Mexico’s Drug War Spreads to Central American Neighbors

June 11, 2010 06:08

During the past two years there have been increasing signs that drug-trafficking gangs from Mexico have infiltrated Guatemala, as well as Honduras and El Salvador, recruiting operatives and establishing smuggling routes.

Greg Flakus

As the violent drug war continues in Mexico, there are signs that other regional nations, in particular Mexico’s southern neighbor, Guatemala, are being drawn into the conflict.  On Monday, the head of a U.N. commission targeting corruption in Guatemala resigned, citing drug-gang influence on law enforcement officials as the reason.

Speaking to reporters Monday in Guatemala City, the head of the U.N.-backed International Commission against Impunity, Carlos Castresana said he was abandoning his effort in Guatemala because the government had failed to reform its judicial system.  The Spanish jurist also accused Guatemala’s Attorney General, Conrado Reyes of having ties to organized crime groups.

Reyes later denied the accusation, calling it unfounded and irresponsible.

But during the past two years there have been increasing signs that drug-trafficking gangs from Mexico have infiltrated Guatemala, as well as Honduras and El Salvador, recruiting operatives and establishing smuggling routes.

The head of the Guatemala-based human-rights group the Myrna Mack Foundation, Helen Mack, says evidence the Mexican Zetas gang had entered Guatemala came two years ago in a shooting near a Caribbean coast resort in which 11 people were killed.

“One of the main leaders of the Zetas was captured and also one of the main leaders here in Guatemala known as Juancho Leon was killed,” said Helen Mack.

Since that incident there have been a number of other massacres in Guatemala, and Mack says the government is incapable of dealing with the problem.

“What is very difficult for us is that, as the Guatemalan state is very weak, the presence of the state is nowhere, sometimes, and the money of the drug traffickers is so much that they are part of the economy of Guatemala,” she said.

While various Mexican drug gangs are operating in Guatemala, the Zetas seem to have made the most inroads. In Mexico, the Zetas have been hit hard by the military and federal police since Mexican President Felipe Calderon began his war on organized crime groups in 2006.  A U.S. State Department report in March said entire regions of Guatemala are now essentially under the control of the Zetas.

Former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent Phil Jordan has years of experience in combating Mexican drug traffickers, and says this may be part of the reason the gang is looking for fresh recruits elsewhere.

“So the Zetas are desperate right now,” said Phil Jordan. “They have, according to my intelligence, gone to Guatemala and other places, not just Guatemala.  This is to further try and misdirect the Mexican military with the type of people they are recruiting.”

The Zetas began as a Mexican military unit that defected and began working with the Gulf cartel, based in Juarez, Mexico, across the Rio Grande river from the U.S. city of El Paso, Texas.  The Sinaloa cartel, run by Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman, is now moving into that territory, resulting in a surge of violence that has claimed thousands of lives and made Juarez the world’s most dangerous city.

Some critics of the Calderon administration in Mexico have suggested that authorities have targeted the Zetas and the Gulf cartel, to the favor of the Sinaloa cartel.  Phil Jordan also suspects that, but he thinks it results from corruption in lower ranks and is not the fault of President Calderon.

“I think the man, of all the presidents, is the only one that really declared a war against the narco-traffickers, but he cannot control all the people under him,” he said.

Jordan thinks Mexico needs to admit the problem is too large for one country to handle alone and accept greater help from the United States or, perhaps, from some multi-national group under U.N. control.

“I am not saying that they should relinquish their sovereignty to the United States or any other country,” said Jordan. “I am just saying that, in order for them to succeed, they are going to need outside help.”

But the U.N. experience in Guatemala shows that even international collaboration may not be enough to counter the corrupting influence of drug traffickers with large amounts of cash to spread around in poor nations.  The Mexican cartels are now multi-national organizations as well and their competition with each other is resulting in bloodshed not only along the U.S.-Mexico border, but also far to the south in the small nations of Central America.


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