Guatemala Looking Increasingly Like a ‘Narco-State’

(IPS) – The violence and the state of siege in the northern Guatemalan province of Petén, following the massacre and decapitation of 27 farm labourers, has been building up for years.

Maya archaeological sites in Petén are now surrounded by soldiers after the discovery of the bodies of those murdered Sunday May 15, presumably by Los Zetas, a Mexican drug trafficking group.

“This situation has been developing for years, but it hasn’t been addressed,” the representative in Guatemala of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Alberto Brunori, told IPS.

The U.N. Verification Mission in Guatemala – which from 1994 to 2004 monitored the ceasefire and the fulfilment of the 1996 peace accords that ended 30 years of civil war – had warned in its reports that “certain groups were taking over the country,” Brunori recalled.

Today, 98 percent of murders committed in the country go unpunished.

Suspected members of Los Zetas came to the Los Cocos ranch Sunday in the municipality of La Libertad, on the border with Mexico and over 500 kilometres from the Guatemalan capital, looking for its owner, Rudy Salguero, allegedly implicated in the drugs trade.

As they did not find him, they asked 29 day-labourers working on the ranch, some of whom were children, where he was, and when they failed to get the information they killed them, one by one, and then decapitated some of the bodies. Only two of the rural workers survived.

President Álvaro Colom ordered a state of siege for 30 days in Petén on May 16, restricting constitutional guarantees like freedom of movement and association, and authorising security forces to make arrests without a warrant.

Brunori said that declaring a state of siege is an “exceptional” measure, and the problem “should be part of a thorough debate among the country’s different political forces.”

The state “must give a comprehensive response to this situation. It cannot declare a state of siege yet fail to grant resources to the police, the public prosecutor’s office, and the judicial branch,” he said.

In the Petén town of Santa Elena, some 90 kilometres from the scene of the crime, tour operator Isauro García called for “tighter security with more personnel to support this area,” in spite of the deployment of helicopters, the armed forces and police in an area covering the archaeological complex of Tikal, the largest known so far in the Maya world, embedded in a unique tropical forest.

“What is happening is terrible; it’s affecting all of us, especially tour operators because it is also putting visitors’ lives in danger,” García told IPS.

Mexico’s military war on drugs is spilling over into Central America, and in Petén, a jungle territory of nearly 36,000 square kilometres bordering the Mexican state of Chiapas, drug trafficking groups and other forms of organised crime have found fertile ground.

In Petén, Guatemala’s largest province, the terrain is mountainous and covered in jungle, there is little or no state presence, and over 100 illegal border crossings lead into Mexico.

As well as a centre of attraction for international tourism, Petén is the compulsory route for thousands of Central Americans set on entering the United States, crossing the Guatemalan jungle and then Mexico’s enormous territory from south to north.

The events at Petén show that Guatemala “has become a ‘narco-state’ over which government bodies have no control,” Daniel Pascual, leader of the Committee for Campesino Unity (CUC), an indigenous-led labour and land rights organisation, told IPS.

Against this backdrop, campesinos or small farmers are being forcibly displaced from the land they farm and are being harmed by organised crime, Pascual said.

“The rural communities are being dispossessed by landowners who evict them and even bring in companies to bribe and force people to sell them their land; then the landowners plant oil palm plantations or become ‘narco-ranchers,'” Pascual said.

“They are also coopted by drug trafficking groups, which force communities to provide them with safe havens, while the groups run housing, health and recreational projects in the communities, which are forced to accept this state of affairs,” he said.

Sandino Asturias of the Centro de Estudios de Guatemala (CEG – Centre for the Study of Guatemala), a local NGO, says the massacre brings to mind the atrocities committed during the 1960-1996 conflict between government forces and campesino guerrillas, which left over 200,000 dead or disappeared, most of them indigenous people.

“We hope the state will respond to the national indignation, and that as a society we can ensure that such things do not happen again,” Asturias told IPS.

Pascual warned that militarisation “is not a solution.” This government “has set up 14 military bases, but what good have they done?” he asked.

The same questions echo on the other side of the border in Mexico, where 35,000 people have been killed over the past four years. In August last year, 72 immigrants were murdered in the northeastern state of Taumalipas. The perpetrators are again believed to have been Los Zetas, whose side activities are kidnapping migrants and holding them for ransom, or exploiting them through forced servitude.