Pubdate: Thu, 4 Jun 2009
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Page: Front Page
Copyright: 2009 Los Angeles Times
Author: Ken Ellingwood, Reporting from Amatitlan, Guatemala

Mexico Under Siege


Under Pressure at Home, Traffickers Find Fertile Ground for Expansion 
in the Neighboring Nation.

Twice before, the anti-drug agents had gotten a tip about a load of 
cocaine at the hulking industrial park on this dreary stretch of 
highway half an hour outside Guatemala City. Twice before, a U.S. 
official said, they had found nothing.

On their third visit, they found a firing squad.

Gunmen unleashed a furious barrage of bullets and at least one 
grenade, in some cases finishing the job point-blank. When the 
shooting stopped that day in April, five of the 10 Guatemalan agents 
lay dead and a sixth was wounded.

The fleeing killers, identified by authorities as members of the 
Mexican drug gang known as the Zetas, left behind a cargo truck 
packed with 700 pounds of cocaine. More stunning was the cache found 
in a brick warehouse: 11 M-60 machine guns, eight Claymore mines, a 
Chinese-made antitank rocket, more than 500 grenades, commando 
uniforms, bulletproof vests and thousands of rounds of ammunition.

"They were preparing for war," said the adjunct director of the 
National Civilian Police, Rember Larios.

As Mexican President Felipe Calderon presses a 2 1/2 -year-old 
offensive against narcotics traffickers in his country, the war has 
spilled south into Guatemala, where proximity, weak law enforcement 
and deeply rooted corruption provide fertile ground for Mexico's 
gangs, say officials and analysts in the region.

During the last year and a half, the Zetas have carved a bloody trail 
across Guatemala's northern and eastern provinces. More than 6,000 
people were slain in Guatemala in 2008. Police say most of the 
killings were linked to the drug trade.

As the recent blood bath shows, the violence is now threatening the 
capital, deep in the interior.

Authorities say Mexican drug gangs, primarily the Zetas and rivals 
from the state of Sinaloa, are ramping up operations in Central 
America to evade increased marine patrols near Mexico as they relay 
drug shipments to the United States and Europe.

The gangs are also ferrying military-style weapons north into Mexico 
to fight Calderon's forces and opposing gangsters while also vying to 
take over street sales in Guatemala. Some of the weapons are left 
over from the wars that the United States helped fight in Central 
America -- including here in Guatemala, which is still recovering 
from its 36-year civil war.

"They're looking for new areas," said the U.S. official, who spoke on 
condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to comment on the 
matter. "They need a place where they can operate with impunity."

Since January 2008, Guatemalan police have arrested about 30 suspects 
who they said were working for the Zetas, the armed wing of the 
so-called Gulf cartel, based in northeastern Mexico.

The Zetas, formed in the 1990s from former Mexican special forces, 
have shaken Mexico in recent years through hundreds of well-planned 
killings and an expanding reach. The group has decapitated numerous 
rivals, dumping the heads in public places with menacing messages.

Authorities on Edge

The spreading influence of Mexican traffickers has Guatemalan 
authorities on edge and is beginning to stir concern in Washington 
that powerful drug gangs could imperil fragile Guatemala and its weak 
neighbor, Honduras.

U.S. Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) urged Secretary of State Hillary 
Rodham Clinton last month to steer more law-enforcement help to 
Guatemala, warning that it is even weaker than Mexico.

"It is essential that we view our efforts to combat drugs and 
violence in the Western Hemisphere in a more holistic way," said 
Engel, who chairs the Western Hemisphere subcommittee of the House 
Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Guatemalan police commanders say their 20,000 officers cannot match 
the firepower of the Mexican traffickers, who have made growing use 
in Mexico of military-type arms, such as 40-millimeter grenades and 
.50-caliber rifles capable of piercing armor.

Recent seizures in Guatemala have yielded similar weapons. "These are 
things we have seen only in photos of Iraq and the Gulf," said 
Larios, the police commander. "Not in Guatemala."

But devising a response is complicated by Guatemala's troubled past. 
The memory of the army's brutal conduct during the civil war means 
that it would be politically dicey for Guatemalan leaders to respond 
by mobilizing the military, as Calderon has done in Mexico.

Guatemala's army, which once ran the country, has been reined in 
since the 1996 peace accords, and many residents and human rights 
activists would be loath to lend it broad policing power. The 
military is summoned to back up civilian police and patrol distant reaches.

Foreign traffickers have long operated in Guatemala with the help of 
local smugglers. During the 1980s and early '90s, Colombian drug 
lords controlled the northbound pipeline for contraband, but 
Guatemalan and Mexican traffickers later took over.

Sinaloa-based kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, now Mexico's 
most-wanted drug suspect, was arrested in Guatemala in 1993. He was 
extradited to Mexico, but escaped from prison in 2001.

But Calderon's war on drug cartels in Mexico is creating a new wave. 
Pressured in Mexico, traffickers are shifting to Guatemala to store 
and repackage drugs, stockpile weapons and hide drug money, experts say.

U.S. officials say they believe more drugs are moving through 
Guatemala than before Calderon's crackdown. A recent analysis by 
Alberto Islas, a security specialist in Mexico, found foreign 
reserves in Guatemala's central bank growing robustly, despite 
economic troubles and falling transfers from Guatemalans abroad -- a 
sign that crime groups are parking money here.

The Zetas, who have reportedly gotten help from Guatemalan former 
special forces known as Kaibiles, have announced their presence with 
spectacular violence.

In November, a gun battle between trafficking gangs in the 
northwestern province of Huehuetenango, apparently over a disputed 
horse-race wager, left at least 17 people dead. Officials say the 
real toll may have been twice that, but many bodies apparently were 
hauled off before police arrived.

Several months earlier, in March, 11 people were killed when Zeta 
gunmen ambushed a suspected Guatemalan trafficker, Juan Jose 
"Juancho" Leon, and bodyguards at a swimming pool in the eastern 
province of Zacapa.

Guatemalan police say the high-profile arrests of a suspected 
top-ranking Zeta commander, Daniel Perez Rojas, and others show that 
the government of President Alvaro Colom is clamping down on drug trafficking.

They cite as evidence a jump in drug and weapons seizures since 
January 2008, when Colom took office. So far this year, authorities 
say, they have captured close to $2 billion worth of contraband and 
cash, roughly triple the figure for all of 2007, officials said.

"[Colom] has ordered a full-frontal attack against all organized 
crime, especially drug trafficking," said Roberto Solorzano, vice 
minister for public security in the Interior Ministry.

Nonetheless, unproven charges of drug ties have swirled around Colom, 
a left-leaning former businessman, since the 2007 presidential 
campaign. A Guatemala City attorney, Rodrigo Rosenberg, created a 
scandal when he charged last month that the president's inner circle 
was using the nation's rural-development bank, Banrural, to launder 
money. The videotaped allegations came out a day after Rosenberg was 
shot dead by unidentified assailants.

Many analysts say drug gangs, unchecked, could turn Guatemala into a 
full-fledged narco-state.

Despite efforts to clean up police forces, the criminal-justice 
system in Guatemala is rife with corruption and deeply mistrusted. 
Banking oversight is lax. And persistent poverty means a ready supply 
of potential helpers for the cash-rich drug gangs.

Already, traffickers operate freely in rural stretches nearest 
Mexico: building secret airstrips in the northern province of Peten 
to ferry shipments of cocaine, paying small-time farmers to grow 
poppy and moving contraband across the porous frontier into Mexico.

"If you can say Mexico is a failed state, Guatemala is worse," said 
Mario Merida, a security analyst and columnist in Guatemala City.

Fight for Dominance

The battle among drug gangs to dominate smuggling and local sales has 
increased violence that was already at epidemic levels in Guatemala, 
officials and analysts say.

The rising drug violence has added to an overall sense of insecurity 
in the capital, where armed guards stand outside many businesses and 
residents say they are afraid to venture out at night.

In one suspected drug hit recently, gunmen in Guatemala City 
methodically stopped traffic and then opened fire on a woman in a 
car. Investigators found 79 spent shells at the death scene, 
including from an 8.6-millimeter rifle, often used by snipers.

Solorzano, the Interior Ministry official, said Guatemalan leaders 
are honing a new request for U.S. aid to train and equip police for 
fighting drug gangs. His country last year was allotted $10.6 million 
as a first installment of the so-called Merida Initiative, the lion's 
share of which is destined for Mexico: $1.4 billion over three years. 
Guatemala will receive a portion of $105 million approved for Central 
America this year.

While they wait for assistance, Guatemalan officials brace for more 
violence from Mexican traffickers.

The jitters are on display at the Guatemala City prison where Perez 
and the other suspected Zeta gunmen are held. Helmeted soldiers and 
special forces police in black berets guard the crumbling road 
leading to the main gate. Troops hide in the bushes on the steep 
hillside above it. Armored military vehicles, with .50-caliber 
machine guns front and back, make constant passes.

But perhaps the authorities' most eloquent sign of worry about a mass 
breakout sits outside the entrance. It is a mobile antiaircraft gun, 
placed there in case Mexican gangsters swoop down from the sky. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake