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Feb 9, 2011 | 19:04 GMT

5 mins read

Mexican Cartels and Guatemalan Politics

U.S. and Guatemalan officials met Feb. 6 to discuss counternarcotics aid as an army siege in Guatemala's northern department of Alta Verapaz continues. U.S. and Mexican officials are watching the spread of Mexican drug cartel influence into the Central American state with concern. Guatemala, already an institutionally weak and corrupt state, runs the risk of becoming even more vulnerable to narco-politics in this presidential election year.
Following up a Feb. 3 visit by Guatemalan Foreign Minister Haroldo Rodas to Washington to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield arrived in Guatemala on Feb. 6 to continue talks with Guatemalan officials on counternarcotics aid. Increased U.S. attention on Guatemala is a reflection of one of the side effects of Mexico's offensive against drug cartels, namely, the spread of the narcotics trade and of "narco-politics" into Central America. This spread is of concern in a state as weak as Guatemala, particularly in light of Guatemala's upcoming presidential election.

The Guatemalan Land Bridge

Guatemala serves as a land bridge between drug manufactures and traffickers operating between production centers in Mexico and South America (particularly Colombia, Peru and Bolivia). This land route, which became all-important following U.S. and Colombian successes in disrupting air and naval smuggling routes across the Caribbean, has been one of the main drivers of corruption and narco-politics in the region. Guatemala only emerged from civil war in 1996. Since then, Mexican drug cartels have taken advantage of Guatemala's still largely demoralized military, militia culture, entrenched corruption and feeble institutions to establish footholds. The two main Mexican cartels in Guatemala are Los Zetas, who dominate most of the north (in Peten, Huehuetenango and Quiche departments) and the Sinaloa Federation, which runs most of San Marcos department and the Pacific coast region of Guatemala. Los Zetas, who are renowned for their violent and often unconventional tactics, worked closely in the past with the Kaibiles, Guatemala's elite special operations forces unit. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, while Los Zetas were gradually rising to prominence in their prior role as enforcers for the Gulf cartel, many Kaibiles — disillusioned by the demobilization of troops and severe cuts to the military budget following the end of the civil war — increasingly turned to Los Zetas for work. The result has been a steady spillover of cartel violence into Guatemala by some of the best-trained guns-for-hire in the drug trade. The violence has escalated to the point that the Guatemalan government laid siege in December 2010 to the northern department of Alta Verapaz. The main surface transportation routes in the country run through this region, potentially making it more difficult for Los Zetas to smuggle narcotics if roadblocks are put up and, more important, enforced. The siege, enforced by 1,000 soldiers and police officers, was extended Jan. 18 by another 30 days, and could be extended again. The arrests of several Zetas were announced but are difficult to confirm. Even with their arrests, Guatemala is notorious for prison breaks. Though under the presidency of Alvaro Colom, Guatemala's air force and navy have cooperated with the Mexican government in restricting air smuggling routes, many Mexican officials continue to express frustration over the lack of state control of Guatemala's land and sea borders — not to mention the Guatemalans' near total lack of ability in conducting investigations and in compiling crime statistics.

Cartels and Politics

The entrenchment of Mexican drug cartels in Guatemala is not particularly new, but their growing impact on Guatemalan politics is an important trend that many are just now beginning to notice. Los Zetas and Sinaloa have operated for years in Guatemala with the tacit approval of many state and security officials who have also profited from the drug trade. Rumors have long circulated in Guatemala that cartel links in the country reach as high as the executive level, where Colom's wife, Sandra Torres, is widely known to be the main (albeit informal) executive of the state. A controversial figure in Guatemala, Torres has earned a great deal of criticism from the country's landed elite and military officers over her populist social programs and talk of land reform designed to win the support of the poor and indigenous. Colom said during a recent Prensa Libre interview that his wife could be a candidate for the ruling Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza party in September presidential elections. The Guatemalan Constitution bars family members of the president from running, however. Whether the constitution is amended to facilitate a Torres run remains to be seen. On the other side of the potential ballot are Partido Patriota leaders Otto Perez Molina and Roxana Baldetti. Molina, a former army general who represented the armed forces in the 1996 peace deal and has tried to emulate the "mano dura" (strong hand) security strategy of former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, would likely have the support of much of Guatemala's middle and upper class, many of whom are suspicious of Torres' intentions. In light of the upcoming elections, there may be more to Guatemala's latest military siege than appears at first glance. A week after the siege was declared, a radio broadcast by Los Zetas threatened war in Alta Verapaz. They claimed that Colom had failed to uphold his end of a 2007 agreement, in which $11.5 million was allegedly transferred to fund his presidential campaign. The Zeta allegations have not been confirmed, but they certainly add to the complex picture of Guatemala's counternarcotics efforts. The state's siege could be seen by the Coloms as a way, at least overtly, to place constraints on overly powerful cartels while providing the United States and Mexico with more incentive to deliver aid. But as the situation in Mexico has illustrated, powerful cartels like Los Zetas have the means to corrupt political, judicial and security institutions at various levels to insulate their core drug business. Particularly in an election year, the bargaining power of the cartels over the politicians in a state as weak as Guatemala is an issue that merits close watching.

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