Guatemala to Shore Up its Borders to Cut Off Drug-Trafficking Routes

Military members will be at their border posts beginning in April.
Lorena Baires/Diálogo | 4 April 2017

Transnational Threats

The objectives of Guatemala’s new security strategies include stopping criminal activity and drug trafficking at the borders, as well as to provide more security for the Guatemalan people. (Photo: Gloria Cañas)

In order to block more than 10 land routes used by drug-trafficking structures to move drugs, the Guatemalan Armed Forces will create a security zone along the border with Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico.

The Guatemalan border will be strengthened by Army troops defending it from all four directions in the country’s different border zones. (Photo: Gloria Cañas)

To accomplish this, authorities from the ministries of Defense and of the Interior have created a detailed plan to facilitate the deployment of 4,200 troops to the border departments where these routes are located: Izabal, Petén, Alta Verapaz, Zacapa, Escuintla, Suchitepéquez, Retalhuleu, Quetzaltenango, and San Marcos.

The troops belong to the Special Reserve Corps for Citizen Security (CERSC, per its Spanish acronym). The elite battalion was created in February 2015 to support the National Civil Police (PNC, per its Spanish acronym) in “its work to reestablish or maintain citizen security, as well as to assist in its humanitarian work and in cases of man-made or natural disasters or other national emergencies,” according to its founding agreement, published in Guatemalan newspaper Diario de Centroamérica.

“The PNC has indicated to us that it is ready to assume responsibility for citizen security, and so we are going to relocate CERSC troops from six departments and 30 municipalities. We began in April with the relocation of a first group which was composed of 2,100 soldiers,” Colonel William García, general press director for the Guatemalan Ministry of Defense, told Diálogo.

“Four thousand police officers will graduate from the PNC Academy this year. They will be ready to join the 37,000 that are already patrolling the streets to provide security to the population. This way, we will make up for the military members [from CERSC] leaving,” Minister of Interior Francisco Rivas, explained to Diálogo.

“Our security focus is based on a much more comprehensive concept in which the PNC leads prevention work in parallel with fighting crime, which we already do. And soon we are going to have more personnel for that purpose,” he added.

Guatemala is fighting a wave of violence caused mainly by territorial disputes between different drug cartels and illicit gang activities, including hired killings, extortion, and drug trafficking. The average number of homicides in Guatemala is 6,000 per year.

Drug trafficking and contraband

This situation led to the deployment of the first group of troops to Guatemala’s approximately 962-kilometer border with Mexico, where the Armed Forces have identified at least 104 blind points.

“In municipalities at the Mexican border, there are operational cells of Los Zetas, so we have problems with illicit arms smuggling and movements of drugs whose final destination is not only Mexico but also the United States,” Col. García added.

CERSC squads were spread out among 16 municipalities and another nine high-crime departments across Guatemala. (Photo: Gloria Cañas)

Guatemala and Mexico are divided by the largest heavy flowing river in Central America, the 1,113-kilometer long Usumacinta. According to the Armed Forces, there are other problems at the river, including the smuggling of cigarettes and alcohol and human trafficking for prostitution.

The land border between Guatemala and Belize is 212 kilometers long, and the Sarstoon River forms another natural border, 111 kilometers long. Criminal structures take advantage of the situation to conduct illicit activities.

Drug trafficking and gangs

The problem at Guatemala’s borders with Honduras and El Salvador is that drug traffickers use coastal zones in the Salvadoran Pacific and the Honduran Atlantic to unload drugs coming from South America, which then continue moving north. Also, gangs create “checkpoints” in the two countries to extort and smuggle arms and drugs.

The Guatemalan Armed Forces have identified various contraband items crossing the rivers at the Honduran border, and many criminals are among those illegally migrating to Mexico and the United States.

To prevent that from happening, Guatemalan and Honduran security authorities have been increasing their border surveillance since April 2016, after the Salvadoran Armed Forces announced the creation of El Salvador Special Reaction Force, an elite military group to support the PNC. Its main objective is to capture the 100 most dangerous gang leaders in the country.

The Guatemalan Legislative Assembly also approved a package of reforms to toughen their criminal laws, declaring gangs to be “terrorist organizations.” This was in tune with the actions of the Constitutional Court of the Salvadoran Supreme Court of Justice from that same year.

“At the border with El Salvador, a very latent problem is the maras because there is always the risk that they will go to Guatemala. In fact, we have arrested several Salvadoran gang leaders,” Col. García said.

El Salvador is training its military border forces thanks to the joint United States–Colombia Action Plan (USCAP), a regional security cooperation program supported by U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) in which Colombia imparts its knowledge through specialized training to enhance the capacities of partner nations.

“The Sumpul Command, an elite group against contraband and drug trafficking at the borders, is putting its knowledge from USCAP into practice. That is how we have been able to increase arrests and surveillance at blind points,” Colonel Jorge Miranda, head of the 3rd Operations Unit of the Salvadoran Armed Forces Joint Staff, reported to Diálogo. The Sumpul Command monitors more than 130 border crossings in Guatemala.

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