Guatemala, in the Sights of the Zetas

By  |  29 / September / 2010

This post is also available in: Spanish

This is the second report on the penetration of Mexican drug cartels in Central America and the conditions that have permitted them, in this case in Guatemala.

In 2008, the president of the United Nations-created International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), Carlos Castresana, warned that if nothing was done to stop the penetration of Mexican drug cartels, in two years “they could take Guatemala City”.

Castresana, a renowned Spanish jurist, issued the warning to the Central American country in a press conference, in which he urged Guatemala to modernize their security system. Guatemala suffered civil wars throughout the second half of the 20th century that left 200,000 dead, and has not yet recovered economically or socially. Severe conditions of insecurity and poverty continue to plague the nation.

“The security system is a remnant of the 19th century, while organized crime operates with 21st century technology,” lamented the UN representative.

Castresana recommended that Guatemalan authorities construct maximum-security prisons and make changes to the justice system to take advantage of wire-tapping. He also warned that the Mexican Drug-Trafficking Organization known as the Zetas pose the greatest threat in Guatemala.

Less than two years later, Castresana became a victim of the poisonous climate that has taken over the highest Guatemalan political spheres. On June 8, 2010 he resigned, after accusing the then-recently appointed Guatemalan Attorney General, Conrado Reyes, of being in league with illegal organizations and hindering the fight against impunity after he dismantled the special CICIG prosecution team.

Rampant Insecurity

Guatemala is located in a region that suffers from one of the most unequal distributions of income in the world, comparable only to southern Africa or the Andean countries, according to the World Drug Report 2010, released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Its provinces are key ports for drug traffickers, with great strategic value for drug trafficking. In particular, the mostly rural and indigenous department of Petén and the Department of Escuintla located in the Sierra Madres range are regions fought over by drug gangs. The report signaled that jungle landing strips there provide easy access to the Mexican border.

Crime is rampant in this Central American country. The Report on Crime and Development in Central America, published in 2007 by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, cites a World Bank poll conducted among companies from 53 countries; the investigation reveals that in Guatemala businesses rate crime as the most significant obstacle to achieving development.

“Forty-two percent of Guatemalan companies polled reported direct losses from crime, compared to an unweighted global average of 25%, placing it fourth of the 53 countries in this regard,” the report notes.

Another discouraging fact: in another poll, the Guatemalan police are perceived as the most corrupt sector of the government.

Thirty-nine out of every 100 Guatemalans consider crime to be the most important issue to resolve, according to the 2005 Latinobarometer, an opinion poll of 17 Latin American countries including Guatemala.

Zetas and Kaibiles United

As in Honduras, Guatemala has suffered the increasing presence of the drug trade within its borders over the last few years.

In Guatemala, the Zetas have established criminal activities in many parts of the country. This notoriously brutal group made up the armed wing of the Gulf Cartel until a year ago, when they split from the Gulf Cartel to form their own Drug-Trafficking Organization under the command of the Mexican ex-military Heriberto Lazcano, “El Lazca”.

On April 23rd 2008, the Mexican news site Esmas reported that pirate radio stations were broadcasting announcements to recruit former Kaibiles, members of the old elite Guatemalan military guard, into the ranks of the cartels. The Kaibiles were founded in 1974 and received training from the U.S. government. Infamous for their cruel and bloody methods and anti-guerrilla tactics, they now constitute a coveted source of highly trained, disciplined and ruthless individuals for organized crime recruiters.  The Commission for Historical Clarification, established by the United Nations, has documented the numerous abuses of human rights carried out by the Kaibiles. Among other violations, its investigations concluded that Kaibil units participated in the slaughter of civilians, including in Las Dos Erres, in the province of Petén in 1982, which left 251 community members dead.

In 2006 journalist Ricardo Ravelo wrote in his book, “The Narco Lawyers”, that the Golf Cartel had begun recruitment of Kaibiles in 2005 to compete with the cruelty of members of the Mara hired by Édgar Valdez Villareal. Valdez Villareal–“La Barbie”– who recently turned himself in to authorities in Mexico, then worked for the Zeta’s arch-rival, the Sinaloa Cartel and was the confidence man of the Beltran Leyva brothers, who were at the height of their power alongside Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

More evidence of the close ties that existed between the Zetas and the Kaibiles was published in March last year, after a military training camp was discovered by the Guatemalan authorities and the DEA in El Quiche, Guatemala, near the border with Mexico. Operated by the Zetas, an illegal landing strip and an arsenal of grenades, rifles, and munitions were also discovered in the region.

A month later, after a shootout in the Central American capital, antinarcotics agents confiscated thousands of bombs and hundreds of grenades belonging to the Zetas that had been for the exclusive use of the Guatemalan army.

According to reports, some of the former Mexican army officers that joined the ranks of the Zetas received training from the Kaibiles. This information seems to confirm collaboration between the former militaries of both countries.

An article published in November 2009 by the news portal Cinco de Septiembre, reported that the Zetas have been working in the village of Santa Teresa, in the municipality of Nentón, in Guatemala. There they receive and guard shipments of drugs and arms and protect those who transport the merchandise to Mexico. According to the news site, the region is an hour from the border with Mexico, where there are 40 illegal border crossings. The vehicles of the criminal gang, armored and carrying weapons, arrive from Mexico. In November 2009, twelve Zeta security houses were found in the village, reported the news site.

An article published on July 17, 2010 in the New York Times, provided another example of the arrival and gradual consolidation of Zeta activities within Guatemalan territory.  The article reported that the Maya Biosphere Reserve, the largest protected natural area in Central America, suffers from deforestation, coordinated by criminals and drug traffickers to clear land and plant drug crops.

The same article added that the U.S. State Department reported that large parts of the region of Petén, near the border with Mexico, are practically under the control of the Zetas.

The Enemy Within

The Guatemalan police force has also been penetrated by organized crime.  On April 13 this year, members of the National Civil Police were detained for sending messages to the Zetas about security operations, reported CNN Mexico.

Previously, in March 2010, the Director General of the Police, Baltazar Gómez, was apprehended for his responsibility in the suspected theft of a drug seizure and complicity with the Zetas.

In Guatemala, suspicion that corruption permeates to the highest authorities caused the fall of the Attorney General of the government of Alvara Colom, Conrado Reyes, who was dismissed from his post on June 10 this year. Reyes had been accused by Carlos Castresana, former head of the CICIG, of being appointed by President Alvaro Colom as part of “an agreement among lawyers with ties to illegal adoptions and drug trafficking”, reported the Mexican newspaper Reforma on June 11, 2010.

The fall of the Attorney General occurred the same day that four heads were found in different locations throughout the Guatemalan capital. The discovery was described as unprecedented, and was attributed to drug gangs by the spokesperson of the National Civil Police, Donald González.

“This is obviously a reaction by the Zetas and other narcotics gangs. It is a subliminal messaging strategy of organized crime,” said the official, according to the newspaper.

This was not the first scandal committed by a high official in the Guatemalan police. On November 16, 2005, the Director of the Narcotics Investigation and Analysis Service (SAIA), Adán Castillo, was detained, along with his assistant and other researchers, upon their arrival in the U.S. state of Virginia. He had been the principal investigator of illegal narcotic trafficking in Central American countries. He went to the United States to attend an anti-drug seminar. Unknown to him, he was already under suspicion of taking advantage of his position and conspiring to smuggle drugs into the United States.

Interestingly, only weeks before, Castillo had threatened to resign if he did not receive more government support, and criticized government corruption.

After his arrest, cocaine and cash were seized from his office. Nineteen packages were found, of which two were cocaine and the rest were lidocaine, a substance used to cut cocaine. The authorities also reported the discovery of $23, 000 dollars.

Sadly, the SAIA was the successor to the Department of Anti-Narcotics Operations, which folded due to corruption in 2003 after several of its members were accused of stealing drugs seized by police, according to the UN report cited above.

A slew of other officials have been accused of illegal activities related to drug trafficking. Two former members of the Intelligence Service, Manuel Antonio Callejas and Francisco Ortega Menaldo, had their U.S. travel visas revoked after being accused of trafficking drugs, according to the UNODC report.

Another incident occurred on February 19, 2007, when three Salvadorian representatives of the Central American Parliament were gunned down, after changing routes for no apparent reason. An investigation of the incident reported that, among the killers was the then-chief of the Criminal Investigations Unit of Guatemala, Luis Arturo Herrera López, and three of his employees, stated El Nuevo Diario. According to the testimony of one of these men, their intention was to take cocaine valued at five million dollars from the vehicle. When they did not find it, they killed and burned the bodies of the three men, reported the same newspaper in another article four days later.

The public employees were killed after being taken to prison, before they could provide more information.

Guatemalan judges have also been linked to the drug trade. In 2001, Judge Delmi Castañeda accepted thousands of dollars to look the other way on a case against drug traffickers.  The relationship between the judge and members of organized crime was so close that she even transported the drug-traffickers in her own car.  She lost her position but was not prosecuted, reported The New York Times on January 30, 2003. That year the Central American country was “decertified” by the U.S. government in its war against drug trafficking.

Then President Alfonso Portillo (2000-2004) was accused of money laundering years later. He has been in prison since January, at the request of the United States, the country that accused him of laundering $70 million dollars.

One of the Zetas in prison in Guatemala is a Mexican, Daniel Pérez Rojas, alias “El Cachetes”, who was imprisoned in 2008 and is serving two sentences. Once he serves his sentences, he will be extradited to Mexico, despite the resources that were put up in his defense.

More Seizures

In October 2009, Guatemalan president Álvaro Colom calculated that by the end of that year seizures of all types of drugs would total eight thousand kilograms, a quantity similar to that of 2003, according to the Guatemalan radio station La Primerísima. A 2009 report by the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) concludes that in 2008 Guatemala confiscated two thousand kilograms of cocaine.

In addition to cocaine, the chemical components of methamphetamines are also smuggled into Mexico, which has become a regional leader in the production of illegal amphetamines.  This was also reported in the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board World Drug Report 2009. The report added that in 2008, 990 thousand pseudoephedrine pills were seized in Guatemala.

The same document signals that opium and heroin trafficking has grown appreciably and, according to Guatemalan authorities, this is related to the establishment of the Zetas.  In 2008 they reported that the government of Guatemala seized 300 million poppy plants and 10 kilograms of heroin.

All indications signal a growing drug trade in Guatemala. The power of transnational organized crime is both a symptom and a cause of the weakness of the state–a situation inherited from the time of armed conflict in the country. In addition, the penetration of the Zetas in Guatemala reflects the fact that, four years since the beginning of the “war on drugs” in Mexico, organized crime not only shows no signs of weakening, but it is extending its tentacles throughout the region, representing greater risks for impoverished countries with poor security infrastructure such as Guatemala.


Marco Antonio Martínez García is a Mexican journalist and contributor to the CIP Americas Program.

Translated by: Erin Jonasson