Guatemala ends 'siege' in drug-plagued province

The Guatemalan government lifted a two-month-old state of siege Friday in a northern province that authorities said was controlled by Mexican drug traffickers.

President Alvaro Colom said the emergency measures allowed security forces to reduce violence in Alta Verapaz and arrest at least 20 suspected members of the Mexico-based Zetas drug cartel.

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

Those emergency powers will no longer be in effect, but Colom said hundreds of soldiers and police sent to Alta Verapaz in December will continue to provide security.

"We are aware the these criminals are waiting for us to retreat so they can return, but no security units will leave," Colom told mayors and journalists in Coban, capital of Alta Verapaz.

Interior Minister Carlos Menocal said crime dropped 50 percent in Alta Verapaz during the state of siege. He said there were 28 homicides in the two months before the army was sent in, compared to six in the two months that the state of siege lasted.

Soldier seized 230 guns and five planes used by drug traffickers.

The Zetas are a group of ex-soldiers who began as hit men for Mexico's 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.

The Zetas are also known for kidnapping and extorting Central American migrants trekking through Mexico to reach the United States. Mexican authorities blame the gang for the August massacre of 72 migrants who refused to join their ranks.

The Zetas began controlling cocaine trafficking in the Alta Verapaz region in 2008 after killing Guatemalan drug boss Juan Jose "Juancho" Leon.

Gangs roamed the streets with assault rifles and armored vehicles, and shootouts became a near daily occurrence.

The Zetas were also blamed for killing of five police officers in the region in 2009, a confrontation that resulted in the confiscation of 500 grenades and other military weapons and ammunition.