Commander of US Southern Command General Douglas Fraser visited Guatemala Nov. 16-17, and met with outgoing Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom, and President-elect Otto Perez Molina. The visit comes at a critical juncture for Guatemala. Perez Molina will be inaugurated Jan. 14, and has over the past month given numerous indications that among Guatemala’s numerous challenges, he intends to tackle violence and organized crime, head-on. The former general has said he intends to use Guatemala’s elite military forces, Los Kaibiles, to challenge the threat of drug traffickers. The issue is particularly pertinent now, as Mexican drug cartels, including clear signals from the notoriously violent Los Zetas cartel that it not only maintains significant influence in areas of Guatemala but that it will not hesitate to brutalize civilians to maintain that influence.
Guatemala is of course not alone in these concerns. As Mexico’s importance as a transshipment point for cocaine headed north to the United States consumer market from South America has grown, so too has the land route over Central America. Drug smugglers utilize a diverse collection of water and aircraft to bypass geographic and law enforcement impediments. Honduras has become a major offloading point for cocaine that is then moved across the loosely guarded Honduran-Guatemalan border, through Guatemala and into Mexico. Violence in these countries has worsened alongside the rise in drug trafficking, and the ‘northern triangle’ countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala now have some of the highest homicide rates in the world.
Guatemala as a particularly important player in this issue, not only for its history as a leader in Central America, but also for its strategic border with Mexico, which spans the isthmus and is a critical chokepoint for smugglers traveling north. Guatemala has a complex and competitive set of native criminal organizations, many of which are organized around tight-knit family units. The Sinaloa and Los Zetas cartels are both known to have relationships with Guatemalan organized crime, but the lines of communication and their exact agreements are unclear.
Less murky, however, is that Los Zetas are willing to use the same levels of violence in Guatemala to coerce loyalty as they have used in Mexico. Though both Sinaloa and Los Zetas still need Guatemalan groups to access high-level Guatemalan political connections, Los Zetas have taken a particularly aggressive tack in seeking direct control over more territory in Guatemala. The first indication of serious Los Zetas involvement in Guatemala occurred in March 2008 when Leon crime family boss Juan Leon Ardon, alias “El Juancho,” his brother Hector Enrique Leon Chacon and nine associates all died in a gunbattle with Los Zetas, who at the time still worked for the Gulf cartel. The Zetas most flagrant use of force occurred in the May 2011 massacre and mutilation of 27 peasants in Peten, Guatemala.
In addition to ramping up relationships with powerful political, criminal and economic players, Sinaloa and Los Zetas have established relationships with Central American street gangs. Though these relationships are relatively limited to low-level street deals, the prevalence of MS-13 and Calle 18 in the Northern Triangle states and their extreme violence means that this relationship has extremely negative implications for stability in Central America.
The United States has long played an important, complex role in Latin America. At this point, the region has been allocated limited direct security and development aid, currently totalling $361.5 million for fiscal years 2008-2011 through the Merida Initiative and the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). The Obama administration has requested another $100 million for CARSI. Of this allocated funding, however, only 18 percent has been dispersed due to failures in institutional cooperation and efficiency.
Central America has no short-term escape from being at the geographical center of the drug trade and from the associated violence. While the drug trade brings huge amounts of cash (admittedly on the black market) into exceedingly capital-poor countries, it also brings extreme violence. The U.S. “war on drugs” pits the Guatemalan elite’s political and financial interests against their need to retain a positive relationship with the United States.
Alone, weak Central American governments — and Guatemala is far weaker than Mexico — do not stand much of a chance against these drug cartels. Their only option if left to their own devices is to placate American and Mexican demands by making a limited show of interdiction efforts while in large part declining to confront these violent transnational organizations — if not reaching an outright accommodation. Perez Molina has issued an invitation to the United States to help interdict the flow of narcotics — one that represents an opportunity to do so on more politically favorable and geographically narrow terrain.
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