Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Guatemala Faces New Chapter of Violence as Mexican Gangs Move in


International Crisis Group published a damning report on drug trafficking and violence in Guatemala, detailing the incursion of Mexican drug trafficking organizations into the Central American country, which it calls “the latest chapter in a vicious cycle of violence and institutional failure.”

The report presents a deeply damaged country, awash with weapons and penetrated by criminals on various levels, from common criminals to street gangs, mafia families, clandestine government networks, and international drug trafficking organizations, with “a population so distrustful of law enforcement that the rich depend on private security forces while the poor arm themselves in local vigilante squads.”

For ICG, Guatemala’s recent surge in violence has been driven in large part by shifts taking place outside the country. Over the last decade Mexican traffickers have gained control over the international drug trade while Colombian groups have declined in importance, bringing the focus of the business north, while in the last few years crackdowns by the Mexican government have left groups like the Zetas seeking new, safer ground to base their operations. These factors combined to place Guatemala in the eye of the storm.

The Zetas drug gang have made their presence felt in the country in recent months, massacring 27 laborers on a farm known as Los Cocos in May, before killing a prosecutor involved with the case and leaving his body in a series of plastic bags on a city street. For the ICG these killings represent a qualitative change in the situation:
The killings at Los Cocos and the murder of the auxiliary prosecutor marked a dangerous escalation from internecine conflicts among trafficking groups themselves to attacks designed to terrify bystanders and government officials.
The report also notes signs of progress, however, with the appointment of Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, who is pushing the creaking justice system to take on the threat of organized crime and tackle impunity, and the work of the UN-backed CICIG, which supports the justice system in trying to unpick tangled cases which often go to the highest levels of power.

For Steven Dudley at InSight Crime, the ICG’s report is missing some crucial pieces of the puzzle; it fails to examine the Zetas’ dealings with local drug trafficking organizations, such as with powerful ally Horst Walther Overdick, and assumes that the group have not yet gained serious influence in politics in the country. Significantly, the ICG does not examine potential links between Manuel Baldizon, one of the two remaining presidential candidates, and criminal groups. Baldizon is a businessman with investments in the northern region of Peten, where much of the economy is heavily infiltrated by organized crime.

The report calls on whoever wins the run-off election on November 6 to continue supporting the work of the CICIG and Paz y Paz, and indeed both Baldizon and rival Otto Perez have expressed support for the work of the UN-backed commission, while Perez has denied that he plans to remove Paz y Paz.

The results of an election poll published today by Prensa Libre put former army General Perez, a man accused by some of taking part in massacres of civilians during the war, ahead with 55.8 percent of the vote to Baldizon’s 44.2.





News Briefs


  • Two Iranian men have been charged in the U.S. over an alleged plot to pay Mexican drug cartels to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador in Washington. According to the Justice Department, one of the suspects, Manssor Arbabsiar, is a businessman with dual U.S. citizenship, while the other, Gholam Shakuri, is a member of the Qods special branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, a paramilitary force charged with overseas operations. Arbabsiar was arrested on September 29, while Shakuri remains at large. Arbabsiar allegedly arranged the killing with a DEA source posing as a member of a “violent international drug trafficking cartel,” which some reports have named as the Zetas. More from the LA Times, WSJ, Washington Post.
  • The Mexican government reported a large decline in the number of Central American migrants crossing the country on the way to the U.S., based on a 70 percent drop in the number of undocumented Central Americans stopped in the country. Some 140,000 were detained in 2010, down from 433,000 in 2005. The Associated Press reports that this conclusion is questioned by academic Rodolfo Casillas, who argued that detentions had fallen due to a government decision to stop raiding cargo trains to look for migrants. However, as noted in Thursday’s post, arrests of undocumented migrants on the U.S. border have declined to their lowest level in 40 years, suggesting that the U.S. could be seeing a real drop in those trying to make their way there via Mexico, perhaps discouraged by the ailing economy or by the threat of violence from Mexican gangs in the border region.
  • The Argentine government has denied rumours that President Cristina Kirchner plans to change the constitution to allow her to run for a third term in office. She is currently in her first term, with a massive lead in the polls making it likely that she will be elected to a second term in a vote on October 23.
  • In more news on press freedom in the Americas, the Venezuelan governmentrejected 38 of 148 recommendations made by UN member states as part of the Human Rights Council, including points on ensuring freedom of the press and judicial independence. President Hugo Chavez called the rejection a “victory for the truth,” saying that the recommendations had been planted by the “Yankee government and its allies.”
  • The U.S.’s long-awaited free trade pacts with Colombia, Panama and South Korea could be passed today as they go to a vote in the House and Senate, after passing the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday.
  • Mary O’Grady at the Wall Street Journal slams the U.S.’s “shift towards protectionism,” and praises Mexico for its commitment to the free market. The commentator argues that “sensational press coverage of Mexico's narco-violence has obscured the exciting story of the changing economic landscape brought on by openness,” and calls on the U.S. to support pro-market voices in its southern neighbor.
  • The New York Times looks at the plight of the Chilean miners who were so dramatically rescued a year ago today after 69 days underground. It reports that, despite their brief celebrity and the outpouring of emotion around the world following their rescue “the miners say that most of them are unemployed and that many are poorer than before.”
  • Fox News reports on moves by Mexico City police to improve their image, with cops being given smaller beats of just one square mile, and handing out their photos and cell phone numbers to residents in an effort to build bonds with the community.