Mexican narcos gain foothold in Guatemalan jungle

TIM JOHNSON (McClatchy Newspapers) | October 31, 2010

EL REMATE, Guatemala — The Peten jungle, once known for its jaguars and Mayan ruins, has fallen prey to a notorious Mexican drug gang that operates from remote jungle ranches and has begun openly challenging Guatemalan security forces for control of the roads.

The struggle that’s under way in this remote region could help determine the fate of Guatemala, a fragile democracy south of Mexico that’s already under enormous pressure from narcotics gangs. It’s certain to affect Mexico, which is struggling to maintain order against powerful armed gangs on its northern borders.

In a fierce clash that began south of the famous Tikal ruins, the drug gang known as Los Zetas, based in Mexico’s northeastern border area and the Yucatan Peninsula, was able to outgun local police by deploying armored vehicles, bigger guns and far more ammunition. Then it fought a large army patrol to a draw, losing vehicles and taking wounded but apparently getting away with a stash of cocaine.

The transformation of the once-pristine jungle into a no man’s land is the latest calamity to befall Guatemala, which has had a history of military domination, a 36-year civil war and a genocide conducted by the Guatemalan army against Mayan Indians some three decades ago. Although the CIA helped overthrow a government in 1952, Guatemala’s newest drama is getting little high-level attention in Washington.

The recent confrontation between Los Zetas and the authorities began with a shouted warning from a bullhorn and a wrong turn.

Around midday on Oct. 5, when police stopped a convoy of 16 or so big double-cabin pickups and other vehicles a short drive south of the Tikal National Park, an amplified voice from one vehicle barked a warning:

“We are Los Zetas! Let us pass. We don’t want problems.”

To make their point, several men carrying assault rifles got out of the vehicles and fired hundreds of rounds into the air in a deafening display of firepower.

To describe the police as alarmed is an understatement.

“If you have an M16 rifle, and all I have is a 9 mm pistol, and you have 10 other guys behind you, I won’t mess with you,” said local police Sub-Inspector Oscar Bertruin, who was at the scene.

The police let the convoy pass, then called for help from the army, according to the accounts of several officers, nearly all of whom declined to give their names for fear of retaliation.

Los Zetas, a mercenary group founded by Mexican former special forces troops who broke off early this year from the Gulf Cartel in northeast Mexico, is at the top of the criminal heap. As the two groups wage a turf war in their home region, the Zetas have continued pushing into the eastern side of Central America, strengthening a cocaine pipeline from Colombia.

A larger rival Mexican cartel, the Sinaloa Federation, reportedly focuses on a corridor along Central America’s Pacific coast.

The State Department’s international narcotics and law enforcement chief, David T. Johnson, said in a speech Oct. 5 that 275 tons of cocaine transited Guatemala each year, nearly all of it destined for the United States.

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