"The people here were too scared to do anything," said Col. Marco Tulio Vasquez Sanchez, commander of the 300 troops now patrolling Coban and the surrounding area.
At his desk in the military barracks, the colonel opened his laptop and played a video that soldiers confiscated at a farm allegedly abandoned by retreating Zeta forces in December. The disc shows a Sept. 15 Mexican Independence Day celebration at the local airstrip, where beefy men wearing white cowboy hats with pistols on their hips cheer horse races from the backs of their pickup trucks. The soundtrack is a bouncy Mexican ballad known as a "narcocorrido."
"That's the one they call 'El W,' " the colonel said, zooming in on a mustachioed figure in dark aviator glasses. "I'm still hunting for him."
Military commanders say they have seized dozens of vehicles, many of them stolen from Mexico, along with five airplanes and more than 100 weapons, including grenade launchers and machine guns.
Many of the arms were recovered at a farm on the outskirts of Coban, where they had been hastily buried in grain sacks beneath towering palms and plants heavy with coffee beans.
In a muddy grave behind the farmhouse, troops unearthed the body of a man kidnapped near Guatemala City.
According to the military, the farm belonged to Otoniel Turcios, a suspected Guatemalan drug smuggler who fled to Belize, where he was arrested in October. He was then handed over to DEA agents and flown to New York, where he is charged with conspiracy to import and distribute narcotics.
U.S. law enforcement agents say Turcios and other alleged local drug bosses, including Walter Overdick, known as "El Tigre," may have brought the Zetas into the country as partners or protectors but were quickly muscled aside.
"They invited the Zetas to the party, and the Zetas decided to take over," said a senior U.S. law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of his work in the region and security policies.
A mysterious text message purportedly sent by the Zetas to local journalists in late December was read aloud on radio stations in Guatemala. The message accused the president of taking millions in bribes but failing to keep his promises.
"A war will begin in this country, in shopping centers, schools, police stations," the announcement went.
Unlike in Mexico, where cartel gunmen stage brazen assaults on government officials and security forces, the criminals in Coban have not followed through on the threats of attack. Instead, since the military's arrival, the Mexican traffickers here have been mostly ghosts, the subject of sightings, rumors and anonymous Internet postings but very few arrests.
None of the 21 suspects taken into custody since December in Coban is a Mexican national, and authorities said the Zetas commanders have probably slipped back into Mexico or relocated to more lawless parts of Guatemala.
"This is just a slight disruption for them," said one U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing security protocols. He estimated that 70 percent of Mexico's 550-mile border with Guatemala is controlled by the Zetas.
Mexican traffickers have been caught in Guatemala, though, including two alleged members of the cartel La Familia arrested Jan. 29. In September, a Zetas commander, Daniel "El Cachetes" ("Cheeks") Perez Rojas, was convicted along with more than a dozen underlings for crimes linked to the massacre of 11 local competitors. And the boss of all bosses, the billionaire Sinaloa drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" ("Shorty") Guzman, was seized in Guatemala in 1999, only to escape in a laundry basket from a Mexican prison two years later.
But the Mexican cartel presence in Guatemala has never been as extensive as it is now, according to Guatemalan officials.
"They say to the families, 'You can sell to us and leave standing up, or you can refuse and go feet first,' " said Oscar Pop, an indigenous leader in the region.
Pop said the return of the soldiers has stirred conflicted feelings among those who suffered during Guatemala's long civil conflict. An estimated 200,000 people were killed in the war, which ended in 1996.
"We need to be strengthening the police, not bringing back the army," he said.
The governor of Alta Verapaz, Jose Adrian Lopez, said he has been surprised that the military presence has been so welcomed, given the army's brutal legacy in the region.
"Now all the local mayors here are asking the government to send troops," he said.