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Column 100812 Brewer

Monday, October 8, 2012

Dangers in Guatemala Imperil the Security of the USA and Mexico

By Jerry Brewer

On December 11, 2006, in what has generally been described as the starting point of Mexico's war against drug trafficking organizations (DTO), newly elected President Felipe Calderon sent around 6,500 federal police and troops to the state of Michoacan.  And what quickly and continuously followed was to cut a violent and bloody swath that too went south and crossed into neighboring Guatemala.

Actually, Mexico had been sustaining escalated drug violence since the 1990s, but the government response had been seen as a "generally passive stance." That violence escalated in 2000, when then President Vicente Fox sent troops to Nuevo Laredo "to fight the cartels."

Former Mexican special forces deserters, in the 1990s, first formed the Zetas that became the eventual catalyst for the escalated mass carnage inflicted upon Mexico, Guatemala and beyond. President Calderon's relentless push against the Zetas forced a retreat into Guatemala, where the policing and rule of law was weak, inexperienced, corrupt, and fertile ground for the Zetas to strengthen, recruit members, and generally enjoy a safe haven.

Guatemala's northern and eastern provinces suffered the early onslaught of this expanding reach through well planned executions, the decapitation of opponents, and the kidnapping of local government officials.  Menacing messages were written throughout the cities announcing Zeta's rule, as many walked the streets with openly displayed firearms.

Concerns by some in Washington, in 2009, prompted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to urge for action against the spreading influence of Mexican DTOs in Guatemala, and in another weak neighbor, Honduras.

It had been clear to Guatemalan and Honduran officials for years that their weak enforcement infrastructure and institutions were no match for the level of firepower and paramilitary expertise of the Zetas. The cry of potential failed states rang out again in the media as it had previously with Mexico.  Seizures of some weapons in these regions prompted a police commander to say that "these are things we have seen only in photos of Iraq and the Gulf."

Little attention was being given by Mexico, or for that matter the U.S., in working to protect and securing Mexico's 541 mile porous border with Guatemala -- the gateway and pipeline through Central America for massive Andean originating drug shipments. Yet, generated by the outcry against violence in and around Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, in August 2005 the U.S. sought to simply secure its southern boundary against illegal immigration and border crossings.

It is, and has been, no secret that Mexican organized crime syndicates are increasingly expanding their operations south due to effective action, and increasing pressure, against them by Mexico's military and federal police, with U.S. support. These major shift patterns do in fact demonstrate the DTO's ability to continue to germinate within the Americas. Routine policing and weak criminal justice systems are currently no match for their expertise, firepower, and wealth to corrupt.

Zetas training camps have been located throughout Guatemala. One of the camps found yielded "a stash of 500 grenades." With arsenals of assault rifles confiscated in Guatemala, "investigators say they believe dozens of recruits were being taught how to ambush police patrols."

As well, the Zetas continue to strengthen their grip on Honduras, and they are looking for stronger footholds in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and beyond. They are simply continuing to develop a multinational operation.

Guatemala is facing much more than just the drug traffickers. There is a proliferation of powerful youth gangs, such as the MS-13 and MS 18th Street, with many members throughout the northern cone of Central America -- and in the U.S. Their violent crimes run the gamut from murder for hire, armed robbery, kidnapping/extortion, and related acts.

In Guatemala there is no single solution to the deteriorating security situation. A multifaceted and strategic approach for success must be concerned about more than the amounts of drugs intercepted and seized.

Success will depend on the creation of capable and durable law enforcement and criminal justice institutions that are effective in the fight against crime and corruption.  As well, they must be responsive to citizens with youth crime prevention, community-based policing, respect for human rights, and related community and court services interventions.

The fact is, Guatemala's stability is a critical component for the security of Mexico and the U.S., and the law enforcement challenges alone that Guatemala faces are monumental tasks.

An international training core of collaborative nations of diverse sources is paramount to achieve a lasting, meaningful, and much desired success story for the Guatemalan homeland and its neighbors.


Jerry Brewer is C.E.O. of Criminal Justice International Associates, a global threat mitigation firm headquartered in northern Virginia.  His website is located at

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