Mexico’s war against the drug cartels is spilling south into Guatemala. The cartels are threatening to take over parts of northern Guatemala near the Mexican border.
In response, the Guatemalan government has taken a page from its larger neighbor — and deployed the army to try and push the traffickers out. The government has declared a “state of siege” in one province, called Alta Verapaz, that it said has been overrun by one of Mexico’s most feared cartels.
As he shows a reporter a rural farm seized from alleged drug traffickers, Guatemalan Army Col. Marco Tulio Diaz points an unfinished barn for thoroughbreds and abandoned fields that stretch beyond the horizon. Diaz said Mexican traffickers used the farm as a place to slaughter enemies, rape local women and bury weapons. “A lot of evil took place here,” he added.
That was before Guatemala’s President Alvaro Colom declared a state of siege and ordered the military into Alta Verapaz.
The main enemies here are members of Los Zetas, former Mexican soldiers turned drug traffickers, known for their brutality. Los Zetas aren’t just picking up and leaving, though. Responding to the military campaign, the group recently forced radio stations in the area to broadcast a warning to the government.
The message was addressed to President Colom, and threatened a full scale insurgency. It also claimed that Los Zetas gave Colom’s political party $11 million to fund his election campaign.
And it claimed that he’s now reneging on a deal to leave the cartel alone. Colom denies all the claims made by Los Zetas.
Guatemala’s state of siege means freedom of assembly and the press are suspended. Also, it allows police and military forces to detain people without arrest warrants.
Guatemalan officials, including Defense Minister Abraham Valenzuela, say the restrictions are justified. “These are no longer simple narcotraffickers,” said Valenzuela. “They are narcoterrorists.”
He called this a historic moment for Guatemala, and vows that the military campaign will continue until “we finish the job.”
No one disputes the corrupting influence or violence perpetrated by Los Zetas. But some Guatemalans view the army’s deployment against the cartels with skepticism.
The army is widely distrusted following decades of human rights abuses and Mexican traffickers enjoy enthusiastic support in parts of Guatemala.
Writer Julie Lopez, author of “The Narco Wars,” said the cartels have won over many locals by providing security and services that the Guatemalan government hasn’t been providing.
“It’s logical that they feel they owe loyalty to these people who give them employment, who pay for the local clinic, who if they don’t have money to bury a relative pay for the funeral,” said Lopez.
And then there’s the issue of land ownership. In farming villages in Alta Verapaz, some say the military campaign is a cover for the repression of peasants lobbying for land reform. Alta Verapaz has a history of land disputes between the oligarchy and the landless poor, and two indigenous leaders working for land reform have been arrested since the siege began.
“The siege is serving other interests,” said Carlos Morales, head the Union of Peasant Organizations.
But despite such skepticism, many Guatemalans back their government’s unprecedented move against the drug cartels. One popular saying goes: “Our neighbor is cleaning his house, and the cockroaches are fleeing here.”
And the stakes for the United States are high. A weak border on Mexico’s southern flank further destabilizes Mexico just as Washington is sending millions of dollars to fight the drug traffickers there.
Guatemala is asking for more help, too, saying the US must expand its anti-cartel efforts beyond Mexico to include Central America.