Guatemala's government has declared a state of siege in the northern province of Alta Verapaz, a troubled area which has become overrun by Mexican cartels – namely, Los Zetas. I went down to that area (just a bit southwest of Alta Verapaz) in December 2008 to check out the situation, here's a report i did at the time. It has clearly only gotten worse. (photo above is a border crossing in the area)
* * * * * * *
In Tecun Uman, Ciudad Hidalgo's sister town on the Guatemalan side of the divide, media reports and rumors of Los Zetas, the armed wing of the Gulf cartel, are rampant these days. Law enforcement officers don't deny any of it.
"The gangs here are more organized now, and there are more Mexicans working here, Zetas," said Marcario Maldonaldo, a policeman in Tecun Uman, adding that just day before, a Mexican had been detained in his town for carrying weapons and drugs. "Bus drivers are being killed if they don't pay a fee to the Zetas, and so are other business owners."
Reports of exortion by Zetas have emerged nationwide, from the State of Mexico to southern Veracruz, as the group has expanded its operations this year. Everything from local drug dealing to piracy to farming is reportedly being taken over by these armed men.
Tecun Uman and its environs are no exception.
An employee at a ranch near the border that boasts a small hotel as well as many acres of fertile land, told me that his boss had recently been taken in by an extortion racket. A group of armed men had come in two weeks before, and threatened the owner. If he didn't pay regularly, they would seize the property, the employee said. The men, he added, were not Guatemalan; they looked and sounded Mexican
The owner – who did not return calls for comment– isn't the first to have been approached.
Last weekend, the president of Guatemala's Chamber of Agriculture, Carlos Zúñiga, confirmed reports that landowners in the border region "are being pressured by drug trafficking."
"This was already happening in Izabal and Petén, but now, Mexican drug traffickers are pressuring all along the border for the power to [produce and store] drugs," he said.
Landowners have been offered handsome sums for their properties, he said, but if they refuse, they die.
SMOKE AND MIRRORS
Once the paramilitary wing of the Gulf cartel, rumored to have trained in the United States (the U.S. government denies any record of known Zetas having trained inside its borders) and incororated Army vets and even Guatemalan soldiers, Los Zetas have evolved into the nation's most widely spread out organized crime group. They've been spreading through the south of Mexico of late.
Their modus operandi has evolved, too. According to Mexican and U.S. counter-drug officials, as well as security experts, Los Zetas no longer operate through a central chain of command leading all the way up to the Gulf cartel's top capo. "Los Zetas were the the primary reason for the Gulf's power, but reports of Zeta activity from this past year suggest that the much-feared group now operates independently," said U.S.-based security analysts Fred Burton and Stephen Meiners of Stratfor in a recent intelligence report.
"When a Zeta comes to town, he doesn't try to make a deal," said one Ciudad Hidalgo business owner, who asked not to be named for safety reasons. "He cuts off someone's head and says, this is mine now. It's non-negotiable."
Local vendors of pirated goods in Tapachula interviewed all denied that larger crime groups from out of state had taken over operations. They still work for the local bosses who provide them with their merchandise, they said, from which they take a nearly 50 percent cut off each item sold. The municipal police take a small cut every once in a while, they said – they only have to watch out for federal agents.
And who actually is a Zeta these days is up for debate. U.S., Mexican and Guatemalan authorities say the group has co-opted members of gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha, as well as small-time crooks who'll do anything for a small amount of money and are easily controlled – and who also don't mind going around bragging about being Zetas.
It's not clear that the police know all that much either. A visit to the police station in Coatepeque, the Guatemalan city about an hour's drive from Tecun Uman where local police said a recently-arrested Mexican was being held, proved fruitless.
"No Mexicans here," one Coatepeque police officer said, checking the records and opening the door to the cells to support his claim.
In the station's main office, a billboard with a checklist of recent crimes and people arrested hung on the wall.
Ninety-seven arrests for illegal weapons possession since January, 23 held for rape, two nabbed for lynching.
Three foreigners arrested. But no Mexicans.
"They must have been mistaken in Tecun Uman," the cop said.
THE BLAME GAME
Back on the Mexican side of the border, fears are running high as clarity remains elusive.
Residents and law enforcement alike are pointing fingers and playing a guessing game as to who might be responsible for all the crime and violence, and how it might be quelled.
When a narco-manta, or banner, was posted on a Tapachula pedestrian bridge this past weekend – the first incident of its kind in the city – residents were abuzz over who had done it.
Some jumped to the immediate conclusion that it was Los Zetas – they and the Gulf cartel were the two major groups not mentioned on the unsigned banner – while other residents admitted they had no idea, but were nonetheless scared.
"This was the first narco-manta," said Bernadet Chávez, a father of three. No one took responsibility, he said, much like most the recent killings. "No one knows which group is responsible [for the violence], or which side [of the border] is worse," he said.
At the Ciudad Hidalgo border crossing, a Mexican immigration official was quicker to point the finger. "There are Zetas everywhere," he said, asking that only his first name, Mario, be used. "It's a mess over there [in Guatemala]."
Mario pulled out a series of photos he had taken two days before at his post. A man lay slumped behind the wheel of his car, riddled with bullets. Clutching his arm, his wife's face was filled with anguish, and smeared with blood. Blood had spilled onto her shirt, too, but she was unhurt. The next photo showed the windscreen of the car, shattered by a spray of bullets. In another, the Mexican side of the border crossing was in clear view.
Still, Mario insisted, "It's all happening over there."
Amidst reports that this lawless border region is falling into the hands of organized crime, the Mexican and Guatemalan governments say they have deployed more soldiers and federal police to the area in recent months to help local police prevent an infiltration by the powerful Mexican cartels and groups like Los Zetas.
But in towns like Tecun Uman, military presence is scant. Standing guard at his station in the middle of a rundown settlement right near the river that separates his nation from Mexico, Private Luis Gómez insists he and the other 31 soldiers who patrol the area and conduct anti-drug operations are doing their utmost.
"We're fighting here, too, just like the army is in Mexico," he said.
Just a few blocks away, Maldonaldo, the Tecun Uman police officer, lamented the fact that they only have 28 cops to patrol the town, and limited other resources. He might have shiny new boots and a natty new uniform courtesy of the government, he said, grinning, but "that's not enough."
About two hundred feet away in the other direction, just across the river in Ciudad Hidalgo, municipal policeman Hector Juárez de León shared similar sentiments. He's served for 24 years, and seen much in his time. He's noted the increase in crime in recent months.
And he's not sure his force of 40 municipal cops can handle it.
"There's been much more crime, and it's organized," he said. "Robberies, extortion, they're all professional now."