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Drug gang suspects threaten 'war' in Guatemala

Men claiming to belong to the Zetas drug gang forced radio stations to broadcast a threat of war in a northern Guatemalan province where the government declared a state of siege last week, authorities said Tuesday.

The men arrived at three radio stations in the northern city of Coban and threatened to burn the premises down and kill journalists and their families if the message was not broadcast, Interior Ministry spokesman Nery Morales said.

The message, which the radio broadcasters read out Monday, threatened violence if Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom does not fulfill unspecified promises. It said "war will start in this country, in shopping malls, schools and police stations."

Guatemala declared a monthlong state of siege Dec. 19 in the northern province of Alta Verapaz, a prime corridor for smuggling drugs from Honduras to Mexico and a bastion of Mexico's brutal Zetas drug gang.

Residents in the city of Coban say gangs roam the streets with assault rifles and armored vehicles, extorting and kidnapping people. Shootouts have become a daily occurrence.

The government deployed 300 soldiers to join about 500 police in patrolling the province.

The state of siege lets the army detain suspects without warrants, conduct warrantless searches, prohibit gun possession and public gatherings, and control the local news media.

Guatemalan law allows a state of siege for acts of terrorism, sedition or "rebellion," or when events "put the constitutional order or security of the state in danger."

Security forces have captured 21 suspected Zeta members and seized 150 weapons — including assault rifles and grenade launchers — since the operations began.

Colom vowed Tuesday not to back down, though he did not specifically mention the threat against the radio stations.

"We are going to keep hitting the Zetas hard. Their threats are not going to intimidate me," he said during a public event.

The Zetas have begun controlling cocaine trafficking in the area since the gang killed Guatemalan drug boss Juan Jose "Juancho" Leon in 2008. They are blamed for numerous shootings in the region, plus the killing of five police officers in 2009, a confrontation that resulted in the confiscation of 500 grenades and other military weapons and ammunition.

Officials also say the Zetas have been recruiting from local indigenous groups, who suffer extreme poverty, in Alta Verapaz, and many people apprehended in Zeta operations are from the local area, according to prosecutors investigating drug crimes.