Secretary of State Hillary Clinton travels to Guatemala City on Wednesday to negotiate the region’s first cooperative security plan with the seven presidents of Central America. The Obama administration has promised to spend $200 million to help Central American countries fight the cartels and regain control of lawless territories.
But efforts to police the Mexico-Guatemala borderlands may be overmatched by its jungles, mountains and stubborn contraband culture.
On a dirt track outside this frontier town, only a handmade sign — “Mexico Starts Here” — marks the border with Guatemala. There are no soldiers, no customs, no passport controls — just rough truckers smuggling gasoline south and ragged migrants marching north.
The U.S. embassy in Mexico states that while there are 30,000 U.S customs and border patrol officers watching over the 1,926-mile U.S. border with Mexico, there were only 125 Mexican immigration officials monitoring the country’s 540-mile border with Guatemala.
A 2010 cable from U.S. diplomats, made public by Wikileaks, reveals that Guatemala has only a single helicopter and five pick-up trucks to patrol its entire border with Mexico, “a valuable buffer zone” to protect the United States.
On the Guatemalan side last month, the severed heads of 26 men and women were left scattered at a jungle ranch owned by a local trafficker who allegedly ran afoul of the Mexican cartel known as Los Zetas. The Guatemalan prosecutor investigating the crime was murdered, too, his decapitated torso left in a trash bag outside the governor’s house.
Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom last week extended an emergency “state of siege” in the northern border province of Peten, as the attorneys general of Mexico and Guatemala pledged for the first time to share intelligence and resources to beat back the Zetas, who are expanding into Central America.
Andres Granier, governor of the Mexican state of Tabasco, which shares the border with Guatemala, called the frontier “out of control” two weeks ago, begging the government to send soldiers and police.
Two reporters traveled 500 miles over the border’s roads and rivers last week. To call this boundary “porous” would be to suggest that parts of it are not. For the indigenous peoples, ranch hands and smugglers who traverse it freely, there is no border at all. It is a line on a map.
On the Suchiate River near the Pacific Coast, boatmen pole makeshift rafts through the currents like gondoliers, ferrying beans, gasoline, beer and diapers into Mexico or Guatemala in plain view of authorities. The trafficking is so well established that ferrymen from Mexico and Guatemala alternate work days on the river.