or Kaibiles, resident Valeriano Maquín told The Wall Street Journal. Maquín said he thought the strangers were looking to recruit them.
They also began clearing out areas to keep residents from interfering with their drug operations. “They say to the families, ‘You can sell to us and leave standing up, or you can refuse and go feet first,’ ” indigenous leader Oscar Pop told The Washington Post.
Letting Their Guard Down
Guatemala’s Military, which fought leftist guerrillas during the country’s 36-year civil war (1960-1996), is ill-prepared for a confrontation with well-financed and well-armed drug traffickers, Alberto Islas, a security expert at consultancy Risk Evaluation, told The Wall Street Journal. After the peace process began in 1996, the size of the Army was reduced. In 2004, three military bases along the border with Mexico were closed down as required by the Peace Accords that ended Guatemala’s civil war leaving the door wide open to criminals.
“I never imagined that the armed conflict had protected the country,” President Colom said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. “The guerrillas never got involved in drug trafficking. And then we reduced the military and the police.”
Guatemalan Interior Minister Carlos Menocal said in February 2011 that the ranks of the country’s police force are thin, with just one officer for every 700 residents. The United Nations recommends one per 400 residents. The government has sought to reform the National Civil Police with the support of the United States and other countries.
Guatemala’s experience underlines the need for countries to work together against transnational criminal organizations such as Los Zetas. The United States’ contribution includes funding from the Central America Regional Security Initiative and the expertise of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which in 2010 sent Huey helicopters to chase drug smugglers attempting to land at remote airstrips in Guatemala, The Washington Post reported.
President Colom didn’t stop in his quest to bring in reinforcements to secure his country. He told El Universal in January 2011 that he’s sought more anti-drug aid from the European Union, and in March, he and other Central American leaders met with U.N. leaders to seek support. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon heard them loud and clear. “We have to foster security for all Guatemalans and their children,” Ban said. “I am sure the people of Guatemala agree they did not end 36 years of armed conflict only to see violence take other forms. Now it is time to end all violence.”