Guatemalan Military Fights a New War in the Country’s Northern Jungles

By Dialogo
February 03, 2011

The Guatemalan military is once again patrolling the jungles of Alta Verapaz, but its mission is very different than the one it carried out during the civil war: now it is not pursuing guerrillas, but drug traffickers, and now it is not causing fear, but relief among the population.

In this area of the northern Guatemalan jungle, inhabited mostly by poor Mayan indigenous families, the Army has declared war on a powerful Mexican drug cartel known as “Los Zetas.”

The department of Alta Verapaz, a key stop for South American cocaine being shipped to the United States, was until recently a place where the feared members of Los Zetas operated tranquilly in village and city streets, unafraid of interference from the law.

On 19 December, however, President Alvaro Colom’s administration imposed a state of emergency in the region and sent an additional three hundred soldiers to try to reestablish the rule of law in this strife-torn area near the Mexican border.

In little more than a month of operations, the military personnel have won the population’s trust, says departmental governor José Adrián López.

“The Army came to create trust among the population, and I believe that this has also been viewed very positively by the citizens,” López told AFP.

In Cobán, the capital of this coffee-producing region, many see the soldiers as saviors.

“When the soldiers and police entered each street, all around, since then there isn’t much death any more,” explained Angelina Rax, a seller of fruits and vegetables.

For now, it would appear that Los Zetas have left, leaving their weapons abandoned in the jungle. Nevertheless, the authorities have also found part of their legacy, such as a coffee plantation used to hide kidnapped women, who were buried in shallow graves after being murdered.

The soldiers are continuing their vigilance in the department in order to prevent the drug traffickers from returning.

The military has walked these paths before, however. For thirty-six years, the Army fought a bloody civil war against leftist guerillas in this region. When the peace accords were signed in 1996, around 200,000 people had died, the great majority of them indigenous peasants who were massacred by uniformed personnel, according to official reports under UN auspices.

Although the soldiers’ mission has changed, their presence in Alta Verapaz evokes old and painful memories for some.

The military leaders themselves, however, want that repressive past to be forgotten forever.

“We are an entirely new Army, a different, modern Army, highly trained in human rights, international humanitarian law, and the use of force, and so what we ask is that they trust us in the same way that the majority of this population is trusting us,” Col. Marco Tulio Díaz said.

The government has just extended the state of emergency for thirty days, in the hope of preserving the calm that has returned to this region, although it is possible that Los Zetas are simply biding their time, waiting for an opportunity to try to resume their activities in this area.