Guatemala is unique among Central American countries. Though comparable in size to the U.S. state of Tennessee, it is home to more than 20 languages. Its territory spans multiple ecological regions — including thorn scrub-dotted savanna, arid forests and tropical jungle — and contains more than 300 microclimates. A range of 285 volcanoes stretches from the country's southeast to its southwest. Guatemala's impressive diversity has made the country difficult to govern and created a perfect breeding ground for criminal groups, which have found refuge in the country's hinterlands. There they have forged ties with politicians and security officials, co-opting them to do their bidding.
Corruption is generally understood to stem from a strong demand for extralegal activity coupled with an advanced network of informal authority. But it is impossible to discount the role of geography, which shapes crime around the world, in the equation. Criminal groups can exploit a country's infrastructure or its lack thereof, either taking advantage of a weak central government or evolving under the constant threat of a strong one. In Guatemala's linguistically and geographically fragmented hinterlands, isolation has begotten ungoverned spaces, which, in turn, have helped foster state corruption and organized crime.
Guatemala's capital city is too distant and disconnected from the country's border departments to effectively govern them. Cocaine traffickers, known as transportistas, can easily bypass Guatemala City using the network of paved and unpaved roads that connects the country's northeast to its northwest, protected by mountainous terrain. Furthermore, because the Guatemala City-Puerto Barrios highway is the only major road linking Guatemala City to the northeastern border regions, it is difficult for law enforcement to catch criminal groups off guard. Through their control over the northeast-to-northwest corridors, transportistas have created local and regional alliances with mayors and police officers in the area, empowering the groups even more. About 90 percent of the cocaine traffic into the United States during the first half of 2015 crossed the Central American isthmus, according to the U.S. State Department's International Narcotics Control Strategy Report — up around 10 percent since 2010. To better understand the matter, I visited a few northern border regions that have become strategic hubs for the transportistas.
Jutiapa and Zacapa
Jutiapa department's agricultural advantages, along with its proximity to El Salvador, have facilitated drug trafficking in the department. Jutiapa can be divided into two geographic halves. In the south, rivers rich with volcanic deposits make their way to the Pacific Ocean, nourishing the land used to raise cattle and cultivate crops such as sugar and rice. By contrast, farming in the mountainous north has historically been limited to small harvests of corn, beans, and to a lesser degree tomatoes and bell peppers.
The department — like much of the country's northeast — has historically been a cattle-ranching society, dominated by a few powerful landowners. Thanks to their influence and considerable distance from Guatemala City, Jutiapa's elites could slip unnoticed across the unprotected border with El Salvador. In the 1980s, many of these patrons started taking advantage of their autonomy to transport cocaine from El Salvador to Guatemala. They invested the profits from their activities back into the department, improving infrastructure and boosting the agricultural sector, particularly in northern Jutiapa. Today, Jutiapa is one of Guatemala's most important agricultural departments. A local farmer told me:
"About 20 years ago, this area was dirt poor, and there was no infrastructure or investment into large-scale farming. Today, thanks to our patron, we are one of the country's breadbaskets."
The situation is similar in Zacapa, where investment has clearly revitalized infrastructure and business. The department's wealth is conspicuous in the convoys of Toyota pickups and armed guards that patrol the area. Zacapa, like Jutiapa, is an agrarian border department, but it abuts Honduras — not El Salvador — and has a more arid landscape with less arable land. With few economic opportunities beyond melon production and cattle ranching, the department's Motagua Valley has produced some of Guatemala's most formidable transportista organizations. Some, including the powerful Lorenzana family, have been extradited to the United States.
In both departments, drug money has been laundered through the agricultural sector, according to sources in the country's security community. This has helped win the loyalty of local communities who benefit from the investment, and in return, they have protected their patrons from state security forces. No matter how many local drug lords Guatemala extradites to the United States, Jutiapa and Zacapa will still be a hub for traffickers making the most of the area's legacy and unprotected borders to conduct their operations.
Mayan heritage is the defining characteristic of Guatemala's western and central highlands — especially Huehuetenango department, on the border with Mexico's Chiapas state. Huehuetenango's population is scattered across an array of villages sheltered by the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes, which cuts south from Mexico's Sierra Madre. The area's rugged terrain inhibited the Spanish conquistadors from making headway there; unlike the mostly Spanish-speaking populations of Jutiapa and Zacapa, the people of Huehuetenango speak eight Mayan dialects between them, and more than half of the populace is indigenous.
The most powerful criminal group in Huehuetenango is Los Huistas, named for the border towns of Santa Ana Huista and San Antonio Huista. Between 2008 and 2012, Los Huistas, backed by other criminal groups, fought off Mexico's notoriously brutal Los Zetas cartel to keep it out of Guatemala. That the department is so rural and isolated from the Guatemalan state has been an advantage for the group, which has stepped in to fill the Huehuetenango's governance and investment needs. Apart from a few coffee farms, there had been little private investment into Huehuetenango before the drug business arrived. The cultural and linguistic variety in the region also makes it especially difficult to combat drug trafficking there, especially given the indigenous majority's historical distrust of the state. Guatemalan intelligence agents have had trouble penetrating the villages.
Despite the rampant drug trafficking in the department, however, Huehuetenango has one of the lowest rates of violent homicide in Guatemala, with fewer than 8 homicides per 100,000 people annually. This is driven, in part, by its culture of honor and retributive justice. As one local mayor described it:
"If you are a person of peace and love, the community will respect and appreciate you. If you commit a crime against a member of the community, then it will be the community who will inflict its version of justice upon you. But if you employ and have the power to change the life of many communities throughout our department, the communities will fight — and even die — to protect you and your family."
In the absence of a strong state to enforce rule of law in Guatemala's hinterlands, organized crime groups and strong local patrons will continue to act as the authorities there. Though Guatemala's efforts to combat state corruption through foreign anti-graft commissions such as the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala may improve the situation somewhat, they will fall short of resolving it. There are other factors to consider as well. Guatemala's border with Mexico, for instance, is more than 900 kilometers (559 miles) long and difficult to secure, given the region's harsh environment, which includes the impenetrable rainforests of Peten department and the northwestern highlands. What's more, corruption is hard to eradicate once it has taken root. Honduras and El Salvador are also struggling with corruption across all levels of government, and in all Northern Triangle countries, the more corruption and impunity reign, the more incentive residents have to migrate north. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's most recent statistics, more than 90 percent of the roughly 78,000 families caught illegally entering United States in the past fiscal year hailed from the Northern Triangle. Most were fleeing gang-related violence.
If it hopes to combat criminal activity, Guatemala must increase the government's presence in its hinterlands. But it will not be able to overpower market dynamics to eradicate drug trafficking entirely. So long as the United States demands cheap labor and cocaine, drug trafficking and corruption will be structural problems not just in Guatemala but also in Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador. And so long as illegal activity persists, geography will shape it. Not even criminal syndicates are immune to the pressure of geopolitics.