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America's Third War: Fighting Drug Cartels in Guatemala

El Mas Loco (“The Craziest One”), the head of La Familia drug cartel, died in a hail of gunfire with Mexican authorities.

While Mexico touts the killing as another drug kingpin taken care of, Guatemala, Mexico’s neighbor to the south, is worried about what this success might mean for its own safety. The country fears that the cartels will move south across a porous border using Guatemala as a new base for their operations.

The murder rate in Guatemala is already double that of Mexico, where more than 10,000 drug-related murders have taken place this year.

Now there is evidence that one of Mexico’s most vicious cartels, the Zetas, are setting up bases in Guatemala as they come under increasing pressure from Felipe Calderon’s government. The Zetas have set up training camps and are trying to intimidate Guatemalan cartels. So far they’ve forced at least one Guatemalan drug family to leave the country.

“When you have drug traffickers afraid of other drug traffickers, you know its getting pretty bad,” U.S. Ambassador Stephen McFarland told Fox News at the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City.

Earlier this year one of the cartels sent a message to Guatemalans by leaving several decapitated heads on the steps of Parliament.

The Zetas are in a vicious war with Mexico’s Gulf Cartel and are trying to cut out the middle man as they fights for trafficking routes.

Guatemala has long served as one of the main transit points for cocaine into the U.S. The drug arrives by sea from Colombia and Ecuador and then travels by land through Mexico into America. Last year, between 285 and 350 metric tons of cocaine transited Guatemala.

“Just about all of the drugs going through Mexico into the United States go through Guatemala,” McFarland explained.

But the $13- to $25-billion drug trade amounts to more money than the combined defense budgets of all the Latin American countries.

So how do the cartels get their drugs to the U.S.?

For one, they build small semi-submersible submarines in the triple canopy jungles of South America. The crafts can carry between 4 and 10 metric tons of cocaine on board, a payload worth approximately $100 million. Each with a four man crew, the homemade subs can travel up to 4,000 miles without refueling. They cost about $500,000 apiece for the cartel to build.

For nearly more than 5 years, the Guatemalan and U.S. militaries have seen a surge of such subs and have been able to stop some of them.

In October 2009, Guatemalan special forces caught a submarine and seized the 5 tons of cocaine on board.

These soldiers are trained by U.S. Navy SEALs, but U.S. Special Forces are also training a Guatemalan special force tactical strike team. The military has donated a number of UH-2 helicopters to help with cartel raids.

Fox news was able to visit the base in the Pacific where this training takes place.

Soldiers who took part in the October operation say those they arrested lived in a confined area so small that the occupants could stand or sit but never lie down. These were common conditions, they said.

There are “no heads, and no beds,” one U.S. counter-narcotics official who has experience intercepting these subs laughed. “And the crew lives on Red Bull and spam.”

Crews dump the submersibles off the Pacific coasts of Guatemala and Mexico and transfer the cocaine bundles to waiting ships. These ships speed off to the unguarded coastlines and then take overland routes toward the U.S. border. There, one kilogram of cocaine sells for between $17,000 and $32,000.

“There is a growing reef of these semi-submersibles off the coast of Mexico,” another U.S. official said.

The official is one of many who track the drug movements and shares intelligence at a joint interagency task force center known as JIATF-S based in Key West. At JIATF-S, members of the U.S. military, the Drug Enforcement Agency, Customs and Border Patrol and the Coast Guard work with representatives of most Latin American countries.

On July 27, 2009 JIATF-S intercepted a semi-submersible 300 miles off the coast of Colombia. A year earlier, Congress passed the Drug Trafficking Interdiction Act that essentially makes it an automatic felony for anyone caught onboard these unregistered vessels. The law served as recognition that there is no other use for these homemade subs than for smuggling contraband.

McJustice

In Guatemala, the U.S. embassy and the United States Agency for International Development have helped the government set up a number of 24-hour courts to help deal with the large number of cases emanating from drug cartel violence.

These courts are especially busy with the high rate of murders and kidnappings associated with drug cartel gangs.

The court in downtown Guatemala City looks like a Stop and Shop or 7-11 but in the basement of a high-rise courthouse.

The prisoners are held in a group cell in a lock up in the basement garage. They catcall to passersby. When their names are called, they are escorted to what almost looks like a drive-through window to pick up their police paperwork and charges. A few steps from there, they wait to be assigned a public defender, while the judge sits in an all-glass courtroom just steps away.

The U.S. State Department has also set up a model police precinct in one of Guatemala City’s most crowded and violent suburbs, Villa Nueva, where conviction rates are high and community outreach has led to a very successful tip hotline.

But when a Fox team visited Guatemala’s northern border at El Carmen, the main pedestrian crossing in Guatemala’s southwest, the complexity of helping the government tackle its cartel and border problem became apparent.

Guatemala has a 577-mile long border with Mexico. It has eight official crossing points and 1,200 blind crossings.

Immigration Minister Enrique Degenhart, an affable English-speaking former businessman who was educated at Boston College, traveled with our Fox team to show us the border.

We landed at a military base in a banana grove not far from where the Zetas carried out a brazen prison break earlier in the week, freeing a cartel leader who had murdered a well-known soccer star. Eleven suspects, members of the Zeta cartel, were subsequently arrested and as a result, the minister had to travel with an armed escort and a bodyguard as he showed us the border.

“We are tired of being used. We are tired of organized crime using Guatemala as a transit point for jumping into Mexico and into the U.S.,” Degenhart said.

At the El Carmen crossing, there was chaos. A constant stream of pedestrians simply rolled up their pant legs and waded through the river - a five minute walk from the Guatemalan side of the border into Mexico. Upriver, dozens of truck tire rafts waited to ferry illegal migrants and their contraband across the river - a two minute ride. Authorities are unable to stop the flow.

“Our country is being used as a pipeline or bridge for drugs going into the U.S.,” Degenhart explained.

He walked us toward the bridge that crosses the river to Mexico and pointed out row upon row of trinket sellers and shops who he said were likely front companies for those selling drugs and weapons.

“They probably don’t live off of selling tortillas and rice and beans,” Degenhart told the visiting Fox team.

Not a single policeman was visible. The authorities had recently cut down a series of zip lines that the locals use to cross the river with contraband when the river is too high. On this day, they simply walked.

While we were there, his officers received word that the Zetas had threatened to kidnap members of his team in retaliation, forcing us to cut our visit short.

The U.S. is trying to help Guatemala begin to secure its border with Mexico by investing in new border crossings where the Guatemalan authorities can start checking vehicles. The new border crossing would cost about $7 million.

U.S. officials who specialize in counter-narcotics worry that Al Qaeda will soon realize the porous nature of the Central American-U.S. corridor. They suggest that America’s border problems don’t end at border cities like El Paso and Brownsville, Texas. They say border problem begins in Colombia and must be tackled in Guatemala, where it is easier to intercept the drugs and people before they make their way too far north.

More from Fox News' America's Third War Series

Jennifer Griffin currently serves as a national security correspondent for FOX News Channel . She joined FNC in October 1999 as a Jerusalem-based correspondent.