It’s been called the "balloon effect," the idea that if you squeeze a problem – say, drug trafficking – out of one location, the problem inevitably expands into another. It’s a catchy metaphor, but one that does little to impart the human toll of international narco-politics, especially as it is currently being felt in Central America.
As Mexico’s bloody crackdown on drug trafficking continues, Guatemala’s physical location and recent military ties to Mexico make it an inevitable haven for Mexican drug cartels seeking to continue doing business. Guatemala, however, is far less equipped to handle the burgeoning problem than its larger and wealthier neighbor, and now drug-related corruption and violence are being added to the seemingly interminable list of challenges to this small country’s hope for democratic peace and security.
In March, Guatemalan officials discovered a training camp in Quiche, a town in the central highlands near the Mexican border. The camp was operated by the Zetas, a Mexican narco-gang traditionally affiliated with the notorious Gulf Cartel. Two commanders and 37 recruits fled the camp before officials arrived, but they left behind a staggering cache of grenades, rifles and ammunition.
With the help of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), officials also discovered an illegal airstrip on the property. Police believe that a series of bus attacks in the capital earlier in the month were organized by the Zetas to distract Guatemalan officials while they used the camp to transport narcotics and weapons to and from Mexico.
In April, after a deadly shootout in Guatemala City, anti-drug agents seized thousands of bullets and hundreds of grenades from the Zetas that originally came from the Guatemalan military. Officials are still unsure whether the weapons were obtained directly from the military, or whether a third party was involved.
The Zetas were originally formed in the mid-1990s when some 30 elite Mexican drug interdiction soldiers defected and sought out more lucrative work as hired guns for the Gulf Cartel. Many of these officers are believed to be part of the dozens who, between 1994 and 1999, received military training in unconventional tactics from the Kaibiles – Guatemala’s notoriously violent special forces.
The Zetas quickly evolved into a powerful group in their own right, controlling several drug-smuggling routes on the east coast of Mexico and making a business of killing and kidnapping for hire. Now it is the Guatemalan Kaibiles that have slowly begun to defect to join the Mexican hired guns. They began drawing attention to themselves in 2005, when Mexican officials arrested seven Guatemalans attempting to smuggle guns into the country. Later, four were confirmed to be former Kaibiles who had deserted at various times.
That Mexican cartels are making such swift and violent inroads into this small Latin American country would be enough cause for concern, but many in Guatemala find the Zeta’s affiliation with their own military particularly unsettling.
The special-forces unit, created in 1975, is well known for the cruel nature of its training practices, which includes killing animals and drinking their blood in order to demonstrate courage. The group was responsible for brutal massacres of entire villages during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, most notoriously that of the village Las Dos Erres in 1982. In a 1998 report, the Inter-diocesan Project for the Recovery of Historical Memory (REMHI) recommended the disbandment of the group, claiming the Kaibiles "pose a menace to social harmony…and symbolize aggression against the population." Nevertheless, when the peace accords were signed, then-President Àlvaro Arzù Irigoyen chose instead to rededicate the troops to a new war: this time, against drugs and crime.
Guatemala has always been a critical location in the geography of crisscrossing drug smuggling routes between Latin America and the United States. When the United States began to target Colombia’s air and sea drug smuggling routes in the 1980s, the cartels were forced to focus more on overland routes through Central America, inevitably reaching into Guatemala. And since the inception of the Mèrida initiative, Mexican cartels fleeing Calderòn’s violent crackdown have swiftly moved their operations into Central America where weak infrastructure and high rates of impunity facilitate their illegal operations.
Today, vast parts of the country are under Zeta control, deadly shoot-outs claim increasing numbers of victims, and Guatemala’s president, Àlvaro Colom, receives repeated death threats from the group.
Colom, who campaigned for the presidency with a vow to decrease violent crime and impunity in a country that is rife with both, has attempted to make good on these promises despite recent threats.
Carlos Menocal, a top security adviser to President Colom, believes that the Zeta bases discovered in Guatemala were created not just to aid in smuggling, but to be used to defend their territories militarily, and Colom has responded in kind. In March he announced an initiative to create an Aerial, Narcotic, and Terrorism Intervention Force (FIAAT). FIAAT’s 24 police agents and 25 officials from the Guatemalan air force and navy have been trained by the U.S. Border Patrol’s Tactical Unit (BORTAC), most famous for its mission Operation Snowcap, which attempted to eradicate the cultivation of coca and the transport and processing of cocaine in Latin America. The project was called off in 1994 amid criticism that the unit, which has no military expertise, was asked to conduct paramilitary operations against guerilla groups and drug traffickers with far superior forces.
Critics of Colom fear the arming and deployment of military forces that still enjoy widespread impunity for their brutal role in the 36-year civil war that left 200,000 Guatemalans dead. Furthermore, the well-known role of the U.S. School of the Americas in training military leaders of the 1980s makes Guatemala’s cooperation with U.S. forces seem doubly foreboding.
Unfortunately, in a country whose military poses both an internal threat vis-à-vis its history of impunity – and an external threat vis-à-vis its ties to violent Mexican cartels, the Guatemalan government is left with scant tools to address the drug problem. As in much of Latin America, the web of relationships between the actors in this grotesque play creates an intricate plot in which alliances double back on themselves, stitching drug policies into knots.