Reporting on the Mexican Cartel Drug War

Guatemala's bloody battle with Mexican drug cartels

Saturday, November 5, 2011 |

Once civil war was the big threat. But as elections loom, a new scourge takes centre stage...

The text message, translated from its original Spanish, begins with a cheery salutation. "Pay attention, or I will fuck you up, along with your entire family." After several hair-raising paragraphs, it ends with a polite sign-off: "Kindest regards, Z contra el mundo."

Manners are everything when you're writing a good death threat. And this particular specimen, sent not long ago to a human rights activist campaigning against organised crime in Coban, a town just over four hours' drive north of Guatemala City, is a real doozy.

Its recipient, who asks to remain anonymous, can be accurately described as living in fear. How else do you react, when the sender (the "Z" who claims to be ranged "contra el mundo, or "against the world") is Los Zetas, a spectacularly brutal Mexican drug cartel currently expanding its operations south through Central America?

Death threats have lately become a fact of life for the 80,000 citizens of Coban. Five years ago, the bustling market town surrounded by coffee and cardamom plantations was – like most of Guatemala – trying to rebuild in the aftermath of the country's brutal, 35-year civil war, which ended in 1996.

Then the "Narcos" showed up, hoping to seize a region exactly halfway between the world's largest cocaine producer, Colombia, and its biggest market, the US. In short order, Coban found itself on the front line of a spiralling drug war which has now doubled Guatemala's murder rate to five times the global average.

By this year, the Zetas had an estimated 400 members in the region. According to the Institute of Strategic Studies, Coban and its surrounding provinces of Alta Verapaz and El Peten are now part of the 40 per cent of the country where violent gangs, rather than the government, control the levers of power.

Last November, Guatemala's President, Alvaro Colom, declared a two-month "state of siege" in Coban, suspending normal laws and putting the army on the streets. At the time, 20 people a month were being killed, giving it a higher homicide rate than post-invasion Iraq. "Guatemala's security is dying in an intensive care room," he said.

Since then, the bloodletting has slowed a touch. (Between three and eight killings a month is now average.) But this weekend, drug violence in Coban and across the country will nonetheless be front and centre of the country's presidential election.

The ballot should in theory be about trying to improve the economic prospects of a nation where average wages are $8 a day. But it's instead become a game of right-wing one-upmanship between two relative conservatives – Otto Perez Molina and Manuel Baldizon – seeking to secure the law-and-order vote.

In Coban, people talk of little else but crime. "This feels like a lawless country. It's on the verge of becoming a failed state. It could be one already. There's no rule of law," says Lesvia Mus, a social activist meeting colleagues at the town hall. "Rich, poor, young, old, men, women ... everyone's afraid of stray bullets."

Ms. Mus discusses violence with casual anger. It's the dead woman and children who really bother her. Three weeks ago, an entire family was gunned down in broad daylight. A few months earlier, the body of a 25-year-old woman was found, with her teeth pulled out and stones left in their place.

"Since the Zetas came, we've never seen things so bloody," she says, "A friend was in a disco not long ago, and these guys just walked in and started shooting. We always had drug traffickers in the region, but in the past, they never killed civilians. These are different."

For years the remote forests north of Coban have been a favoured location for smugglers to land small planes. But it didn't become a real conflict zone until about 2007, when Mexico's president, Felipe Calderon, launched his "war on drugs" north of the border.

The move, in which dozens of cartel chiefs arrested, has resulted in 40,000 deaths in Mexico alone. But Guatemala is arguably suffering more, as gangs attempt to expand into regions now considered a softer touch than their homeland. "If you're flying drugs up from South America, you land in Guatemala's jungle and break your cargo into packages to move through Mexico," says Duke University professor Hal Brands, the author of Crime, Violence and the Crisis in Guatemala. "Lately, cartels, particularly the Zetas, have been competing with the Guatemalan traffickers they used to co-operate with in the region. They've realised that the more of the supply chain you control, the more money you make."

In Coban, Zeta activities now extend into extortion, prostitution, kidnapping and people smuggling. Police chiefs, politicians and businessmen are reputed to be in their pocket, while prominent locals who stand up to them are killed. One day in May, the regional district attorney, Allan Stowlinsky Vidaurre, seized 52kg of cocaine. The next evening, he was snatched outside his office, at gunpoint, and bundled into a van. At 3am, a car drove into the town centre, dumping two bin liners in the road. One contained his head, the other his torso.

On 17 February, a prominent businessman called Boris Umberto Pinot was training for a half-marathon at a local running track. Two men turned up on a motorcycle. They followed him slowly for two laps, before shooting him. He was apparently targeted for refusing to pay the Zetas "protection money".

High-profile killings have a crippling effect on daily life. You see it in the fear that crosses the brow of locals when a brand new SUV with tinted windows careens through the streets, or in their refusal to mention "Los Zetas" by name (they call them instead "the last letter"), lest they receive a death threat. And you notice it the moment darkness falls, and the busy streets of Coban suddenly empty.

Carlos Enrique Rey, a local fire chief, is picking up the pieces. He's seen traditional duties of putting out fires replaced with the grisly task of clearing bodies from Coban's streets. "It's definitely a nasty part of the job, especially when the dead person is someone you know," he says. "That happens often, as it's a small community."

Carlos Antonio Alvarado Gomez, the region's governor, admits that when he took office two months ago, "armed people were everywhere, there was no control of the state, and it ran the risk of becoming ungovernable". He has since flooded the town with police officers, which has improved things. "In the municipality proper, one does not hear of the group known as Los Zetas roaming the streets with heavy weapons like before."

But across Guatemala, the bloodshed continues. And its effect will be keenly felt on Sunday, the climax of an election dominated by the fact that the country's murder rate has reached 52 homicides per 100,000 citizens a year. (The supposedly lawless Mexico has 18.) In the capital, Guatemala City, the number is 108. Officials for the US Drug Enforcement Agency have described the atmosphere as "something between Al Capone's Chicago and outright war".

The favourite for the presidency, Otto Perez Molina, has duly chosen as his symbol a hammering iron fist. His policies include raising the national security budget from its current $1bn a year (roughly a 10th of the $10bn that drug cartels are believed to generate), and building a new maximum security prison. His rival, Manuel Baldizon, intends to reintroduce the death penalty.

Given the nation's comparative poverty and the vast profits available to anyone prepared to practise extreme violence for drug cartels, few people believe politicians will produce change soon. Instead, they are taking the law into their own hands. Angel Martin Tax, a Coban-based reporter for Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre, says local vigilantes have killed at least 13 suspected gang members of late. "They were beaten to a pulp and then set on fire," he said. "It's brutal, but people are desperate and it's not hard to see why."

By Guy Adams, The Independent, UK

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17 Borderland Beat Comments:

Anonymous said...

'local vigilantes"

Funny how much different it sounds if you use the word "citizens" instead of "vigilantes".

Anonymous said...

Zetas are expanding like a fucken disease...

Anonymous said...

This new generation of zetas are now a bunch of low life, uneducated, undicipline ponk cowards. The originals are either dead in prison or were smart enough to lay low.

Anonymous said...

Good for them....to bad mx couldn't do that.

Anonymous said...

Would any of you people,have the balls to pick up a weapon,and kill people?These motherfuckers target women,might be your wife.These problems are solvable,but it takes a strong man,with the desire to crush these fuckers who don't respect anything,we all know women can be cruel,but not when they are innocent mothers being killed in crossfire,by mistake etc.It can be solved,but in today's POLITICALLY CORRECT phony world,the measures needed would not be allowed

Anonymous said...

All this stems from the USA's war on drugs. I wish people would stop calling it Mexico's war on drugs.

juandos said...

Isn't a 'vigilante' all to often an exasperated citizen doing the work that government should be doing since the government taxed the citizen for it?

"L"B said...

i often wonder how much energy Mexico is spending on controlling their border with Guatamala..probably not much, other than a big show to cover the fact that smugglers are operating with impunity....

sort of like our border with Mexico...a big show at some main checkpoints ...but five miles away ..wide open and business as usual

it is a real stretch to believe that two nations (Mexico and Guatamala) acting together are unable to control a criminal gang...Guatamala is poor...but not Mexico..Mexico has the resources..i am sure the Mexican army could kick the shit out of the Z along that border if they wanted to

here is a wikileaks article about it

http://centerforinvestigativereporting.org/blogpost/20101222wikileaksmexicounabletocontrol039lawless039borderwithguatemala

"L"B said...

los vigilantes...the vigilant ones...

Adj. 1. vigilant vigilant - carefully observant or attentive; on the lookout for possible danger; "a policy of open-eyed awareness"; "the vigilant eye of the town watch";


sounds good to me

Anonymous said...

I live here on the border of mexico on the texas US side. It is not unusual to see five truck suv convoys with limo tint on the windows.
if you are north of the border and don't believe that the US has any problems please follow loredo news online or rio grande valley news online. It is a real eye opener. the amount of executions, high speed drug chases, kidnappings, home invasions is growing in leaps and bounds.

Anonymous said...

Who would have guessed world war III would be about coke, weed, meth and heroin?

Anonymous said...

Why would anyone risk their ass protecting the counrty for such a minute salary? The cartels out number the police in some areas and are better equiped. How do you even begin to deter corruption when the cartels have so much more to offer than the govt? Mexico wants its population to be model citizens and its police force to be heroes... How when most people are broke there and would rather leave? Cops only join the force because it gives them a shot at being recruited by the cartels and they basically have a license to steal in the meantime. Its easy for Calderon and other politicians to sit around and have "good intentions" for the country because they're RICH! Everyone else is living in the real world where its not so easy to have "happy thoughts" and "good intentions". How can these people govern a country when they are so disconnected from the people's reality? I would love to see the rich politicians trade places with a normal citizen, say for instance a street vendor. I bet they would cry themselves to sleep the first night. A month later they too would be finding a way to earn a little more. LOL

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, 11-6-11 2:55 pm

It's about living with honor and fighting evil for your very life. The citizens of Mexico are slaves to corruption and the cartels. Slaves and subjects not citizens. This fight should have been started against government corruption decades ago. These cartels are the fruits of decades of apathy and corruption on part of the Mexican government. Those who would back down from a fight regret it the rest of their lives.

I applaude the Mexican military, while not perfect, from the reports on this site they are having a series of successes and the citizens of Mexico have a degree of confidence in them.

Anonymous said...

"November 6, 2011 6:16 AM"...I completely agree with you,the basic problem in a few words.Bitch about Cartels all we want,but when you are dirt poor with no prospects to live and enjoy life,what else can you do.We need to put more effort into creating jobs,opportunities,training,we know its not easy,but what is in place now?Not only are the young willing to join cartels,but are eager,"fuck the world that doesn't give a fuck about me".Disenfranchised, no hope young men and women,is it any wonder they turn to a life like this?

Anonymous said...

10:58 makes a very good point. I remember 30 years ago in TX around Christmas time, walking in a sleet storm with rolled pennies to a Kmart to buy tights and no one stopped to offer me a ride, not even the Arlington PD. I was very angry. Angry even more that each of the six rolls of pennies, I had to put my name address, and phone number, like I was going to rip them off for a few cents. I made up a number because I had no phone.Difference for me was the tights I bought allowed me to start a new job that evening, so circumstances changed for me immediately and I was able to move on from there.

Many areas in MX, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras are gray areas, influenced by the anger of the young being shamed and no other job opportunities available for even the adult of the highest character.

It influences everyone

It's especially tough now that the tourist trade has waned.

There are other options available if security was greater and the networks for transporting legal goods (especially niche produce, local coop artisan goods, etc.) were more fair with a middle man and the government or more safe for an independent producer or coop to carry on their own to market.

Everything is woven together, even in the US. It's just not so apparent there right now.

Anonymous said...

Why would risk their lives? Military is mandatory. The best people I have known in the MX military become taxistas and wow, what tales they can tell, but they don't, because the good guys try to keep their cargo safe, as they were trained,yet they still fall victim. They deserve a better tribute.

Here's a prayer and blessing to all of the good taxistas, and thank you for always keeping me safe.

And thank you so much for spending the time to teach me more Spanish and especially for correcting my improper Spanish.

Anonymous said...

@2:34 am, yes the best taxistas used to hold military power. They do tell stories, but quietly.

Many ask me, "?Que parte de Mexico es alla en tu puente?"

Does anyone here on this forum remember the 10 years of spring in Guatemala? Where poets and scholars were free to speak?

Now the military general coming back as the president and I pray his age has made him a peaceful man, kind of like Robert McNamara.

McNamara saw the evil ways of his younger ways and now tries to make peace.

Kudos to the prayer. I will say something similar before going to sleep tonight.

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