Pubdate: Mon, 20 Dec 2010
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2010 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Nicholas Casey


Government Says Northern Province Has Become Overrun By Mexican
Drug-Trafficking Organization

The Guatemalan government declared a state of siege Sunday in a
province it said has become overrun by a Mexican drug-trafficking
group, the latest sign that Mexico's powerful cartels have extended
their reach into foreign lands.

The operation, which the government said would last at least a month,
targets the northern province of Alta Verapaz, which officials
described as a safe haven for Mexico's Los Zetas cartel.

Alta Verapaz shares a border with Mexico and Guatemala's lawless El
Peten jungles, and has long been a transit point for drugs, arms and

The declaration gives broad powers to the Guatemalan military, which
may now detain suspects without warrants, confiscate weapons and break
up groups seen as subversive.

Such measures are normally meant to combat terror groups or
conspiracies against the government.

President Alvaro Colom told a Guatemalan radio station Sunday that the
measures were necessary to make the region governable again and
restore the rule of law, asking for Guatemalans to remain patient.

No major fighting was reported in the province on Sunday and pictures
published by the local press showed armed military men stopping
vehicles in the streets.

The government said Sunday it had searched more than a dozen homes as
offices, as well as all vehicles entering and leaving the province.

The decision of Guatemala to take action against a Mexican
drug-trafficking group shows their presence is growing outside
Mexico's borders and into regions where governments and law
enforcement institutions are even weaker.

In 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderon began an effort to quash
the country's organized-crime groups. The effort, supported by U.S.
aid money, has resulted in the killing of many principal drug kingpins.

"Mexican drug-trafficking groups are simply moving to Guatemala as a
safer place to conduct their operations," says Anita Isaacs, a
political scientist who studies Guatemala at Haverford College.

Ms. Isaacs added that Guatemala's prior ethnic conflicts and weak
judiciary make the country a particularly unstable place, and
therefore ideal for organized crime.

Los Zetas is one of Mexico's most violent drug cartels, a crime group
that was founded in the 1990s after a group of Mexican special-forces
officers defected and joined the country's northern Gulf Cartel.

Authorities say Los Zetas profits from illegal activities besides
drugs, including trafficking of arms and contraband and movement of
immigrants into the U.S.

The group is blamed for the execution of 72 immigrants from Central
and South America on a ranch in northern Mexico this summer, including
a number of Guatemalans.

Authorities say Guatemala is likely home to another powerful Mexican
crime group, the Sinaloa Cartel headed by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.

The presence of two rival drug cartels within Guatemala could set the
stage for similar turf conflicts that have been seen in Mexico in
recent years.

Guatemala's military itself has had a long and documented history of
involvement with organized crime and past corruption may prove a
hurdle as it tries to combat drug traffickers from Mexico, some say.

"Military officers are easily bought off and so are the police," says
Ms. Isaacs. "We have a state where impunity is the order of the day."

Neighboring Mexico's effort to take back lawless areas from drug
cartels using its military has resulted in high levels of casualties
since 2006. Drug related violence has claimed more than 31,000 lives
in recent years, including mayors, law enforcement and even a
gubernatorial candidate. 
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