Guatemala: Operation Martillo targets narcotics on Pacific Coast

Guatemala: Operation Martillo targets narcotics on Pacific Coast

By Dialogo
November 06, 2012

QUETZALTENANGO, Guatemala – Operation Martillo has been
successful in Guatemala, as 10 narcotics shipments collectively valued at US$2.15
billion and 70 vessels used for drug trafficking have been confiscated since the
mission launched in February in this Central American nation.
Security forces have also extradited 14 suspects to the United States and
destroyed 10 clandestine landing strips nationwide in a country that has become a
transshipment point for South American narcotics headed north to Mexico and the
United States, said Guatemalan Army spokesman Col. Erick Escobedo.
Nearly 90% of the cocaine that reaches the United States comes through Mexico
and Central America, according the United Nations International Narcotics Control
Operation Martillo is an international mission that gathers Western
Hemisphere and European nations in an effort to curtail illicit trafficking routes
on both coasts of the Central American isthmus.
Guatemalan security forces have carried out 598 operations since Operation
Martillo was launched along the country’s Pacific Coast, resulting in the seizure of
US$15 million in marijuana and US$2 billion in cocaine, according to the United
States Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM).

Mexico-based drug cartels – namely the Sinaloa and Los Zetas – have expanded
into Guatemala in recent years, causing the government to bolster its narcotics
fight. In August, 171 U.S. Marines
were deployed to the country’s Pacific coast, as the U.S is teaming with
the Guatemalan military in an aggressive approach in which the U.S Navy, Coast
Guard, and federal agents are assisting Guatemalan troops in shutting down
narco-trafficking routes exploited by cartels.
The U.S. military can’t use its weapons unless it is under fire, so it’s
focusing on spotting suspicious boats, submarines and individuals and relaying their
locations to Guatemalans forces, which handle all confiscations and arrests. The
U.S. is keeping a close eye on Guatemala’s coastlines and rivers.
Working alongside the Guatemalans represents a major change in philosophy for
the U.S. military, which for years had only assisted in exercises, which included
training Guatemalans and helping them build public buildings and improve roads.
But Operation Martillo has made fighting drug trafficking a top priority
among the 14 participating nations.
Guatemalan Minister of Defense Ulises Anzueto listed the cities of Jutiapa,
Escuintla, Santa Rosa, Suchitepéquez, Retalhuleu, and San Marcos as
narco-trafficking hotbeds, where drugs are transported via air, land and sea.
Former Guatemalan Vice Minister of the Interior Mario Mérida agreed, saying
the Central America’s entire Pacific Coast is vulnerable to narco-trafficking. He
pointed out the area’s large swaths of land, vast marshlands and abundance of rural
and desolate roads from Jutiapa to San Marcos make for ideal smuggling routes.
“Improving our monitoring in that area is important,” Mérida said. “It’s
clear that because we don’t have [adequate] technology, drug trafficking is taking
Operation Martillo is focusing on counter-narcotics operations along the
coastline with the intent of taking down drug-toting vessels. Meantime, agents also
are trying to dismantle organized crime groups and cartels.

Operation Martillo is coordinated through operation centers at the Pacific
Naval Base at the San José harbor in the department of Escuintla; at the
Paratroopers Base at the Quetzal harbor in Escuintla; and at a base in Retalhuleu in
the department of Guatemala.
Brenda Muñoz, who is Quetzaltenango’s regional prosecutor against
drug-trafficking activity, said Operation Martillo has curtailed narco-trafficking
along the Pacific Coast, which connects Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua,
Costa Rica and Mexico.
“Retalhuleu has become a strategic spot for drug traffickers,” Muñoz said.
“Operation Martillo is preventing the smuggling of more narcotics.”

The impact

Security experts and residents trumpeted Operation Martillo’s results.
Alejandro Balcárcel, a Quetzaltenango-based businessman, said he hopes
Operation Martillo continues to make it more difficult for traffickers to exploit
“It’s important for the Guatemalan Army to continue these operations and help
fight drug trafficking, because it’s an affliction that poses an increasing threat
to entire populations,” he added.
Fernando Castellanos, a law student at the Universidad de San Carlos in
Quetzaltenango, said regular seizures of narcotics make it more difficult for
traffickers to sell their product locally.
“[The government must fight] drug trafficking and prevent narcotics from
reaching young Guatemalans,” he said. “The army should assist with that task.”
Gerson López, executive secretary for the Guatemalan National Association of
Municipalities (ANAM) and security expert, said large-scale counter-narcotics
operations are important for the country because they prevent drug-related crimes,
especially those that take place in international waters – Guatemala’s most
vulnerable area.
“Guatemala must take advantage of knowing where the country is most
vulnerable, as well as the expertise of the United States, which has experience in
this fight,” he added.