Los Zetas Sows Fear While Expanding Reach Throughout Central America
By Dialogo October 17, 2011
Honduran police say they’ve confiscated nearly 12,400 kilograms of cocaine so far this year. Yet for Honduras Police Director José Muñoz, the drug cartel known as Los Zetas — believed to be responsible for much of this trafficking — is a monumental adversary that “no nation can take on by itself.”
Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the Northern Triangle countries of Central America, are jointly gathering intelligence and sharing information to prevent drug traffickers from making further inroads in the region. However, they do so with limitations.
With so many planes landing in Honduras on their way north, the country doesn’t even have radars to detect them.
Caught between South American producers and North American consumers — and bearing high costs for both — they have requested assistance from the United States as a bloc. “To confront the drug trafficking phenomenon, the producing, the bridge and the consuming countries must all participate,” said Muñoz.
The Honduran Air Force would like to revamp its 30-year-old aircraft fleet by acquiring at least four Super Tucanos, which have been successfully deployed by the Dominican Republic and other countries in combating drug trafficking. Its commander has announced he will seek legislation that allows the Air Force to shoot down suspicious airplanes flying in Honduran air space if the pilots haven’t submitted flight plans, refuse to identify themselves when requested to do so, or disobey commands to land.
Los Zetas’ intimidation campaign
In one incident in northern Guatemala earlier this year, Los Zetas criminals left the dismembered bodies of 27 laborers — 26 of which had been beheaded — outside a farm house in the northern province of Petén. They also left a calling card that covered almost an entire wall. It was a threat for the owner of the ranch, signed “Z 200” — scribbled entirely in blood.
“Z 200” is a cell of the larger Los Zetas, whose members are expanding their reach from their native Tamaulipas, Mexico, to neighboring Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Extreme violence is their signature.
The May 15 killings in Guatemala exemplify the lengths they’ll go to assert their control throughout Central America. The massacre astounded the region, but it wasn’t the first time Los Zetas had struck in such a manner. Nor would it be their last.
Nine days later, assistant prosecutor Allan Stowlinsky was found murdered, his remains cut into five pieces. His head was stuffed inside a plastic bag left at the market, and his extremities in four other bags, next to local government offices in the province of Alta Verapaz. Stowlinsky had been instrumental in the investigation of the farm workers’ deaths and the subsequent arrest of alleged group leader Hugo Álvaro Gómez, alias Witch Commander.
Stowlinsky had been abducted the previous evening, while on his way to pick up his son from a soccer match. A note with the inscription “Z 200 ” had been left behind.
The death trail is as long as the drug flow, and just as constant. After conferring with the heads of state of Honduras and El Salvador, Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom said he calculates each ton of drug in transit through the region costs Central America 18 lives.
The toll could be larger. Last summer, 16 Honduran families bid farewell to loved ones, only to receive them back days later in coffins. They were among the 72 victims of the Los Zetas slaughter in Tamaulipas on Aug. 24. The migrants had been asked to join the group. They refused and paid with their lives.
First narco lab in the region
Lately though, Los Zetas are not merely waiting to intercept Central Americans as they head north. Gang leaders are themselves making trips to the south, seeking to enlist participants in a roster of activities that include drug trafficking, local drug distribution, theft, extortion, kidnapping, money laundering and assassination by hire.
Documents retrieved by Guatemalan intelligence revealed the cartel’s intentions to expand operations between the Caribbean ports of Tela and Omoa, in Honduras, in order to transport drugs by sea to the Guatemalan coastal city of Puerto Barrios. Guatemalan authorities have also found lists of contributors and receipts for up to $12,000 for boat pickups and deliveries in Omoa.
In early March, Honduran military and police officials dismantled a drug laboratory nestled in a coffee plantation in a remote, mountainous zone called Cerro Negro, very close to Omoa, in the department of Cortés. Far from improvised, it was a full-fledged setup.
With a powerful generator, underground cabling, water supplies, air compressors, ovens, sifters, molds, precursor chemicals and means to recycle them, the lab was fully equipped to process cocaine paste.
“This is the first narco lab found in Central America,” said then-Security Minister Oscar Álvarez, underscoring that the cartel no longer intends to use Honduras merely as a transit point, but as a processing center as well. He compared the lab to similar ones operating in Colombia.
Nobody was captured, but police informants said the men running the lab had Mexican accents. They reported having seen helicopters landing and small planes flying over the area. A continued search led authorities to two clandestine airstrips nearby.
Then, a few days later, Honduran authorities seized an arsenal in San Pedro Sula, the country’s second-largest city, separated from the Atlantic coast by only 36 miles.
“The arsenal belongs to Los Zetas of Mexico,” Honduras Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. René Arnoldo Osorio told the press after seventeen AK-47 rifles, eight boxes of M-16 rifles; 25 RPGs and over 600 chargers were discovered in a three-meter deep, ceramic-covered tunnel that opened from a closet.
Besides the weapons, authorities also retrieved 10 sacks of cocaine, four Mexican police badges, six bullet-proof vests and five complete Honduran special-forces uniforms, as well as maps with detailed air, water and land transportation routes in the residence that functioned, in appearance, as headquarters for a transportation company.