COBAN, Guatemala – The Guatemalan military declared a state of siege Sunday in a northern province that authorities say has been overtaken by Mexican drug traffickers.
The government initiated the monthlong measure in the Alta Verapaz province to reclaim cities that have been taken over by the Zetas drug gang, Ronaldo Robles, a spokesman for Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom, told radio station Emisoras Unidas.
"It is to bring peace to the people and recover their confidence in the government," he said.
A state of siege allows the army to detain suspects without warrants, conduct warrantless searches, prohibit gun possession and public gatherings, and control the local news media. Guatemalan law allows the measure amid acts of terrorism, sedition or "rebellion," or when events "put the constitutional order or security of the state in danger."
The state of siege was put in place for 30 days, but "will last as long as necessary," Colom told Emisoras Unidas. He asked citizens to trust and cooperate with authorities.
The Zetas are a group of ex-soldiers who started as hit men for the Gulf drug cartel before breaking off on their own, quickly becoming one of Mexico's most violent gangs and spreading a reign of terror into Central America. They are notorious for their brutality, having pioneered the now-widespread practice of beheading rivals and officials.
In addition to drugs, The Zetas have branched out into all manner of organized crime activity: extorting businesses; smuggling oil stolen from pipelines; controlling the sale of pirated CDs and DVDs; and charging migrants "fees" to pass through their territory.
The cartel is blamed for some of the worst of Mexico's soaring drug violence — including the massacre in August of 72 migrants who refused to join their ranks. An ongoing turf war with their former allies, the Gulf cartel, has terrorized much of the northeastern states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon.
In Guatemala, Robles said numerous cities in Alta Verapaz province have been overrun by drug traffickers and that the government decided it was time to take them back.
Anti-drug agents wearing ski masks to hide their identity patrolled the streets of the provincial capital, Coban, on Sunday.
Police officers and soldiers searched at least 16 homes and offices, as well as all vehicles entering and exiting the city, the government said on its website.
Gudy Rivera, a congressman from the opposition Patriotic Party, said the government's action came too late.
The state of siege also is meaningless "if we continue to have police corruption, a weak justice system and weak jails," added David Martinez Amador, an analyst and expert on criminal behavior.
Guatemalan news media have reported that the local population lives in fear of drug traffickers, who they say roam the streets in all-terrain vehicles and armed with assault weapons. Some were forced to give up their property to the traffickers, according to the reports.
A leaked Oct. 28, 2009 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City described a proposal by Mexican Defense Secretary Gen. Guillermo Galvan Galvan to control the violence in that country by calling a type of state of emergency suspending some constitutional rights in several cities.
Then-Interior Minister Fernando Gomez Mont batted down the idea, and in the cable, then-Charge d'Affaires John Feeley said that U.S. government analysis showed the benefits were "uncertain at best, and the political costs appear high."