Los Zetas has been on an arms-buying spree and a recruitment drive in Guatemala and is now the most powerful crime group operating in the Central American country.
According to the Guatemalan Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla, no indigenous crime organization can now compete with the Mexican cartel and Los Zetas, which first moved into the country four years ago, is recruiting from the ranks of Guatemalan gangs and “have extended their operating power.”
The minister acknowledges that Los Zetas has been helped inadvertently with its expansion as an indirect consequence of law-enforcement success against Guatemalan crime groups. “The capture of key Guatemalan drug traffickers has allowed the Mexican cartel Los Zetas to strengthen and expand its operations throughout the country, to stand as the largest criminal group in the country,” says López Bonilla.
Los Zetas hasn’t been shy in flaunting its sway. In a move that Guatemalan officials say is meant to intimidate rivals and attract recruits, the cartel has been using a marketing tool they and other Mexican crime groups employ in Mexico – namely, displaying narco-mantas (drug banners) containing clear messages, from threats to appeals.
Last month, narco-mantas purportedly placed by Los Zetas appeared in Guatemala City and in San Benito, a town in Petén , the largest province in Guatemala and which borders Mexico. The banners in San Benito were thought to have been placed as a response by Los Zetas to the March 19 arrest of Gustavo Adolfo Colindres Arreaga, nicknamed “El Rochoy”, a Guatemalan who oversaw some operations for Los Zetas. Rochoy was captured in the nearby town of town of Poptun after a 15-day joint military-police operation and he was seized along with three other alleged Los Zetas members. Handguns and ammunition were impounded in the raid.
The San Benito banners threatened Los Zetas retaliation, if Guatemalan authorities continue to pursue the cartel.
The banner read: “To all civil and military authorities and the population in general stop persecution of the race or we will start killing. We will throw grenades into discos and shopping centers in Petén … because this is ‘Z’ territory we don’t want a war against the government this is a warning. Z200.”
Petén Governor Henry Amezquita said at a press conference that he believed the banner was placed to intimidate and to “destabilize,” Prensa Libre newspaper reported.
Last May, Los Zetas massacred and beheaded 27 migrant farm workers in a village near San Benito. Three children and two women were among the victims of the attack, which was carried out by about 40 armed men. Authorities believe that the main target of the assault was the farm owner, who was away at the time.
“After the murder of the campesinos no one here is taking their threat lightly,” says local hospital worker Jose Miguel Monterroso. “The banner caused panic,” he adds.
The banners in Guatemala were less menacing and congratulated mockingly President Otto Pérez Molina for his recent raising of the issue of possible policy alternatives to the war on drugs, including decriminalization of narcotics, as a way to deprive the cartels of their profits. The banners urged also the government to pursue street gangs such as the Maras.
One of the Guatemala City banners read: “Pérez and (Vice President Roxana) Baldetti, go through with legalizing drugs, and we support fighting the maras … Zeta 200” and “A thousand thanks general Otto Pérez and Roxana Baldetti for legalizing drugs … Zeta 200.”
The push by Los Zetas into Guatemala is prompting rising alarm across the region. Los Zetas are seeking to stamp total control on lucrative trafficking corridors through northern Guatemala and have seized farms to use as staging posts for drugs and weapons. A spike in violence last December prompted the Guatemalan government to declare a month-long “state of siege” in the northern department of Alta Verapaz.
Expansion and diversification has led not only Los Zetas but also the Sinaloa Federation, to establish operations in the countries of the northern isthmus of Central America. “The ‘northern triangle’ of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador has become greatly destabilized, and appears to be undergoing a rapid transformation into the new frontier for dangerous Mexican cartels,” Lauren Mathae concluded in a paper for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs published last October.
Last year, the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) highlighted in its annual report the incursion of Mexican cartels into Central America, too, noting that as the expansion continues apace the cartels are forming alliances with indigenous crime groups, in a bid to exploit Central and Latin American markets for drug sales.
And they are using also Central America as a transit point for supplying more narcotics to Europe and Australia via Africa, the INCB reported.
The expanded cocaine supply chains entails greater risk of loss along the extended supply routes, but the potential profits are great, too.
Los Zetas has been in recent months seeking to secure more weaponry, say Guatemalan and Mexican officials. Mexican police have arrested Guatemalans smuggling guns into Mexico through the border with its southern neighbor.
According to a report from the commanders of Mexico’s 4th Military Region which covers the states of Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas and San Luis Potosi, Los Zetas has been purchasing heavy weapons in Central America, especially in Guatemala. The weapons they have been able to purchase have included leftovers from armed conflicts in the region in the 1980s and are available on the black market.
Mexican analysts say that Los Zetas needs to replenish their arsenals because of weapons seizures in Mexico and because they need more guns to fend off challenges from rivals, including the Sinaloa Federation. But they need more weapons to help expand as well. “Los Zetas are arming themselves because they are growing their market and penetrating other territories, specially in the states of Yucatán and Jalisco where they now have a foothold,” says security expert Alberto Islas, a former adviser in the Zedillo administration.
Last December, Guatemalan security forces seized 150 AK-47 assault rifles in Alta Verapaz as well as four armor-plated vehicles along with 10 alleged Los Zetas members.
In recent weeks, the Guatemalan authorities have scored some success in their efforts to combat Los Zetas. The biggest development came on April 3 with the capture of Overdick Horst Walter Mejia, alias “El Tigre”, a key figure for the Mexican cartel in Guatemala. At a press conference in Guatemala City, deputy interior minister Julio Claveria announced the arrest of Overdick Mejia, who was seized in the western province of Sacatepequez. Guatemalan officials say his ties with Los Zetas go back to 2008 and that he was crucial for the Mexican cartel’s expansion into the country.
A wealthy landowner from the northern province of Alta Verapaz, Overdick Mejia was arrested in 2004 on charges of cocaine trafficking, but he avoided jail. There have been accusations that he managed to bribe the judges.
His wife, Mercedes Barrios, and son were arrested in November 2008 in Alta Verapaz on suspicion of drug smuggling. A court freed them later because of lack of evidence. The United States is seeking to extradite Overdick Mejia on trafficking charges. On April 5 a court in Guatemala City started to hear the extradition request. Amongst the evidence presented were videos showing the Guatemalan with known Los Zetas gunmen at a fiesta on July 12, 2011 at the Finca Santa Marta, in Ixcán, Quiché.