Mexican drug cartels draw Guatemalan army to jungles where it fought civil war

Guatemalan soldiers guard a farm late last month in Coban. The property belonged to a suspected Guatemalan drug smuggler.
Guatemalan soldiers guard a farm late last month in Coban. The property belonged to a suspected Guatemalan drug smuggler. (Nikki Kahn)
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 10, 2011

IN COBAN, GUATEMALA The once-fearsome Guatemalan army has returned to the jungles where it battled Marxist guerrillas a generation ago, this time to hunt shadowy Mexican drug traffickers fighting for control of strategic smuggling routes to the United States.

So serious is the perceived threat to national security that Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom has extended "a state of siege" and martial law in his country's Alta Verapaz province, where authorities say the soldiers are beating back an invasion by the Mexican cartel known as the Zetas.

Colom plans to extend troop deployments to other conflict zones in the country, officials say, militarizing the drug war here and reviving the Guatemalan army after 36 years of civil war, decades of human rights abuses and a still-unfinished peace process.

The military operations are the clearest sign yet that as Mexico's wealthy drug mafias spread into Central America, wary but weak governments here are preparing to follow Mexican President Felipe Calderon's U.S.-backed decision to turn the armed forces against the cartels. That strategy has failed to slow the violence in Mexico, which has left more than 34,000 dead in four years.

The move is also likely to renew calls for more U.S. anti-narcotics aid beyond the $250 million allocated to Central America since 2007 as part of the $1.8 billion Merida Initiative, which has mostly targeted Mexico.

Last month, Colom made a remarkable call for a unified counternarcotics force that would set aside nationalist rivalries to combine soldiers from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to retake territory from the expanding crime syndicates.

The Guatemalan president is also asking for help - more money, training, equipment and intelligence - from Mexico and the United States. The U.S. government recently moved helicopters from Colombia to Guatemala to expand operations by the Drug Enforcement Administration.

In the past year, DEA operatives working in Guatemala have sharply curtailed narcotics shipments into the region by air, as armed U.S. agents riding in Huey helicopters have chased down and ambushed smugglers when they attempt to land at clandestine airstrips. The number of known drug shipments arriving in Guatemala by light aircraft dropped from more than 50 to five or six in 2010, according to a U.S. official.

But because of that success, land routes through Guatemala have become even more critical to controlling the flow of narcotics, specifically shipments of South American cocaine bound for the United States, the world's biggest consumer of illegal drugs. The city of Coban and the surrounding Alta Verapaz region sit at the crossroads of many of those smuggling corridors.

U.S. officials say feeble institutions and venal governments make Central America particularly vulnerable to the cartels' wealth and power. In recent years, two of Guatemala's former national police directors have been arrested on corruption charges, along with former president Alfonso Portillo, now on trial facing allegations that he embezzled $15 million.

Cartel unchecked

Before soldiers arrived in Coban in December, the people of this farming town of 80,000 say they were powerless to confront the rapacious outsiders who rode through the streets in shiny new SUVs, brandishing automatic weapons and looking to recruit local talent with fat wads of dollar bills, especially former Guatemalan special-forces soldiers.

"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.

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