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Column 120709 Longmire

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Irony of Mexico’s Problems along its Southern Border

By Sylvia Longmire

It’s interesting how observers of Mexico’s drug war often assume that the country’s biggest problems are occurring along its northern border with the United States. What many people don’t realize is that Mexico has its own southern border problems with Guatemala (and Belize), and they’re not to be taken lightly.

Guatemala has a long history of instability, poverty, and being a haven for criminal activity. Its border with Mexico is tiny compared to the 2,000-mile length of Mexico’s border with the U.S., but that hasn’t made it any less problematic for a country that already has its hands full with a drug war, a sliding economy, and massive emigration issues.

Cuarto Poder had an interesting article on December 1 that discusses the easy flow of people and goods across the Suchiate River that divides Guatemala and Mexico. Apparently, no one attempts to cross the international bridges and go through the official checkpoints and ports of entry if they have illegitimate intentions. But the river is a different story.

People on makeshift rafts constructed of tires and pieces of wood—reminiscent of Cuban balseros trying to reach freedom in the Florida Keys—are moving along the river at all hours, transporting everything from food to motorcycles. Guatemalans say this activity occurs in the open, and the authorities even have a hand in managing the illicit flow of Mexican goods into Guatemala.

If the illegal cross-border transfers of food, clothing, and bicycles were the only issues at hand along Mexico’s southern border that might not be so bad. But unfortunately, that’s the nicest part of the problem.

According to Inter Press Service reports from October 2008, at least 15,000 children under the age of 18 are victims of child sex trafficking networks in Guatemala, estimates Casa Alianza, the Latin American branch of the New York-based Covenant House.

Guatemalan girls, and to a lesser extent boys, are victims of trafficking in border cities in southeastern Mexico, denounced Guatemalan vice consul Estuardo Figueroa in the city of Tapachula, in the Mexican state of Chiapas, in September 2008.

The U.S. State Department’s ninth annual Trafficking in Persons Report on Guatemala, published in June 2008, said, “Guatemalan men, women, and children are trafficked within the country, as well as to Mexico and the United States, for forced labor, particularly in agriculture…. In the Mexican border area, Guatemalan children are exploited for forced begging on streets and forced labor in municipal dumps (and) Guatemalan men, women, and children are trafficked for forced agricultural work, particularly on coffee plantations.”

As if the human trafficking problem along Mexico’s southern border weren’t bad enough, the area also poses a huge security risk because of its attractiveness as a training and recruiting area for Mexican cartels. In March 2009, Guatemalan security forces discovered a camp where Mexican drug traffickers trained dozens of gunmen. Los Zetas, formerly enforcers for Mexico's Gulf Cartel and now a cartel in their own right, were running the camp.

Two Zetas commanders and 37 recruits fled the camp before the police and army arrived, leaving behind 500 grenades, six rifles and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. Guatemalan authorities also found an illegal airstrip, an obstacle course, and equipment for practicing shooting at moving targets, according to Reuters reports.

So what is the Mexican government doing about its own southern border problems?

The Mexican navy has actually beefed up its presence in the region to try and deter some of this activity. In August 2009, the navy announced that it had installed six new naval stations in Mexico’s Chiapas state near the Suchiate and Usumacinta rivers. In November, the navy unveiled plans to start building nine bases that would allow it to more effective patrol the border with Guatemala and combat the activities of criminal groups.

And the increased naval presence can’t come soon enough.

According to a Los Angeles Times article from June 2009, Mexican drug gangs, primarily the Zetas and rivals from the state of Sinaloa, are ramping up operations in Central America to evade increased marine patrols near Mexico as they relay drug shipments to the United States and Europe. Since January 2008, Guatemalan police have arrested about 30 suspects who they said were working for the Zetas.

“Already, traffickers operate freely in rural stretches nearest Mexico: building secret airstrips in the northern province of Peten to ferry shipments of cocaine, paying small-time farmers to grow poppy and moving contraband across the porous frontier into Mexico.”

The Mexican army, on the other hand, is probably not in a position to provide much assistance to the navy. It is already stretched paper thin with deployments to various drug trade-related hot spots throughout the country. Sending troops to the land border with Guatemala is likely a logistically difficult and politically sensitive proposition.

Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom is trying to crack down on illicit activity within his country, and his government has seen some recent successes with major arrests and seizures. But rumors of ties to the drug trade surround Colom, and corruption taints his government and police forces even more so than it does in Mexico.

So it appears that the threat of border violence “spillover” is a reality that Mexico is more than familiar with, as criminal activity in Guatemala has long been spilling over into Chiapas state and points beyond. The government and the navy are trying their best to direct sufficient resources to the area, and it sounds like they understand the problem that insecurity in Guatemala poses to their own national security.

But even if the Mexican government can manage to gain some leverage over drug cartels and human trafficking organizations from within, it needs to further develop and maintain a parallel strategy to repel these same threats from without in order to hold on to any gains it makes in the process.

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Sylvia Longmire is a former Air Force officer and Special Agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, where she specialized in counterintelligence, counterespionage, and force protection analysis. After being medically retired in 2005, Ms. Longmire worked for almost four years as a Senior Intelligence Analyst for the California State Terrorism Threat Assessment Center, providing daily situational awareness to senior state government officials on southwest border violence and significant events in Latin America. She received her Master’s degree from the University of South Florida in Latin American and Caribbean Studies, with a focus on the Cuban and Guatemalan revolutions. Ms. Longmire is currently an independent consultant and freelance writer.  Her website is Mexico's Drug War; she is a regular contributor to Examiner.com; and her email address is spooky926@gmail.com.

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