Guatemala fears Mexican drug gangs advancing

Guatemalan troops on operation The state's control does not go far in the Peten

Visit Guatemala's Peten region on the border with Mexico and Belize, and it soon becomes clear why Mexican drug cartels are moving some of their operations into Central American nations.

The Peten, a scarcely populated rainforest covering more 30,000 sq km (11,500sq miles), was the cradle of Mayan civilisation.

Today it is widely considered a haven for criminal activities ranging from human trafficking to illegal logging, and, principally, drug smuggling.

The amount of illegal drugs seized in Guatemala doubled between 2008 and 2009, according to the US state department. About 250 tonnes of cocaine are thought to have passed through the country in 2009.

Cartels fly drugs in from Colombia and other South American nations, using small aircraft. These land on clandestine airstrips, and the cargo is unloaded and sent on its way across the porous border with Mexico and on to the US market.

Remains of aircraft that failed in their mission can be seen from the air.

"Drug violence is spilling over the border, as the Mexican government's tough stand on narco-traffickers pushes notorious organisations like the Zetas southwards," the US state department said in October, referring to one of Mexico's deadliest drug gangs.

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Drug trafficking is not a new phenomenon in Guatemala, but the concern now is that an overflow of Mexico's drug conflict could shake this country to its core.

Cartels, experts say, take advantage of the institutional weaknesses of Guatemala and the lax law enforcement - and nowhere is this more evident that in the Peten rainforest.

Only 250 young soldiers are in charge of patrolling a 5,000sq km area of the Peten.

For a hard terrain, they only have simple pick-up trucks - dwarfed by the massive trucks used by cartels. To fly around, they mostly rely on the light aircraft that are confiscated from criminals.

Breeding ground

But the crucial difference is the lack of state presence in the wilderness of the Peten.

"The absence of authority allows them to see this area where they can act freely," said the colonel in charge of the battalion, who preferred not to be named.

More worryingly, says Norma Cruz, a human rights activist, cartels find the local authorities easy to corrupt.

"They have two options: they either join these (criminal) groups, or are eliminated," said Ms Cruz.

Recording the violence

Family members of a murdered bus driver are inconsolable. Photo taken 15 October, 2010

Carlos Duarte has been photographing violent crime in Guatemala City for more than five years. He now works at Nuestro Diario, the top-selling tabloid newspaper. He has seen violence rise to unprecedented levels. You didn't see this violence even during the civil war," he says.

Warning: Some of the images are distressing

Corruption reaches the highest levels. Several top officials were fired over accusations of corruption and suspected links to criminal organisations.

President Alvaro Colom has instituted some purges of the security forces.

In an interview with BBC News at the presidential palace, he said his government was "clean" but he admitted that the country faced a big challenge.

"We think drug trafficking is strongly invading Central America," he said.

"We were looking at the routes of planes and ships used to smuggle drugs, and it is incredible how Central America is being hit. From Acapulco to Colombia, it's a severe aggression."

He says that Guatemala's poverty creates a breeding ground for cartels to recruit locals into their ranks.

"If you don't have social programmes, these narcos have the communities on their side," said Mr Colom.

"You won't believe this, but I've had demonstrations here outside the presidential palace asking for the release of a drug baron."

Regional struggle

The increased presence of drug cartels generates anxiety in one of the most violent countries in the world.

In Guatemala, there are 52 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, compared with 14 in Mexico and 5.4 in the US.

Guatemalan police officer escorts a suspected member of the Zetas at Guatemala City airport on 9 December 2010 The presence of drug gangs is adding to the threat of violence in Guatemala

And according to UN data, more than 95% of murders are never solved.

Official figures show that 2009 saw the highest number of violent deaths in Guatemala's recent history - 3,949 - and the government says that more than 40% of the killings are drug-related.

Observers say that the challenge for Guatemala comes not only from the violence itself, but from the way it decides to confront it.

"Fighting organised crime poses a double challenge", says Francisco Dall'Anese, head of the UN-sponsored Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) that was created four years ago to help the country investigate serious crimes.

"The first is to win the battle against organised crime; the second is to win it maintaining the rule of law," he says. "Any violent solution will only engender more violence".

And Guatemala cannot win the fight against organised crime alone, says President Colom.

It is a regional struggle against the traffickers, he says.

"When President Calderon (of Mexico) is successful, they come here. If we manage to achieve success, they will go to Honduras, but sooner or later, if we don't hit them all together, they will come back."

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