Guatemalan and Mexican government officials confirmed April 15 that one of the Mexican nationals detained in Guatemala on April 9 is a high ranking Mexican drug cartel member near the top of Mexico City's most wanted list. The arrest is further evidence that Mexican cartel members are expanding their presence in Central America.
Guatemalan and Mexican government officials confirmed April 15 that one of the Mexican citizens detained in Guatemala City on April 9 is Daniel Perez Rojas, aka “El Cachetes,” believed to be the second in command of the Gulf drug cartel's enforcement arm, Los Zetas. Perez was arrested for his alleged involvement in a March 25 firefight between drug trafficking organizations in southern Guatemala that left 11 people dead. The cartel member will likely be extradited to the Mexico or the United States to face charges relating to organized crime. Perez's arrest will likely have a negative impact on the Gulf cartel's operational capabilities over the short term, and it certainly has the potential to spark a power struggle for leadership among the dwindling number of Zeta founders that continue to carry some weight inside the cartel. More important, however, is that this arrest is the latest series of events indicating that Mexico's drug cartels have recently begun to increase their presence in Central America. In March, Guatemalan and Honduran officials announced that they believe that Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera — the leader of Mexico's Sinaloa drug cartel — is likely currently hiding in Honduras. More recently, a $15 million dollar shipment of cocaine seized in Guatemala was attributed to the Gulf cartel. Perez's presence in Guatemala also sets a precedent of Mexican cartel leaders fleeing south and not north to the United States as has been the case with other Gulf cartel members. Mexican organized crime groups have long been active along the Guatemalan border, especially in human smuggling. Historically, though, the country's powerful drug cartels have sought to bypass Central America's underdeveloped roads and infrastructure and instead opt to receive large drug shipments via airborne or maritime platforms more directly from South American suppliers before smuggling them into the United States. The shift is due in part to expanded counternarcotics operations in Mexico — which have specifically targeted high ranking cartel members — as well as tighter controls and monitoring in Mexico over aircraft and vessels entering the country. This development is an indication that Mexican drug traffickers have not been able to bribe their way out of the most recent security operations launched by Mexico City on their home turf. However, the poorly equipped security forces and rampant gang violence in much of Central America does not bode well for authorities' abilities to track Mexican cartel members in hiding or operating from there.