Beyond the fight with drug gangs at the U.S. border, American forces are helping Guatemala combat a growing cartel problem spilling over from their border with Mexico.
About 150 miles north of Guatemala City, deep in the jungle, is a military base where Guatemalan Special Forces are being trained secretly by U.S. Green Berets.
The U.S. officers say the Guatemalan troops are committed to the task of defeating the Mexican drug cartels and are training tirelessly. “They rest when they sleep,” said one Green Beret, who said the Guatemalan officers are engaged in exercises day and night.
The drills often focus on air assault operations, advanced marksmanship and structure breaches using explosives which allow the teams to break down doors while maintaining the element of surprise.
All of this intensive training is for one purpose: to rid Guatemala of the violence and intimidation associated with the drug cartels that have become increasingly pervasive in the last 3 years. Guatemala’s murder rate is now twice that of Mexico where more than 11,000 people have been killed just this year. President Felipe Calderon ordered his military to launch an assault on Mexico’s seven cartels four years ago.
But Guatemala’s military is far smaller than that of its neighbor to the north with 15,500 troops. The small number of soldiers is sanctioned by the government and is a result of the public’s distrust of the armed forces after decades of civil war.
And so Guatemala’s border remains undefended, allowing virtually anyone to cross without question, a fact echoed in U.S. Embassy documents made public by WikiLeaks this week and observed on a recent visit to the border by a Fox News team.
The porous border gives drug cartels free reign in Guatemala.
Police in the suburbs of Guatemala City say many farmers who live along the Mexico-Guatemala border have relinquished their land to Los Zetas, a notorious Mexican cartel known for its brutal tactics. Others have abandoned the border region anticipating that their property would be confiscated and their families would soon be targets.
“They ask how much they can make out the check to their widow,” says one Guatemala City resident who has watched private property and community treasures fall into the hands of Los Zetas, including one popular recreation stop in Peten, in the northern part of the country.
But other farmers are not so lucky. Police say the Zetas brutally tortured then murdered two farmers this year, apparently the punishment for not having information they sought in a brutal interrogation. The Guatemalan Special Forces responded to this incident and arrested two Zeta informants and confiscated weapons including an AK-47 and an M-16 as well as five cars with Mexican license plates.
But last week Los Zetas staged a dramatic prison break in San Marcos near the Mexican border, which is why the elite unit of Guatemalan forces is training particularly hard on the base in northern Guatemala.
And while there are small strides in fighting the cartels in Guatemala with the help of the U.S. Embassy, there are set-backs in other countries within the region.
In Costa Rica, the Sinaloa cartel has been establishing a base, according to recent reports which add that U.S. Drug Enforcement agents expect the presence of Mexico’s most powerful cartel, a rival to Los Zetas, to increase its power base in Costa Rica, a Central American nation which has no military.