Pubdate: Wed, 22 Jun 2011
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author Nicholas Casey


Los Zetas Extend Brutal Reign South, As U.S. To Offer More Antidrug Aid

SANTA ELENA, Guatemala-El Peten province, a vast stretch of wilderness
in northern Guatemala known for its rainforests and stunning Mayan
pyramids at Tikal, is fast becoming a stronghold for a notoriously
bloodthirsty Mexican cartel.

Last month, soldiers entered a cattle ranch in El Peten to find the
remains of a brutal human slaughter: Twenty-seven bodies strewn across
the property and a pile of heads thrown over a fence. On a wall was a
message written in blood and signed "Z200," a moniker authorities say
belongs to a local wing of Mexico's Los Zetas.

Authorities said the massacre at Los Cocos ranch, which included two
women, was the nation's largest since its 36-year civil war ended in

The growing presence is a topic high on the minds of U.S. leaders, who
claim more than 60% of cocaine bound to their country passes through
Guatemala. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is
set to lead talks in Guatemala City with Central American leaders on
how the U.S. can better assist them against drug traffickers.

Even as Mexico's government struggles to contain violence from drug
gangs fighting for turf, the country's crackdown on organized crime
appears to be causing some groups, particularly the Zetas, to eye
Latin American spots where jungles are vast, borders are porous and
the rule of law is even weaker.

Experts in organized crime call it the "balloon effect." When a
government begins to crack down on the drugs trade in one area, the
criminals merely set up shop in another area where they may be less
threatened-much like air moves in a half-filled balloon when a hand
squeezes it.

The Zetas presence here has become so strong that late last year the
government imposed military law in the central province of Alta
Verapaz for several months. Last month, the government did the same in
El Peten, which sits at the foot of Mexico's border.

El Peten-an area about the size of Maryland that covers a third of
Guatemala-is an ideal place for illicit work. Long nicknamed
Guatemala's "Wild West," the province is home to just a half-million
people and is the kind of place where signs ask patrons at bars to
leave firearms outside. Local drug runners started the business here
years ago by setting up clandestine runways, infrastructure that the
Zetas are believed to use too.

"This is a place where the state government in Guatemala City is
exceptionally weak," said Anita Isaacs, a Guatemala expert at
Haverford College.

Gabriel Gamez of ProPeten, a development nonprofit, said his group has
had to deal with drug traffickers in the past, but the Zetas seem to
present a larger threat. In the past, the organization has worked with
villages to set up artisan cooperatives or sustainable farming. But he
says this year he has received reports of community leaders being
threatened or killed by Zetas. It has created a situation where "there
are towns we can no longer work in safely," he says.

Many of Mexico's main cartels manage not only a narcotics business,
but also parts of the country where a mix of good works and terror
tactics provide a stronghold and safe zone. The Sinaloa cartel, for
instance, is most secure in its home base of Sinaloa.

The Zetas, a gang founded by ex-military men who defected in the
1990s, are a relative upstart with shallow ties to any community. In
its home state of Tamaulipas, the gang is locked in a bloody war
against its former ally the Gulf Cartel.

The Peten could provide a type of haven the Zetas lack back home. "Not
only are the Zetas here, but they build schools, put in a clinic,
build a well, build a road" to gain local support, Mr. Gamez said.
"The population sees them as heroes."

Guatemala's government, which suffers from one of the lowest tax takes
and highest level of corruption in the region, says it has few
resources to deploy. "We hardly have the strength," laments Attorney
General Claudia Paz, in an interview.

One example often cited here: As part of demilitarization after its
36-year civil war, Guatemala dismissed some 11,000 soldiers in 2004,
forces the government now says would help it fight drug traffickers.
Worse, residents in El Peten say many of the laid-off soldiers have
since been recruited by Zetas.

The U.S. State Department cites its own efforts to help Guatemalans
fight drug traffickers like the Zetas. In 2010, Central American
countries received roughly $95 million in assistance, with the largest
part going to Guatemala. "The U.S. government recognizes the
significant threats to citizen safety present in Guatemala," the
statement said.

In El Peten, residents are becoming accustomed to types of drug
violence that were once only common in Mexico. Beheadings, a
widespread practice among Mexican drug cartels, are part of the
Guatemalan news cycle now.

"There will be no more rule of law, other than the law of Zetas [in El
Peten]," said Antonio Luigi Mazzitelli, who heads the United Nations
Office on Drugs and Crime's field office for Mexico, Central America
and the Caribbean.

In Poptun, a humid town near the border of Belize, a retired priest
named Salvador Cutzal said Zetas have begun hanging "narco-mantas" or
"drug banners," the same kind of messages regularly hung in public
squares in Mexico to claim territory and threaten rivals.

Recently, Mr. Cutzal said a man he believed to be a Zeta member was
arrested with a cache of assault rifles. Soon afterward, he said a
messenger from the group asked Mr. Cutzal, who is well known in the
indigenous community, for what he called "a letter of recommendation"
for bail proceedings. Mr. Cutzal turned the messenger down, but fears
retaliation. "You're damned if you do, and damned if you don't," he

In an interview earlier this year, Guatemala's Interior Minister
Carlos Menocal, who didn't respond to recent interview requests,
singled out El Peten as a success story for the country. He said the
government reclaimed some 40,000 acres of ranches controlled by crime

Yet the killings at Los Cocos ranch tell a different story. The events
began several weeks back after a group of Zetas kidnapped three family
members of the ranch's owner Otto Salguero, said Ms. Paz, the attorney
general. Mr. Salguero had arranged to pay a ransom of about $50,000 to
the kidnappers, but later fled without paying. The kidnappers killed
the relatives and then a group of Zetas came looking for Mr. Salguero,
massacring his employees when they couldn't find him, Ms. Paz said.

Military and police arrived some hours later and found cadavers in the
fields and in worker's bunks nearby, said Col. Rony Urizar, a
spokesman for Guatemala's military.

Soldiers thought the assailants headed for the Mexican border, though
an effort to track them by air turned up nothing. Nearby security
forces found what was believed to be a Zetas encampment with a cache
of AK-47 assault rifles and police uniforms, possibly used as disguises.

Since the attack, several "narco-manta" bed-sheets were found
throughout Guatemala signed by the Zetas. The messages warned that the
perpetrators would keep looking for Mr. Salguero, whose whereabouts
remain unknown. 
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jo-D