Cyber Security and Emerging Threats Kavita Bapat

Guatemala: Central America’s Most Tormented Nation II

By: Kavita Bapat

The advancements to the drug trade made by the Mexican Zeta cartel in Guatemala have turned the nation into more than just a way station for drugs travelling from Colombia to the US. Guatemala is increasingly becoming a storehouse and staging area for drugs awaiting safe passage into Mexico. Although military rule has ended in Guatemala, human rights activists say that it remains a country where justice is “subject to the law of ‘plata or plomo;’ bribes or bullets.” Mario Polanco of the Grupo de Apoyo Muto (Mutual Support Group), a human rights organization that tracks homicide, claims that although measures taken by the police, judges, and prosecutors are admirable they have not stopped mass murders in Guatemala because “the fundamental reason behind all violence is the weakness of the state.”

In fact, most analysts point to institutional weakness rather than geography as the primary reason that Guatemala has become crucial to the drug trade. Though internal conflict no longer exists and hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid have been spent in the country, its leaders have not been able to fortify the state’s judicial and political institutions. According to analysts at the International Crisis Group (ICG) on Latin America, much of this inability can be credited to the nation’s history. Up until the 1990s, the military was considered the “spinal column of the government, supervising not only internal security but also operations ranging from customs and border control to civic action and vaccinations.” This led to an authoritarian state that was institutionally weak and rife with military brutality. Due to international oversight and pressure, three democratically-elected governments were able to negotiate a series of peace accords with guerilla forces from 1990-1996, culminating in the final “Accord for a Firm and Lasting Peace.”

The 1996 Peace Accord included an ambitious agenda for civilian empowerment and military reform. Regarding an increase in police troop numbers, the requirements outlined by the Accord have been fulfilled. Despite these increases, however, Guatemala’s police force remains small relative to its population. Moreover, 15 years later, foreign assistance to Guatemala has not been able to significantly bolster rule of law in the state. Violence continues to increase, as the state has not yet devised a national action plan to fight crime. Thus, current US and European bi-lateral and multi-lateral assistance to Central America remains focussed on justice and security sector reforms laid out in the peace accords. According to long-time human rights activist Helen Mack, appointed to lead a police reform commission in Guatemala, one of the main hurdles of security sector reform in the state is “the professional, multi-ethnic police force envisioned in the peace accords.” Mack claims that this is far from reality as “the indigenous communities speak over twenty Mayan languages plus a non-Mayan language (Garifuna) on the Caribbean coast,” posing significant difficulties to forming a strong unified national police force.

Mario Merida, the former director of military intelligence in Guatemala claimed that the national police (PNC) in key border areas “do not have enough resources or vehicles to get to remote areas where criminal activity takes place.” According to Merida, even if they managed to reach the remote areas, it would be difficult to interview the inhabitants effectively “for lack of translators proficient in local languages.” The PNC have also received many complaints over the past year that compared to the criminals they are battling, they pack little firepower. At present, the majority of the force carries standard issue revolvers, though some have automatic weapons. Traffickers, aware of the PNC’s arms deficit, flaunted their superior force in a November 2010 shoot-out in Salama, just one month before authorities declared a state of siege in the neighbouring Alta Verapaz province. The operation was marginally successful in reducing available arms in the region. Just two months after the state of siege ended, however, traffickers were seen driving around with their weapons on display once again, according to residents and local police. Merida claims that “money, firepower, and mobility- especially the ability to disperse and regroup quickly” give traffickers an inevitable advantage over the PNC.

Similar stories have been told by residents and police near the north-eastern coast of Guatemala. In these places public opinion surveys found that civilians feel the PNC’s greatest disadvantage is “the widespread distrust felt toward law enforcement by the population.” In fact, analysts claim that the PNC’s image problem “deprives it of a vital law enforcement tool, citizen cooperation.” Police themselves have acknowledged that Guatemalan people have reason to fear cooperating with the state’s law enforcement mechanisms, as drug cartels have been known to terrorize those who cooperate.

The general lack of trust between the public and government institutions also weakens the power and work of prosecutors. A prosecutor from the Guatemalan city of Coban said that his business office had “heard rumours that traffickers were extorting local businessmen” but he could not “confirm such tips without community collaboration.” Moreover, the prosecutor claimed that he was “terrified that there might be people here who know or work with the Zetas. But if I suspect someone, how can I prove it and not threaten my own livelihood?” Prosecutors argue that new tools such as greater access to wire taps and DNA analysis have helped solve crimes that would have been virtually impossible to investigate otherwise. Similar to the police however, the prosecutor’s office suffers from a lack of resources. In spite of increasing levels of drug-related violence, most prosecutors are not provided with much security. A prosecutor in Coban claimed that the office of public prosecutors had requested an increase in police protection to no avail as “local forces were already stretched providing security to government officials and politicians.” On 24 May 2011 the fears of most prosecutors became a reality when the dismembered remains of an auxiliary prosecutor were found in downtown Coban. Extra security was provided to the offices in the Alta Verapaz region following the attack; however, Attorney General Paz y Paz’s formal requests for an increase in funding to keep prosecutors safe in other high-risk regions have still not been met. Furthermore, Paz y Paz fears she may have to cut employee salaries as “even though there are increased security challenges, the budget for prosecutors decreased from 2010 to 2011.”

Outside of formal state laws, drug traffickers implement agreements and contracts through force by maintaining cadres of “sicarios” (hitmen). Even civilians in localities that have benefitted economically from the drug trade have expressed concern about its impact on society. However, arresting high-profile offenders and traffickers in such localities is made more difficult as the authorities depend largely on small, vetted teams monitored and funded by donors. As some donors admit, however, such units cannot reform the rule of law and administration of justice by themselves. According to one foreign official, “if you do it right with the right interventions, you can have an impact. But it’s a pinprick.” Still, Guatemalan trafficking organizations have suffered more drug-related arrests over the past year than in the previous two decades. It remains unclear, however, if any of these arrests have had a noteworthy impact on the business of money laundering or drug smuggling.

Additionally, authorities have failed to dismantle the various networks of public officials and police protecting the drug traffickers. Former Guatemalan Foreign Minister Edgar Gutierrez claims that authorities have not even touched the “‘Los Tumbles’ (drug heists) cartel, whose members are police and agents who specialize in robbing narcotics shipments.” The intensity of police corruption became evident in March 2010, when officials arrested the Guatemalan Chief of Police and head of the Anti-Narcotics Division on charges related to the murder of five police officers in a gunfight with traffickers. There is also little proof that these arrests have weakened the drug trafficking network internally. Guatemalan drug trafficking organizations have seemingly withstood arrests without conflict, unlike the case in Mexico, where the killing and capture of drug lords has sparked destructive inter-cartel struggles.

Two increasingly profitable portions of the international drug trade in Guatemala, the trafficking of chemical precursors and cultivation of opium poppies, have not been affected by the recent government crackdown. San Marcos is currently the centre of opium poppy cultivation in Guatemala. According to an international drug expert, Guatemala has “enormous potential as an opium-producing country. There are approximately 2,000 hectares already under cultivation, mostly in the San Marcos region, and that production is expanding.” Furthermore, he stated that extremely fertile soil in Guatemala makes it possible for producers to harvest more poppy plants per hectare than in other countries. Stopping the growth of opium poppies in Guatemala is proving costly and time consuming, as it entails the transportation and mobilization of hundreds of security personnel and army troops into mountainous areas only accessible by foot or four-wheel-drive. Prosecutors in San Marcos claim that farmers in the highlands who grow poppies are part of the poorest communities in Guatemala. There is not much information available about networks that manage the opium trade in Guatemala, thus it is difficult to single out a group to prosecute for this. What’s more, farmers have very little incentive to work with a government that has barely any presence in their communities. According to a public opinion survey of the area, government officials are seen to “appear only a few times a year to destroy the community’s one lucrative crop without offering any alternatives.”

Another concern in Guatemala that environmental activists are especially focussed on is “the purchase or appropriation of land within natural reserves and of parcels granted to indigenous communities.” A government official claimed that these “empty, fenced fields in remote areas could also easily be converted into poppy fields or landing strips.” According to a recent study of interest groups in the El Peten province, drug mafia family, the Mendozas, has invested heavily in the region, purchasing vast tracts of land there. Other prominent families involved in the drug trade such as the Lorenzana and Leon families have also purchased considerable land in Peten. The isolation and location of these landholdings gives the families the ability to store and transport the drugs into Mexico.

However, the importance of Peten to the clans goes beyond drug trafficking. A government official claimed that “corruption is greatest in Peten, there are no illusions about defeating the Zetas or any other network here. Especially because of the amount of young, unemployed, poor people available there. They can lose ten or fifteen members, and tomorrow they will get another twenty. Recruits for these groups are disposable material.” The police operations in Peten also do not touch traditional family drug gangs whose interests and investments greatly enrich the regional economy. In fact, this economic clout gives Guatemalan mafias governmental influence, an advantage over the Zetas, whose ferocious violence has forced the national government to take steps against them. Former government minister Francisco Jimenez stated, “so far the Zetas do not seem to have been able to penetrate local governments and gain influence within them as effectively as other groups but they may have to learn.”

The national government, due to international aid and pressure, has cracked down on the influence of Mexican cartels and their national affiliates. Furthermore, they have managed to arrest traffickers awaiting exile to the US and assassins of the Zeta group facing charges in Guatemala. The conditions that have enabled organized crime to thrive in Central America’s most populous nation, however, are still untouched. Guatemala remains a weak state that is unable to meet its population’s basic needs, let alone contend with heavily armed, well-funded international cartels operating in the nation.

The recently elected President, former General Otto Perez Molina, has promised to form inter-agency task forces and specialized military police teams. Molina has not, however, endorsed a full-scale attack on Guatemala’s reigning drug trafficking groups, such as that which was launched by the Mexican government last year. Nonetheless, his policies regarding drug trafficking are said to depend on if the brutal, drug wars raging in Mexico will spread into Guatemala. Some analysts believe that “the Zetas may now act more like their Guatemalan counterparts. They will keep a lower profile while quietly infiltrating economic and political institutions, as confronting the state hasn’t been working out well for them thus far.” However one governmental official claimed that though this means there may be less violence, it is hardly good news, “ domestication of the Zetas would continue to corrode democracy, destroying the hopes of those who fifteen years ago believed their country would finally be able to emerge from its violent past.”

It is clear that President Molina must continue to battle drug lords and Zeta influence while also addressing the factors that enable organized crime to thrive in Guatemala. Though an increase in resources is necessary for a strengthened rule of law in the nation, popular support for higher taxes and more effective collection can only be secured if the Molina administration also begins a serious and sustainable anti-corruption campaign. Regionally, Guatemala and the six other Central American nations should concentrate on joint efforts to fight crime through regional bodies such as the Central American Integration System (SICA), a primarily economic organization that has recently made regional security one of its priorities.


As is posited by many regional political analysts, international leaders should “continue and, ideally, increase their funding of programs not only to combat narcotics trafficking abroad but also to decrease illegal drug use at home.” This does not necessarily entail increased foreign aid. Political leaders and policy makers would do well to follow the example of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. The Commission has succeeded in opening an authentic discussion on anti-drug policies that call into question the basis of current policies, evaluate the benefits and risks involved with different approaches, finally formulating evidence-based, viable recommendations for political and security sector reform. The root causes of drug-fueled instability run deep in Guatemala, viable solutions will have to dig below the surface.


Further Reading: Guatemala: Drug Trafficking & Violence; Mexico seizes 205 tons of drug precursors;

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NATO Council of Canada.

Kavita Bapat
Kavita Bapat is a South-Asian Security Analyst with the Atlantic Council of Canada. She holds a Bachelor’s of Public Affairs and Policy Management from Carlton University, where she specialized in International Studies. Kavita is now the Assistant to the Director of the Centre for South Asian Studies at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs.