A new Guatemalan interagency task force (IATF) will kick off operations in late 2018. IATF Jaguar will focus on the northern department of Petén, on the border with Mexico and Belize.
About 300 elements—officers of the Army, the National Civil Police (PNC, in Spanish), and members of the Guatemalan Defense and Public ministries—will make up IATF Jaguar. The unit’s objective will be to counter transnational threats, such as narcotrafficking, and conduct anti-smuggling operations, border controls, and other security operations.
“It’s in the implementation phase,” said Guatemalan Army Colonel Óscar Pérez Figueroa, press director at the Ministry of Defense. “It’s intended to have the same structure as the existing ones. Considering the characteristics of the northern area, the task force will be integrated into CONAP [the Guatemalan Protected Areas National Council] and DIPRONA [PNC’s Nature Protection Division],” he told Diálogo.
IATF Jaguar will join the three existing forces, IATF Tecún Umán, IATF Chortí, and IATF Xinca. The elite groups that patrol the borders with Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras were created during the presidency of Otto Pérez Molina, 2012-2015.
Authorities inaugurated IATF Tecún Umán in December 2013. Headquartered in the Santa Ana Berlín base in Quetzaltenango department, the force operates in the departments of Quetzaltenango, San Marcos, and Huehuetenango that border Mexico.
In July 2014, the Guatemalan government launched IATF Chortí, based in the municipality of Zacapa in the department of the same name, with operations that extend to the departments of El Progreso and Chiquimula, on the border with Honduras. IATF Xinca started operating in August 2017 with patrols in the departments of Escuintla and Santa Rosa, as well as in Jutiapa, on the border with El Salvador.
“To a greater or lesser degree, every border region faces similar problems, depending on controls from the local security forces to minimize organized crime activities,” said Col. Pérez. “Guatemala started to reorganize their capabilities. From a task force perspective, this reorganization means the creation of units with different capabilities, fire power, and maneuvers that improve their defense response capabilities.”
The task forces benefited from intense training from Guatemalan Army instructors with the support of U.S. Army South, the Texas National Guard, the Arkansas National Guard, and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office, among other institutions. The continuous training involved several subjects, such as light weapons familiarization and training, operations in urban areas, defense tactics, arrest tactics, intelligence collection, traffic control, and vehicle and people searches.
“The U.S. government collaborated with training, technical resources, donations, and other contributions to the interagency task forces,” Fernando Lucero, spokesperson for the Guatemalan Ministry of Government, told Diálogo. “This strengthens the forces to prevent, combat, and eradicate criminal acts.”
The Petén area, where IATF Jaguar will operate, is a dense jungle with lush vegetation. The Mayan Biosphere Reserve, Guatemala’s largest natural space at 21,500 square kilometers, is among its many protected areas.
“Petén department is the biggest and most remote department in the country,” Lucero said. “It’s a territory that criminal groups can use to commit their crimes due to its geographic range.”
The reserve is also home to Mayan archaeological sites and unique flora and fauna biodiversity, including iconic species such as jaguars, pumas, and tapirs. Currently, the area faces the threat of illegal activities, such as timber and wildlife smuggling, oil exploration, and agricultural exploitation. Added to these challenges are drug and human trafficking, and other transnational organized criminal activities.
“The northern area is a less controlled border,” Col. Pérez said. “There’s biodiversity, ancestral heritage sites, archaeological ruins… everything passes through this area. A task force would focus on narcotrafficking and smuggling.”
Air and land bridge
According to data from PNC’s Counter Narcotics Analysis and Information General Sub-directorate, Guatemalan authorities seized more than 13 tons of cocaine in 2017. However, the 2018 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report of the U.S. Department of State, estimates that more than 1,400 tons were shipped north from Guatemala that year. The report also indicates that Guatemala remains a main transit route for drugs, while it continues its fight against local marijuana and poppy production.
The jungle region of Petén acts as a land and air bridge to transport illegal goods to border countries. The Army estimates that the Mayan Biosphere Reserve has dozens of illicit airstrips that must be located, identified, and destroyed.
“The presence of an interagency task force, with the strategic, operational, and intelligence conditions, is an important tool for the eradication of drug crops,” Lucero said. “Also, [it will] control border areas with narcotrafficking activity, locate clandestine airstrips, and counter human trafficking and smuggling in the department of Petén and surrounding areas.”