For Zetas, Guatemala is the New Mexico

(Editor’s Note: This story was a joint project of elPeriódico in Guatemala and Fundación MEPI in Mexico, written by Paola Hurtado and originally published on October 2, 2011. For the original Spanish, see elPeriódico.)

Mexico’s most ruthless drug cartel, the Zetas, have expanded throughout Guatemala in the last four years to the point where they control three quarters of the drug trade in this strategically-placed Central American country. With a new President about to be elected, Guatemala faces the expanding drug war with a weakened and corrupted military and police force and an elite special forces unit –the kaibiles– which has become a target for recruitment by the narcos. The main battleground in this fight is the province of Peten, where the Guatemalan civil war unraveled in the 80s, and today a bloody Mexican-style drug war has already arrived.

A team of elite soldiers, snipers and special police lurked in the lush underbrush outside a sprawling ranch in Ixcan, a town in northern Guatemala not far from the southern Mexican border, ready to storm in with the support of helicopters and paratroopers.

That weekend, the elite forces had taken the precaution of disarming the conscripts at the local police station, removing their cellphones phones to prevent any leaks of the operation. But then there was an unlucky glitch to their plans. The only cellphone carrier that operates in that remote area of Guatemala, shut off all service, apparently to repair repeaters placed along the mountainous area. The special command force was left incommunicado, without connections to the the three helicopters waiting to drop into the ranch.

Inside, under canopies set up on a clearing, the bosses of the Zetas cartel in Guatemala caroused with some of their commanders from Mexico. Over 20 robust men in cowboy hats, some among the most wanted in Guatemala, drank beer, belted out corridos accompanied by a pair of local musicians, joked around with a few Mexican women who sat on their laps, held cock fights and improvised horse races. A cameraman recorded the whole scene, with the men posing and grinning for him. The residents of this impoverished hamlet observed the party from a distance. Every now and then, one of them would rush to the area of the party to pick up a fallen rooster, who will be made into soup.

The narco bosses were confident they could party undetected in that remote place, a key area for smuggling drugs into Mexico. The Mexican commander of the Zetas’ Guatemala operation, William or “W”, was there, along with his top aide David Solorzano Ortiz, a.k.a. “El Chombo”. Also present were local bosses from around the country and a special guest, Horst Walter Overdick, known as “El Tigre”, the Zetas’ main partner in controlling Guatemala.

The special forces contingent continued to wait for all of Saturday, hidden in the bushes. Finally, at dawn on Sunday, July 10th, they rushed into the party. No shots were needed.

When the soldiers reached the clearing where a few hours earlier there had been much merriment, a small plane was taking off, presumably carrying Overdick and “W”, while the other lieutenants disappeared into the jungle in SUVs. Four men too drunk to run away and a woman were the only people arrested at the ranch.

The operation’s failure was a major blow to the Guatemalan government antidrug strategy since it failed to cut off the head of the Zetas’ organization in the country. In the next two weeks, there were smaller victories—fourteen Zetas were arrested in hotels, cantinas and intercity buses. Those captured included second-in-command “El Chombo”, several local bosses and four of the Mexican women.

However, “W”, “El Tigre” and the other main bosses were nowhere to be seen.

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In early 2010, the Zetas broke off from their former employer the Gulf Cartel, going from a group of highly-qualified, ruthless enforcers to a full-fledged trafficking organization. Since then, they have fought, killed and maimed their way to controlling a third of all drug routes in Mexico and they are looking to do the same in Guatemala. They see this Central American country as a piece in a borderless territory extending north into the U.S., through which they could move drugs, weaponry and people at ease. They have also penetrated neighboring Belize and Honduras, on the Caribbean coast, which American intelligence says are landing spots for drug shipments from South America.

This year, the Guatemalan government imposed a months-long state of emergency in the northern provinces of Alta Verapaz and Peten while it attempted to root the Zetas out. But they are still there. One of their main strongholds is the cattle town of Poptun, in the jungles of Peten, a territory that juts north like a wedge between Mexico and Belize. Few have noticed, but this could be the central battleground in a war between the cartel and the next president of Guatemala who will be elected in a runoff on Nov. 6.

Aside from its strategic location in the route from Honduras into Mexico, the reason Poptun is so attractive to the Zetas is that it is home to two key military training centers. In one center is the school for kaibiles, the elite counterinsurgency forces who became the Guatemalan dictatorship’s weapon for terrorizing communities during the civil war that ended two decades ago. In the other, since 2007Guatemalan Army and U.S. officers have trained selected troops and police conscripts in the fight against narcotrafficking and terrorism.

Kaibiles are a highly valued target for the Zeta organization. They do not require training, they are prepared to kill and to survive in extreme conditions, and they know the Guatemalan territory. Interior Ministry data shows the presence of kaibiles among people arrested in Guatemala in connection with the Zetas since 2008.

One of these kailbiles is “La Bruja” (The Witch), Alvaro Gomez Vasquez, discharged from the Army in 2004. A burly man with a blank stare and a wide, inexpressive face, La Bruja got high marks in all physical tests, said a former kaibil officer who knew him. The Zetas made him boss in Peten: last May, he oversaw and took part in the killing of 26 peasants in a ranch belonging to a local drug boss. He was captured a week later.

The Guatemalan Army has trained over 6,000 kaibiles since 1975 and only about 360 are still active. Regular privates earn $250 a month and kaibiles get a 38-dollar transportation bonus. The Zetas offer about $2,000 a month to those willing to work for them and they have actively recruited former kaibiles in Peten. In 2008, pirate radio stations in the area ran ads seeking ex military men to “provide security to vehicles carrying goods to Mexico.”

After establishing a foothold in Poptun by taking over ranches and other property, the Zetas are looking to kick out all local traffickers.

On Sept. 14 and 16, two local bus stations were attacked with grenades. Guatemalan intelligence have learned that at least one of the attacks was the work of Zeta operatives. In that case, the bus station’s manager is the brother of Haroldo Mendoza, a businessman allegedly linked to drug traffickers in the region. After these attacks, the government extended the state of emergency in Peten for 30 days.

As they do on arrival in every region, the Zetas have bribed police commanders and local authorities to be able to operate freely in Peten. Their presence usually also means an increase in violent kidnappings, extorsion attempts and bank robberies, according to Guatemalan Interior Minister Carlos Menocal. The reason is Zeta units arrive with little money and must create their own sources of income by terrorizing local businesses and families.

The Zetas are not the first Mexican narcos to have a presence in Guatemala. In fact, Mexican cartels have had working relations with local drug families for thirty years. The difference is, the newcomers do not respect the longstanding tacit agreement of peaceful coexistence among the various groups.

Just as in Mexico they have taken over a large portion of territory, having conquered to date 75 percent of all Guatemalan trafficking routes, according to an estimate by the DEA’s Mexico office. Every year, they move 250 to 300 tons of cocaine along those routes.

This conquest has brought to Guatemala the war of the Mexican cartels, which pits the Zetas and other new paramilitary groups against traditional mafia organizations like the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels. In their advance in the Central American country, the Zetas have created many enemies and also lost some battles, as when they provided most of the 50 corpses left in 2008 in Huehuetenango, a province controlled by a partner of the Sinaloa Cartel.

However, Sinaloa, which has lost big portions of Mexican territory to the Zetas, is worried by their advances in Guatemala and the disarray among their local allies.The fugitive Sinaloa boss, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzman –who appears in Forbes magazine’s billionaire list–, has visited Guatemala City several times this year, according to the Guatemalan government. Four of his main partners in the country, Mauro Salomon Ramirez, Juan Alberto Ortiz Lopez, Waldemar Lorenzana Lima and Byron Linares Cordon, have been arrested.

The advance in Guatemala for the Zetas is directly linked to their struggle to maintain a hold over Veracruz, a southern Mexican state that is another key spot along the route between Central America and the U.S, and which they controlled for the last eight years, according to sources in Veracruz. The public dumping of bodies of 35 alleged Zetas and their associates in late September in one of the main avenues in the city of Veracruz, is linked to this bloody turf war. The attackers were allegedly henchmen working for the Sinaloa Cartel.

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The recruitment of former kaibiles goes hand in hand with the Zetas’ ethos as a military-style organization.

In fact, the videos found in the Ixcan ranch during the failed July operation might be seen as just a bunch of narcos having fun, grinning for the camera while they praised each other and giving shout-outs to their associates. But the reason the Zeta bosses are accompanied by cameramen in addition to bodyguards is that they must send video reports of their activities –from parties to massacres– to the cartel’s top boss, Heriberto Lazcano, “El Lazca”.

Such discipline arises from the military training the original Zetas received from American officers while they served in an elite Mexican Army unit. The cartel uses clearly defined command structures that include commanders, local chiefs and operating squads.

In Guatemala, the Zetas dispatch commanders to the various provinces. These local bosses get their orders from Mexico, sometimes in person as Mexican higher-ups like “W” come and go through the border as they please, by land or air.

Guatemala is seen as a tough assignment and bosses who do well there are promoted to more pleasant destinations, such as Cancun. Yet, as was the case with “La Bruja” in Peten, once they are captured or fail in their mission, they are quickly replaced.

* * *

In March 2008, Guatemalan narco boss Juan Jose “Juancho” Leon arrived at a dilapidated, out-of-the-way river resort in Central Guatemala along with five bodyguards and two associates. He thought he was meeting a group of Zetas and their Guatemalan ally “El Tigre” Overdick to sell them a cocaine load. But both the Gulf Cartel, then the Zetas’ employer, and Overdick, a relative newcomer to the business, had had shipments stolen by Leon, one of the main players in Guatemala and an ally of “El Chapo” Guzman and Colombian cartels.

As soon as Leon arrived, bullets and grenades started flying. Ten corpses were left: Leon and his six men plus three Zetas. Authorities found 400 bullet cases.

That massacre created an alliance that would permanently alter the distribution of narco power over Guatemala. When the Zetas split from the Gulf Cartel in 2010, they and Overdick became the most powerful organization in the country.

Guatemalan authorities searched seven Zeta houses after the massacre, leading them to documents that showed the organization’s high level of discipline. There were lists of Zeta members with names, nicknames, status –including injured, dead and detained– and roles, such as contract killer, accountant or operative. They also found spreadsheets detailing payments, slips for remittances wired from Mexico and more than 50 men’s suits of the same type, enough for a small army.

This year, after the Ixcan ranch party, police arrested a Zeta accountant in the touristic city of Antigua Guatemala. He carried documents showing monthly salary payments to cartel members for a total of US$350,000.

* * *

The Zetas started operating in Guatemala in 2008, at the start of center-left President Alvaro Colom’s administration. Almost four years later, the most ruthless Mexican cartel has reached the majority of the country’s territory and has no qualms in securing its control at any cost.

The key region in its conquest is now Peten, a region to which both presidential candidates are linked. Retired Gen. Otto Pérez Molina founded and ran the kaibil school for several years while on active duty, while lawyer and businessman Manuel Baldizón, built his fortune in that province. Whoever is inaugurated in January will have to fight a serious threat to national security by means of weakened and corrupt state forces and an elite corps in danger of enemy cooptation.

Mexico has confronted the narco attacks by the Zetas and other organized crime groups with a military offensive that has resulted in 40,000 deaths so far, with no end in sight.

Guatemalan authorities will have to decide whether they want to follow the same path or continue their current strategy –aided and spurred on by the U.S.– where dozens of arrests have not seriously affected the ever-regenerating Zetas’ structure.

The one chance to land a big blow to the Mexican cartel disappeared in Ixcan in July, the moment a small plane took off into the sunny morning sky.