By Nicholas Casey
Wall Street Journal
Guatemalan soldiers searched Tuesday for the culprits of a massacre in a remote province after the country's president declared a state of siege there, a sign that Guatemala is escalating its own war against drug traffickers as violence spills over from Mexico.
The measures came the day after authorities blamed a Mexican drug cartel called Los Zetas for killing and decapitating 27 people in the remote El Petén province. Under the state of siege, security forces may conduct searches and make arrests without warrants, confiscate weapons and break up groups seen as subversive.
"Guatemala must take on this aggression, aggression which is not just aimed at this country, but also at the entire region," President Álvaro Colom said in a televised speech announcing the state of siege. In an interview with local radio, the president promised to make "important arrests" related to the massacre in the next 48 hours.
Photographs published by the local press showed a military tank in the El Petén town of Santa Elena as camouflaged soldiers patrolled a nearby street.
The moves marked the second time in recent months that Mr. Colom declared a state of siege in efforts to combat Mexican traffickers, suggesting Guatemala could be gearing up for the kind of fight against gangs that Mexico began in 2006. In that time, nearly 40,000 people have died in drug-related violence in Mexico.
In December, Mr. Colom ordered 600 soldiers into the central Alta Verapaz province where he said outside drug groups were beginning to operate. The operation ended in February.
Sandino Asturias, a security expert in Guatemala City, warned that El Petén is a far larger and more unstable region than Alta Verapaz, something that could complicate the security forces' chances of success there. He said warrantless searches and detentions also mean prosecutors often lack evidence when it comes time to prosecute suspected drug traffickers. "The state of siege is not the solution," he said.
El Petén has long been a hot spot for drug trafficking, say Guatemalan and U.S. authorities, a remote jungle area in the country's north, home to few security forces or major cities. In recent years, many airstrips and abandoned planes have been found in the region, suspected to be involved in trafficking from Colombia and Venezuela.
Its border with Mexico is largely unpatrolled, making it a prime point for human trafficking, another racket of organized crime groups. On Tuesday, Mexican authorities said they had detained 513 immigrants, many from Central America, on the Mexican side of the border being held in "inhuman conditions" inside a U.S.-bound tractor trailer.
The area is also key to Guatemalan tourism, the home of the popular Mayan ruins like Tikal.
The Sunday killings rocked Guatemala, a violent country, but one where such massacres are rare. Most of the victims had worked as day laborers in a dairy ranch known as "Los Cocos," according to news reports, and the perpetrators had written messages in blood that they were looking for the ranch owner.
As Mexico has stepped up its crackdown against its own drug cartels, experts say they have expanded their operations into neighboring Guatemala.
"Guatemala possesses many essential features of an ideal transshipment point…accessibility by drug trafficking organizations via air and sea; weak public institutions; endemic corruption; and vast ungoverned spaces along its borders," according to a 2011 State Department report on drugs.