Guatemala: Elite Army Brigade Fights Narco-Trafficking

Government tightens controls along its border with Mexico.
Antonio_Ordonez | 2 October 2012

A Special Army Brigade operates in the forest of the department of Petén to fight narco-traffickers in northeastern Guatemala. (Courtesy of the Guatemalan Army)

GUATEMALA CITY – The Guatemalan Army Special Brigade for Forest Operations’ (BEOS) goal is clear: stop narco-trafficking in the country’s northeast, specifically in the department of Petén, which borders Mexico.

The BEOS, which has a force of 600, is patrolling the area’s dense forests and numerous rivers and lakes with the Special Group for Interdiction and Rescue (GEIR) and Special Naval Forces unit, said Army spokesman Erick Escobedo.

The deployment of troops was necessary because Petén has emerged as a major transshipment point for weapons and narcotics en route to Mexico and the United States, according to Minister of the Interior Mauricio López Bonilla.

“The brigade coordinates mobilizations, especially for operations to intercept narcotics that are being transported by land or water,” López Bonilla said.

But because the Army is prohibited from functioning as the police by law, its troops always are accompanied by the National Civilian Police and Public Ministry agents, who take suspects into custody while the military provides protection and support.

“We want there to be integration among all of the forces,” López Bonilla said.

The security forces have seized of 3,184.2 kilograms (7,020 pounds) of cocaine from January to Sept. 1 nationwide, compared to 4,199 kilograms (9,257 pounds) confiscated all of last year.

But the security forces’ success doesn’t stop there. Since Guatemala’s profile as a narcotics-producing country has risen, so has the amount of precursors entering the nation. Counter-narcotics agents seized 13,763 barrels of precursor chemicals from January to Aug. 15 of this year, 34% more than the 10,197 barrels seized all of last year, according to the government.

Helen Mack, director of the Myrna Mack Foundation, an organization that specializes in security analyses for Guatemala, said the degree of pressure the government is applying to narco-traffickers and organized groups is unprecedented in the country’s history.

“Guatemala has a very vulnerable border in Petén, where many narcotics are smuggled out of the country,” she said. “With neither the adequate equipment nor personnel, the police couldn’t fight organized crime all by itself.”

López Bonilla added six helicopters are being used in counter-narcotics operations in Petén, as well as along the border with Honduras and the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

The government also has targeted fishing vessels involved in narco-trafficking, as it is common for boats to pick up shipments from South America. Once the boat arrives at port, the narcotics are packed into cars with hidden compartments and are transported north – through Petén – to Mexico and the United States, López Bonilla said.

On the Pacific Coast, Guatemala is being supported by 200 U.S. Marines, who recently arrived in Guatemala as part of Operation Martillo, 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.

Traffickers also are using airplanes to drop packages of drugs on Guatemalan territory close to the border with Honduras.

The elite brigade has destroyed 45 clandestine landing strips in Petén.

The BEOS also helps the National Council on Protected Areas (CONAP) with the preservation of the Mayan biosphere, and the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources to protect flora and fauna in the country’s northern region.

“The biggest problem for biodiversity is the illegal extraction of wood,” said Mario Ávila, head of the National Civilian Police Division for the Protection of Nature (Diprona).

Drug traffickers in particular clear vegetation to open space in the rainforest for their clandestine landing strips for planes carrying narcotics, officials said.

In the 830,000-acre Parque Nacional Laguna del Tigre (Tiger Lagoon Park), in Petén, officials found 50 clandestine landing strips for small aircraft and three more in the Sierra del Lacandón, also located in Petén, last year.

In Petén, community leaders, reportedly paid off by the drug cartels, encourage farmers to prune or burn down large portions of forest to create landing strips.

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