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Guatemala declares 'state of siege' to combat Mexican drug cartel, limiting rights

December 21, 2010 |  3:25 pm

Police guatemala suspects zetas coban

The brutal Mexican drug-trafficking organization known as the Zetas has made inroads in Guatemala, controlling territory near the Central American country's border with southern Mexico and prompting the Guatemalan government on Sunday to declare a "state of siege" aimed at curbing the gang's growing power.

The state of siege declaration for the northern Guatemalan department of Alta Verapaz in turn prompted worry among human rights activists and the Guatemalan press. The declaration allows the government to detain suspects or conduct searches without warrants, and limits public gatherings and the news media.

President Alvaro Colom's government said the state of siege -- which is just below a declaration of war -- would be in place for at least a month and could be extended to the four departments, or provinces, along the Mexican border.

Cartels from Mexico are believed to be taking over established crime rings in Guatemala and recruiting among locals, including the country's poverty-stricken indigenous groups. The Zetas -- one of Mexico's fiercest cartels -- are reportedly attempting to wrestle control of the lucrative trafficking corridor through northern Guatemala from local groups, seizing rural farms to use as depots for drugs and weapons. Meanwhile, in western Guatemala, Mexico's powerful Sinaloa cartel is also setting up bases, reports have said.

Here's an in-depth report from 2009 by L.A. Times correspondent Ken Ellingwood detailing the rise of the Zetas in Guatemala.

Reliable figures on how many people have died in Guatemala in violence tied to Mexican cartels are hard to come by, but locals in hardest-hit Alta Verapaz told the Associated Press they've been asking for government reinforcements against "the people from outside" for at least two years.

One activist described the violence as "things that no one had seen since the 1980s," referring to Guatemala's long and bloody civil war.

The homicide rate in Guatemala is among the highest in the world, along with neighboring El Salvador and Honduras, countries with entrenched transnational gangs such as the Mara Salvatrucha. In Guatemala, that rate was 52 intentional killings out of every 100,000 people in 2006, the last year reported in data collected by the United Nations. By contrast, in 2008, Mexico's rate was 11 homicides out of every 100,000 people.

Since Sunday, Guatemala has detained 10 suspected Zetas members and dismissed 300 police officers in Alta Verapaz, which sits across from a corner of Mexico's Chiapas state. The relatively high number of dismissed police officers suggests the Zetas have infiltrated and recruited among security forces.

Authorities have also seized a small plane in the city of Coban and about 500,000 Guatemalan quetzales, or $63,000. See a video report on the developments in Spanish here.

Congress is scheduled to modify and ratify Colom's declaration in a special session called for Wednesday, La Prensa reported (link in Spanish). In an editorial, the newspaper argued against the limits on press freedom allowed under the state of siege in Alta Verapaz.

"It is, at its core, a credibility problem that manifests, for example, in the possibility of not being able to publish reports on abusive actions against the human rights of those detained, particularly against people whose innocence is not in doubt," La Prensa said.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Guatemalan police detain four suspected Zetas members in Coban, Guatemala. Credit: Agence France-Presse

Update: An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of the city of Coban.

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