With Drug Cartels Encroaching, Life Has Hardened On The Mexico-Guatemala Border

Hugo Rivera, a wide shouldered state trooper with fifteen years on the force and three years of experience in the state border patrol peered through the window of his truck, looking out at the verdant hills in Mexico’s southernmost state, Chiapas. As he drove, Rivera glanced at the cows grazing in a dew-covered field on the side of the road.

“We’re here to prevent crime through our presence,” he explained.

His AR-15 rifle jostled on the seat next to him as he navigated a stretch of puddles and potholes in the narrow road near Mexico's border with Guatemala. “We see a lot of cases of Central Americans coming up to rob the migrants. The ones with the tattoos stand out. MS-13, [Barrio] 18 - there are a lot of bad guys coming out of El Salvador,” he said.

Out on the Suchiate River, which forms the border closest to the Pacific coast, two teenage boys used long planks of wood to glide their rafts, carrying several cases of beer and two women towards the leafy green trees on the Guatemalan side. It was a pastoral panorama undercut by the two patrolmen holding heavy automatic rifles and wearing helmets and bulletproof vests sitting in the back of Rivera’s truck.

“We are a preventive police force. We try to reduce crime, that’s our job” Rivera said. “It’s more peaceful now than before.”

In 2005, Hurricane Stan destroyed the railway that runs through Ciudad Hidalgo, forcing the train known as "La Bestia," or "The Beast," to seek an alternate route across the Guatemalan border. “You used to see the whole top of the train covered with people, but now it’s fewer [migrants] since the train stopped [running through here],” Rivera said.

The War on Cartels

On the other side of the border, the situation is less tranquil. During a shootout in early 2013, Guatemalan soldiers killed four men riding in a bulletproof truck. At the time, local media quoted Guatemala's Interior Minister as confirming that Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán was killed in the firefight. It turned out to be an unconfirmed report.

Members of the Zetas, another powerful Mexican cartel, have pushed southward and are now working alongside Mara Salvatrucha gang members and other criminal organizations in Guatemala and the rest of Central America.

Lara Sierra-Rubia, a political risk analyst specializing in Latin America at Red 24, a global security consultancy based in London, explained: “[Former Mexican president Felipe] Calderón’s war on cartels placed pressure on Mexican cartels, and control over Central American routes for narcotics transportation became increasingly important to the organizations.” Sierra-Rubia points out that it was at that point that Los Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel began to make inroads in the region.

She added that now “every country in this region, to a greater or lesser degree, suffers from drug-related violence.”

Mexican and U.S. forces successfully closed off many air and sea routes for cocaine traffic, and as a result smugglers have turned to land routes. According to some estimates, cocaine worth as much as $350 billion at the street level in the U.S. treks north through the Guatemalan-Mexican border every year.

Starting in 2008, the Zetas pushed into Guatemala in an attempt to seize control of this increasingly important crossing point. Most violence in Guatemala occurs in the country’s capital city and along the Pacific coast near the country’s southeastern border with Honduras and El Salvador. A number of violent incidents, such as the 2011 slaying of 27 people – 26 of them beheaded – at a ranch in the province of Petén, however, have occurred closer to the Mexican border.

While Guatemalan armed forces and prosecutors try to dismantle the Zetas and other organized crime groups, police and army units in Chiapas are simply trying to keep the violence from spreading north across the border into Mexico.

“In Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras we’ve seen an increase insecurity and violence over the last few years due to the growing presence of drug trafficking,” said Adriana Beltran, a researcher at the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank.

In early October, government agents in Mexico City detained Gerardo Jaramillo, the alleged leader of the Zetas operation in Guatemala. A few days later, working with information obtained during interviews with Jaramillo, police in Guatemala seized a weapons cache from a house near Guatemala City. The narco arsenal included two grenade launchers, 12 shotguns, 12 pistols, 11 assault rifles, more than two thousand bullets and an assortment of ski-masks, tactical equipment and bulletproof vests.

The Guatemala Triangle

As the Zetas’ position in Guatemala has disintegrated due to the arrest and capture of dozens of capos and enforcers, violence has fallen. Crime perpetuated by Central American gangs continues to be a problem, especially for the migrants passing through Chiapas.

“There was a shootout a few years ago but now it’s pretty peaceful,” noted Rivera, the Mexican border agent, looking out at the river’s glassy water. While there is a steady flow of locals and migrants crossing on rafts made from oversized inner-tubes, organized crime doesn’t much use the crossing. “Mostly what we see is marijuana… Three months ago we seized two kilos of marijuana.”

Splashing through puddles on the dirt road next to the docking point for the rafts, Rivera said, “the last cocaine bust was on the highway. We found eight kilos in a car.”

Perhaps because the state serves as the strategic entrance point for cocaine shipments, Mexico’s major cartels have chosen not to use Chiapas as a battleground. Nonetheless, according to Sergio Aquino Lopez, the vice-minister of Chiapas’ migrant outreach initiative, since Hurricane Stan took out the train line, Central Americans immigrants are using alternate means to try to get to the U.S., and “security problems have increased in Chiapas. The Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 arrived.”

In other parts of Mexico, such as Acapulco and Monterrey, cartels and local gangs compete violently for diversified revenue streams that include extortion and drug sales. Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state, has been largely spared this problem. While Mexican organized crime groups are active in shipping bulk quantities of cocaine across the Guatemalan border, drug gangs have not shifted their focus toward extorting and robbing locals in Chiapas.

“The reports are that they [organized crime groups] have a presence in Guatemala, but we haven’t had many incidents in Chiapas,” Rivera said.

The triangle of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras is now considered to be the most violent non-war zone on the planet. San Pedro Sula, Honduras, was the most violent city in the world in 2012, recording more than three murders a day.

Guatemala City has also emerged as one of the region’s most violent. Between 2008 and 2012, more than 24,000 murders took place there. A similar dynamic of street violence and homicides has taken root in El Salvador, the home base of the Maras.

Sitting outside a migrant shelter just over the Guatemalan border in Chiapas, Saul Antonio Sanchez, a skinny 36-year-old from El Salvador who has one bullet lodged in his skull and another in his arm, explained: “I had an incident with a gang. I was shot, and now I can’t go back to my country.”

A gang in his neighborhood back home attacked Sanchez after he failed to make a payment for “protection.”

He shared further details. "The Maras started charging rent in 2000, extorting everyone. Now you can’t have a business without them asking for $20 a week. There’s always violence now. Every day there are deaths.”

By contrast, in Chiapas during 2010 and 2011 fewer than 200 murders a year were reported. The number nearly doubled in 2012 to 392, but that’s still much lower per capita than the number reported in Mexican cities such as Ciudad Juarez and Acapulco, or even U.S. cities such as Chicago and New York.

A Growing Problem

Crime does occur in Chiapas, particularly against migrants. According to Irmi Pundt, a soft-spoken caretaker at the Casa del Migrante shelter in Ciudad Hidalgo, “many migrants get robbed after crossing the river.”

Other criminals prey upon them as they move north and west through the state. “They use abandoned houses to rape the women,” she said.

Adriana Beltran agrees. “Violence against migrants is a growing problem.” she said.

Sitting on a rock outside the Casa del Migrante, Sandra del Carmen, a heavy-set 28-year-old from El Salvador said, “there are a lot of problems. It’s really dangerous to go [through Central America].”

Del Carmen was robbed before crossing the river into Mexico. “It was one man with a big machete,” she said. “He stole $35 and 300 pesos. Now I have nothing. I have to see if my brother can send something.”

In April 2012, two Central American men were detained in Chiapas, accused of kidnapping and extorting migrants. That November, Mara gangsters attacked a migrant shelter in the nearby city of Tapachula. In June 2013, agents in another Chiapas city, Arriaga, detained a Guatemalan member of Mara Salvatrucha who was accused of extorting and murdering migrants.

Mostly, Chiapas has been spared the downward spiral of street crime that is affecting other parts of Mexico and Central America. Fanning out along the riverbank, Officer Rivera and his troopers looked out over the still water at Guatemala and the migrants crossing on rafts.

“Mexico’s northern border is more problematic,” he said calmly. “Here, it’s pretty peaceful,” he explained.

Nathaniel Parish Flannery is a Fox News Latino contributor based in Mexico City.