“With the arrival of the Zetas [to Guatemala], everything changed,” a 35-year-old ex-Colombian “free agent” narco tells journalist Oscar Martinez. El Faro’s fantastic reporting on the Zetas in Guatemala this week suggests he may be right.
The story of drug trafficking in Guatemala began in the 1960s and 70s, former Guatemalan intelligence chief, Edgar Gutierrez, tells El Faro. It was then when anti-Castro Cuban exiles in Miami, began to set up shop in Guatemala, using legal businesses like shrimping companies as a way to export a much more lucrative product – Colombian cocaine – northward.
During Ronald Reagan’s covert wars of the 1980s, Central American militaries got in on trafficking operations in Guatemala and elsewhere while in the 1990s, the Colombian capos – experienced in the business of the drug trade – moved in. With the help of still old military hands, the Colombians set up networks and alliances with former officials in Mexico, says Gutierrez, using “free agents” like El Colombiano to move shipments.
According to El Faro’s reporting, sometime around 2008 – just three years ago – drug trafficking in Guatemala was transformed. It was towards the end of that year that Los Zetas are believed to have turned the country’s northern department of Alta Verapaz into its “operations center” for all of Guatemala – and perhaps much of Central America. But to say the Los Zetas simply moved in doesn’t seem quite accurate. As a 2009 State Dept. cable released by Wikileaks notes, it was Walter Overdick, a “local representative” for the Lorenzana drug family of Zacapa, who sought the Zetas out, “inviting” them to Alta Verapaz, thinking, in DOS’s words, “he could arrange a lucrative partnership.” Just one year later the American Embassy reported that the Zetas were “taking over.” Quoting from the 2009 cable:
“They are buying land forming a corridor to the Mexican border, and have met with local African palm growers to tell them which land they can buy and which they cannot. They kidnapped some of the growers, employees to underline their point.”
As an important aside, Walter Overdick is a figure who seems important not only to phases three and four of Guatemala’s trafficking genealogy but also to phases one and two. As historian Greg Grandin writes in The Last Colonial Massacre, Overdick was the mayor of the small Alta Verapaz town of Panzós during the mass killing of at least 35 indigenous peasants in May 1978 – the “last colonial massacre” before a “scorched-earth campaign” of genocidal violence was unleashed upon rural Mayan peasants between 1981-1983.
Returning to El Faro’s reporting, we’re told that Overdick and “the families that invited the Zetas” to Alta Verapaz did so “without considering anything other than the Zetas capacity to kill.” In less than three years the Zetas had shown themselves capable of more than murder. They had consumed the power structures of local narcos, and most notably, disappeared what presence the state may have had in the department prior. El Faro’s description of Alta Verapaz before the beginning of a state of siege there in December is revealing:
“Alta Verapaz was so abandoned [by the State] that even the airstrips, which belonged to the State, were being utilized with total impunity by the Zetas. No air traffic controller, no flight plans given to anyone, and no register of who was flying what plane at what time. At times, [the Zetas] even used the runways for monster car shows, horse races, or parties. Everything was theirs.”
On 18 February the Guatemalan military’s two month state of siege ended, and two weeks later El Faro’s Oscar Martinez returned to Alta Verapaz’s capital of Cobán to survey its effects. His concluding thoughts, via El Faro, are also worth quoting at length:
“In the early morning of 25 February, seven days after President Alvaro Colom traveled to Cobán to give make official the end of the State of Siege, an armed commando enters a car lot, sets three cars on fire, and shoots up a number of others with an AK-47. My source assures me that it was the work of the Zetas, who, little by little, are carrying out their revenge. This time it was cars, but my informant says soon it will be people…”
For more on the Zetas, in Mexico and beyond, see the Dallas Morning News this week.
To other stories:
· Also on Guatemala, the BBC says Guatemalans who were deliberately infected with syphilis and gonorrhea by US scientists in the late 1940s have filed a class action lawsuit against the US government, demanding compensation.
· On drugs, Insight reports on the emergence of a new Mexican cartel – the “Knights Templar” – in Michoacan. According to reports, the group looks to be successor to La Familia, whose disbandment was announced in January. Somewhat interestingly, La Familia had built up its strength in Michoacan by promising to defend the region from outside criminal groups, namely Los Zetas.
· Nick Miroff at the Washington Post reports on the arrest of a US mayor and police chief in a New Mexico border town on charges of smuggling guns into Mexico.
· And the AP reports that a Mexican judge has reaffirmed last week’s appellate court decision to allow “Presunto Culpable” to return to cinemas in Mexico. The judge did say that the identity of Victor Reyes Bravo, the man who says his privacy is violated by the film, should be “camouflaged” in the documentary.
· In Venezuela, EFE reports on potentially significant student-led protests scheduled for today, Tuesday, in Caracas. The protests, which will begin at the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV) and end at the National Assembly, come in response to student complaints about the university budget. That issue has also been at the root of ongoing student hunger strikes in front of the UN in Caracas. The protests will come just days after the Chavez government said it would create a new Ministry of Youth and Students. El Universal reports that pro-Chavez student groups also called for their anti-chavista student colleagues to engage in a national debate about education on Tuesday.
· Protests also in Honduras yesterday. El Heraldo reports on demonstrations in the capital of Tegucigalpa yesterday, led by the city’s taxi drivers union over rising fuel prices.
· A short but interesting report on China’s growing economic presence in the region, from El Universal, which says Heilongjiang Beidahuang Nongken Group, China's largest agricultural company, is making plans to acquire or lease some 495,000 acres of farmland in a number Latin American countries (Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela), as well as in Russia, the Philippines, Zimbabwe, and Australia.
· TeleSur interviews Ecuadorean foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, about UNASUR’s official consolidation this weekend in Quito. Among other things, Patino also touches on the on-going crisis in Libya, saying his country has been “very worried” about the “violence, human rights situation, and loss of life.” But according to Patino, Ecuador stands with others in the region in strongly opposing any sort of military intervention. The issue of Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua’s position on the crisis in Libya also makes re-appears in the American press (see the AP this morning) as international talks about whether or not to impose a “no-fly zone” continue.
· The Miami Herald takes a look at the specifics of President Obama’s agenda in Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador.
· Sarah Stephens suggests a different sort of US cooperation with Latin America. In the LA Times yesterday the director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas says the US embargo on Cuba cuts out US companies from Cuba oil exploration. And perhaps most importantly, Stephens says the embargo prevents the US from “engaging Cuba in meaningful environmental cooperation” and “addressing advance the threat of potential spills caused by hurricanes or technological failures, which could put our waters, fisheries and beaches at peril.” Sarah Stephens’s most fundamental corrective to this problem: replacing a policy “predicated on Cuba failing” with a “diplomatic approach that recognizes Cuba's sovereignty.”
· And finally, on the issue sovereignty in Cuba’s neighbor, Haiti – the US said Monday exiled former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide should delay his return to the country till after next Sunday. Reuters: “A State Department spokesman, Mark Toner, said that Mr. Aristide had the right to return, but doing so this week ‘can only be seen as a conscious choice to impact Haiti’s elections.’ A delay, Mr. Toner said, would ‘permit the Haitian people to cast their ballots in a peaceful atmosphere.’” The news service adds that the US has already asked South Africa to back its position on the matter. No word yet if they will.