MORALES, GUATEMALA -- With shops selling expensive leather saddles and men in cowboy hats strutting through its lanes, this town of 50,000 in Guatemala's eastern department of Izabal has long been the heartland of the country's cattle-raising and farming industries. Situated on a flat plain emptying out into the Caribbean Sea and crisscrossed by the meandering Rio Dulce, Morales has in recent years been the epicenter of a far more lethal trade. It has become ground zero for the country's increasingly violent role as a way station for cocaine bound from South America to feed ravenous appetites in the United States.
There are hints of this in aspects of daily life in Morales--from the visible Glock pistols and Uzi submachine guns sported by men descending from pick-up trucks and sport-utility vehicles with blacked-out windows, to the sprawling and curiously empty new luxury hotels, as well as a body count that usually numbers well over a dozen in the course of a single week.
"There has been a great increase in violence in the area in the last several months, which would suggest that a turf war was going on," says a priest who has been working in the region since the late 1980s but declined to be named for this article out of fear for his safety. "Weekends here are dangerous."
In March, Juan "Juancho" Jose Leon Ardon, a local man said to be a drug lord, was killed along with ten other men in a wild shootout in neighboring Zacapa state, where Guatemalan police later recovered 16 semi-automatic AR-15 assault rifles and an M-16. Along with the body of Juancho--who'd fled a Mexican prison in 2001--and several of his bodyguards, were found the bodies of two Mexican nationals, believed to member of Los Zetas, the brutal rogue soldiers who act as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel, the Mexican crime syndicate. ("Zeta" comes from the Mexican federal police radio code for high-ranking officers.) Jauncho was believed by local law enforcement officials to have been working as a middle man, helping to bring cocaine from Colombia to Mexico in the service of the Gulf Cartel's arch-rivals, the Sinaloa Cartel of Joaquin "El Chapo" (Shorty) Guzman. Fighting between the two groups has killed hundreds of people in Mexico in recent years.
The level of insecurity in Guatemala has reached such a level that, in impoverished neighborhoods such as the capital's gritty Villa Nueva slum, often the scene of inter-gang warfare, heavily-armed masked men (thought to be off-duty police officers) scoop suspected gang members from the streets, never to be seen again except in city morgues or dumped by the side of the road. For those of more substantial means, there is the world of gates, guards, and highly disciplined movements, an existence that condemns those who live it to dwelling in their own kind of ghetto, and brings no great peace of mind. And the links between private security contractors and organized crime are substantial and continuing.
The gun battle that killed Juancho, his men, and the Mexicans was not an isolated incident, nor was it by any stretch the most shocking crime to take place in Guatemala in recent years. According to figures released by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), from 1999 to 2006, Guatemala's homicide rate increased more than 120 percent, from 2,655 homicides in 1999 to 6,033 in 2006, a national homicide rate of 47 per 100,000 inhabitants--though still trailing the murder rates of its neighbors to the south, El Salvador and Honduras. Even given these grim statistics, the UNDP numbers noted that only a fraction of all victims of violence were taken into account by Guatemalan police and justice statistics.
The Zacapa massacre, however, was indicative of a larger pattern. The ability of the Mexican gunmen--who witnesses said numbered at least 30--to pass fully-armed and unhindered across the length of Guatemala, engage in a prolonged and fatal firefight and then simply vanish into thin air made perfectly clear one other central fact of Guatemala's current agony. Official complicity has abetted at every turn the wave of drug-related violence that has cleaved Guatemalan society like a bloody scythe in recent years--ensnaring in the drug war vast numbers of public officials, drug traffickers, gang members, and ordinary civilians. The next casualty, many fear, will be Guatemala's nascent democracy itself.
Roots of War
The roots of the country's current crisis lay in Guatemala's three decade-long civil war, which lasted from 1960 until 1996. Successive Guatemalan governments--often with the complicity of the United States--battled to defeat a leftist insurgency centered in the country's mountainous and jungle-covered recesses. As a series of military dictators built up a sophisticated intelligence-gathering and surveillance capability in the late 1970s and 1980s, members of Guatemala's armed forces, with little regard for human rights, were given free rein to battle rebels in a conflict that eventually claimed an estimated 200,000 lives.
During the regimes of dictators General Romeo Lucas Garcia (1978-82) and his successor General Efrain Rios Montt (1982-83), in particular, elements of Guatemala's military intelligence services were able to create complex criminal networks that exist more or less intact to this day. Lucas Garcia fled to exile in Venezuela, where he died in 2006. Rios Montt went on to found the Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (Guatemalan Republican Front, or FRG), one of Guatemala's main political parties. In 2003, he even ran, though unsuccessfully, for the country's presidency. He currently serves as the FRG's secretary general and as a deputy...