US Navy Helps to Hunt Down Drug Runners in Guatemala

At a small naval base in southern Florida, the U.S. has established a joint intelligence sharing center, known as the Joint Inter-Agency Task Force - South (JIATF-S), where federal agents, both military and law enforcement, try to combat the Latin American drug cartels.

A representative from almost all South and Central American countries sits at the U.S. base in Key West. They even have an online chat room with military representatives from the participating countries communicating with each other sharing actionable intelligence.

As Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon wages war against the seven Mexican drug families, some of those cartels are pushing south. One of those families, the Zetas are making their presence felt in the highlands and lowlands of Mexico’s southern neighbor, Guatemala, which is rapidly becoming a favorite trans-shipment point for South American cocaine.

Recent reports suggest that the entire Guatemalan region of Coban is now controlled by the Zeta cartel, which is buying up huge swaths of land to essentially eliminate the Guatemalan cartels who are earning money as “middle men”.

Guatemala’s President Álvaro Colom Caballeros was quoted recently saying that many of the cartel members from that region now speak with Mexican accents.

On Saturday, a Fox News team accompanied by Guatemala’s Minister of Immigration Enrique Degenhart visited the Tecun Uman crossing point and witnessed dozens of homemade inflatable rafts carrying people and smugglers across the border into Mexico. A constant stream of foot traffic also wades through the river into Mexico, a trip that takes a mere five minutes.

Between 285 and 350 metric tons of cocaine passes through Guatemala each year on its way to the United States, according to US and UN statistics. The drug smugglers and those simply crossing to sell goods at a slightly higher price in Mexico paid no notice to Minister Degenhart or the Guatemalan soldiers accompanying him.

The cartels control the entire border, according to Guatemalan officials. The customs agents do not see it as their job to check for drugs. It is too dangerous and no Guatemalan police were present at the border that day.

“We are tired of being used,” Minister Degenhart told the Fox team. “We are tired of organized crime using Guatemala as a transit point for jumping into Mexico and the United States.”

One of the ways the US is helping the Guatemalan government is by training its naval special forces. US SEALS have stood up a Guatemalan team in the past eight months using a semi-submersible homemade submarines.

The Guatemalan Navy’s most recent interception was in July. Five tons of cocaine was confiscated. As recently as September, their elite force found a small speed boat filled with 296 kilos of cocaine.

But without more funding and help, they cannot secure the porous shoreline and borders. The Zeta cartel knows it and that’s why it is moving in, taking over the traditional trafficking corridors, controlling the drug routes before they enter Mexico.