First of a three-part series
Mexico's drug cartels are carving out new territory in Central America, in some of the poorest and most fragile countries in the hemisphere.
Mexican gangs are cutting clandestine airstrips in the Guatemalan jungle, laundering money in El Salvador and unloading boatloads of cocaine on the coast of Honduras.
The World Bank recently warned that narcotics trafficking poses one of the greatest threats to development in the region.
Guatemala is dealing with one of Mexico's most feared cartels: Los Zetas. The Zetas have been blamed for some of the worst massacres in Mexico's bloody drug war. Their presence in Guatemala has been no different.
Guatemala's Wild West
In the capital of the northern Guatemalan Peten region, the bus station is just a small parking lot in the city's main market. Grimy vans and small buses idle by the curb, spewing clouds of powdery, black soot. Several of the drivers have pistols strapped conspicuously to their belts, and they call out the names of Mexican border posts — destinations for migrants, food smugglers and traveling merchants.
This is the Guatemalan equivalent of the Wild West — a remote, sparsely-populated area along Mexico's southern flank.
A local Catholic priest, Father Javier Pla, says in this area, there are few health clinics, schools, police posts or other government services.
"Eighty percent of the residents in the vast Peten province live off subsistence agriculture," he says, adding that there is little or no help from the government. "The consequence is this: people live poorly, or migrate to the United States, or align themselves with criminal groups in order to get by."
And over the last three years there's been a new, powerful criminal group offering work — the Zetas.
'A Huge Aggression' By The Cartels
Earlier this month, dozens of heavily armed gunmen, allegedly from the Zetas, stormed a cattle ranch near here. They tied up the ranch staff, beat them and left 27 people dead. Most were decapitated.
It was the worst massacre in Guatemala since the end of the civil war in 1996.
In an interview with NPR the day before the massacre, President Alvaro Colom said international drug trafficking gangs are the biggest threat facing Guatemala and the region.
"Definitely these groups are very strong financially. They're strong in terms of violence. They're strong in how they manipulate authorities," Colom said. "We are doing what we can against them with our limited resources."
The cartels, with their tens of billions of dollars in revenue each year, have access to machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. They use airplanes, speed boats and even submarines to move cocaine from Colombia into the region. Under attack in Mexico, the Zetas have built their own airstrips in the Guatemalan jungle.
Colom said some parts of his country near the Mexican border are currently controlled by the cartels. The government is fighting back.
"It's a huge aggression. At times our resources are limited, but yes, we are regaining control of our territory," he said.
The push into Guatemala by the Zetas and other Mexican gangs has coincided with a significant rise in violent crime. Guatemala's murder rate is now twice that of Mexico's. And in neighboring Honduras, which faces a similar problem with drug traffickers, the situation is even worse: Honduras now has the highest homicide rate in the hemisphere.
Exploiting A Vacuum
Drug smuggling in Central America is nothing new. What has changed recently is the volume of drugs and the levels of violence.
"Before 2008, the violent incidents related to drug trafficking weren't as common as they've become in the last three years," says Julie Lopez, a Guatemalan writer and researcher who recently wrote a report for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington titled "Guatemala's Crossroads."
The report chronicles how Guatemala's state security apparatus broke down in the years after the 1996 peace accords — a period in which the army was cut by two-thirds and a new national police force was still in its infancy.
Organized crime rushed in to exploit the security vacuum.
Lopez says Guatemala still isn't in a position to confront the international drug gangs.
"You have, in some areas, some policemen with 9 mm guns that maybe work, or not, having to face drug traffickers with AK-47s and grenade launchers," she says. "It's a lot to ask of a policeman who doesn't have any means of protecting himself."
But the problem in Guatemala isn't just whether or not the police have sufficient fire power.
A Recipe For Guatemala's Collapse?
Fernando Giron Soto, a security analyst at the Myrna Mack Foundation in Guatemala City, says the problem is that drug trafficking money has permeated Guatemalan society. It corrupts government officials and it flows directly or indirectly into the coffers of the business elite.
"An economy as small as Guatemala's does not support the quantity of banks we have here, nor could it support them, given the difficult economic situation facing this country," he says.
More than half of Guatemala's workforce toils in the informal economy — selling goods on the street, doing manual labor for $10 or less a day. And at the other end of the economic spectrum, those in the small upper class drive German sports cars and avoid paying most taxes. Even by Latin American standards, income distribution in Guatemala remains dramatically skewed in favor of the rich.
Giron and others warn that the volatile mix of a weak state, powerful drug traffickers, lots of weapons and intractable poverty could cause the country to collapse.
"Unless the elites take seriously the question of this country's survival, we run the risk of becoming something — not exactly equal — but something similar to Haiti," Giron says.
Tourism, Business Effects
The impact of the narcotics trade is felt throughout this small country.
Drug-fueled violence and corruption discourage new business investment. The government is forced to expend resources and money chasing gunmen from the latest massacre.
And Guatemala's fragile tourism industry loses customers.
"Besides all this ugly stuff about drug trafficking, this is a safe place," says Anselmo Galicia, a tour operator in the northern city of Flores.
Galicia takes American and European tourists on trips to the Mayan pyramids at Tikal and on treks in the jungle. He's never heard of a single tourist getting caught up in the narcotics violence, yet news reports of bloody drug gang shootouts, he says, drive away foreign visitors.
Galicia recounts being in the travel agency office just after word got out of an hours-long clash in Peten between a convoy of Zetas and the police.
"And after that event, they canceled all the reservations," leaving only three or four remaining, he says. That was at just one travel agency — he says the loss in revenue for the region was huge.
President Colom says there's no way Guatemala can tackle this problem on its own. The best solution, he says bluntly, would be for U.S. consumers to stop buying cocaine.