Guatemala's bloody battle with Mexican drug cartels

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Once civil war was the big threat. But as elections loom, a new scourge is centre stage

Coban

The text message, translated from its original Spanish, begins with a cheery salutation. "Pay attention, or I will fuck you up, along with your entire family." After several hair-raising paragraphs, it ends with a polite sign-off: "Kindest regards, Z contra el mundo."

Manners are everything when you're writing a good death threat. And this particular specimen, sent not long ago to a human rights activist campaigning against organised crime in Coban, a town just over four hours' drive north of Guatemala City, is a real doozy.

Its recipient, who asks to remain anonymous, can be accurately described as living in fear. How else do you react, when the sender (the "Z" who claims to be ranged "contra el mundo, or "against the world") is Los Zetas, a spectacularly brutal Mexican drug cartel currently expanding its operations south through Central America?

Death threats have lately become a fact of life for the 80,000 citizens of Coban. Five years ago, the bustling market town surrounded by coffee and cardamom plantations was – like most of Guatemala – trying to rebuild in the aftermath of the country's brutal, 35-year civil war, which ended in 1996.

Then the "Narcos" showed up, hoping to seize a region exactly halfway between the world's largest cocaine producer, Colombia, and its biggest market, the US. In short order, Coban found itself on the front line of a spiralling drug war which has now doubled Guatemala's murder rate to five times the global average.

By this year, the Zetas had an estimated 400 members in the region. According to the Institute of Strategic Studies, Coban and its surrounding provinces of Alta Verapaz and El Peten are now part of the 40 per cent of the country where violent gangs, rather than the government, control the levers of power.

Last November, Guatemala's President, Alvaro Colom, declared a two-month "state of siege" in Coban, suspending normal laws and putting the army on the streets. At the time, 20 people a month were being killed, giving it a higher homicide rate than post-invasion Iraq. "Guatemala's security is dying in an intensive care room," he said.

Since then, the bloodletting has slowed a touch. (Between three and eight killings a month is now average.) But this weekend, drug violence in Coban and across the country will nonetheless be front and centre of the country's presidential election.

The ballot should in theory be about trying to improve the economic prospects of a nation where average wages are $8 a day. But it's instead become a game of right-wing one-upmanship between two relative conservatives – Otto Perez Molina and Manuel Baldizon – seeking to secure the law-and-order vote.

In Coban, people talk of little else but crime. "This feels like a lawless country. It's on the verge of becoming a failed state. It could be one already. There's no rule of law," says Lesvia Mus, a social activist meeting colleagues at the town hall. "Rich, poor, young, old, men, women ... everyone's afraid of stray bullets."

Ms Mus discusses violence with casual anger. It's the dead woman and children who really bother her. Three weeks ago, an entire family was gunned down in broad daylight. A few months earlier, the body of a 25-year-old woman was found, with her teeth pulled out and stones left in their place.

"Since the Zetas came, we've never seen things so bloody," she says, "A friend was in a disco not long ago, and these guys just walked in and started shooting. We always had drug traffickers in the region, but in the past, they never killed civilians. These are different."

For years the remote forests north of Coban have been a favoured location for smugglers to land small planes. But it didn't become a real conflict zone until about 2007, when Mexico's president, Felipe Calderon, launched his "war on drugs" north of the border.

The move, in which dozens of cartel chiefs arrested, has resulted in 40,000 deaths in Mexico alone. But Guatemala is arguably suffering more, as gangs attempt to expand into regions now considered a softer touch than their homeland. "If you're flying drugs up from South America, you land in Guatemala's jungle and break your cargo into packages to move through Mexico," says Duke University professor Hal Brands, the author of Crime, Violence and the Crisis in Guatemala. "Lately, cartels, particularly the Zetas, have been competing with the Guatemalan traffickers they used to co-operate with in the region. They've realised that the more of the supply chain you control, the more money you make."

In Coban, Zeta activities now extend into extortion, prostitution, kidnapping and people smuggling. Police chiefs, politicians and businessmen are reputed to be in their pocket, while prominent locals who stand up to them are killed. One day in May, the regional district attorney, Allan Stowlinsky Vidaurre, seized 52kg of cocaine. The next evening, he was snatched outside his office, at gunpoint, and bundled into a van. At 3am, a car drove into the town centre, dumping two bin liners in the road. One contained his head, the other his torso.

On 17 February, a prominent businessman called Boris Umberto Pinot was training for a half-marathon at a local running track. Two men turned up on a motorcycle. They followed him slowly for two laps, before shooting him. He was apparently targeted for refusing to pay the Zetas "protection money".

High-profile killings have a crippling effect on daily life. You see it in the fear that crosses the brow of locals when a brand new SUV with tinted windows careers through the streets, or in their refusal to mention "Los Zetas" by name (they call them instead "the last letter"), lest they receive a death threat. And you notice it the moment darkness falls, and the busy streets of Coban suddenly empty.

Carlos Enrique Rey, a local fire chief, is picking up the pieces. He's seen traditional duties of putting out fires replaced with the grisly task of clearing bodies from Coban's streets. "It's definitely a nasty part of the job, especially when the dead person is someone you know," he says. "That happens often, as it's a small community."

Carlos Antonio Alvarado Gomez, the region's governor, admits that when he took office two months ago, "armed people were everywhere, there was no control of the state, and it ran the risk of becoming ungovernable". He has since flooded the town with police officers, which has improved things. "In the municipality proper, one does not hear of the group known as Los Zetas roaming the streets with heavy weapons like before." But across Guatemala, the bloodshed continues. And its effect will be keenly felt on Sunday, the climax of an election dominated by the fact that the country's murder rate has reached 52 homicides per 100,000 citizens a year. (The supposedly lawless Mexico has 18.) In the capital, Guatemala City, the number is 108. Officials for the US Drug Enforcement Agency have described the atmosphere as "something between Al Capone's Chicago and outright war".

The favourite for the presidency, Otto Perez Molina, has duly chosen as his symbol a hammering iron fist. His policies include raising the national security budget from its current $1bn a year (roughly a 10th of the $10bn that drug cartels are believed to generate), and building a new maximum security prison. His rival, Manuel Baldizon, intends to reintroduce the death penalty.

Given the nation's comparative poverty and the vast profits available to anyone prepared to practise extreme violence for drug cartels, few people believe politicians will produce change soon. Instead, they are taking the law into their own hands. Angel Martin Tax, a Coban-based reporter for Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre, says local vigilantes have killed at least 13 suspected gang members of late. "They were beaten to a pulp and then set on fire," he said. "It's brutal, but people are desperate and it's not hard to see why."

The Politicians

Manuel Baldizon

The little-known congressman came from nowhere to finish second in the first round of elections in September, talking 23 per cent of the vote to Molina's 36 per cent. He has since played on his youth – he is 41 – and desire to eradicate organised crime. A former real-estate mogul, he was once a member of Alvaro Colom's centre-left UNE party, but defected to the Lider party in 2008 and shifted rightwards on crime. The move bolstered his support to 42 per cent, in recent polls, but that's short of the figure needed to threaten Molina.

Otto Perez Molina

A silver-haired former army general, Molina stood unsuccessfully for the presidency in 2007, but has since become favourite to win the current presidential election because of the deteriorating security situation. His symbol is an iron fist, with the slogan "Mano Dura" or "firm hand". Although Molina, 60, of the Patriotic Party, has always enjoyed the support of conservatives and the business class, he is now attracting increasing support from non-elites tired of spiralling crime. He is not without skeletons, having served in military intelligence in Guatemala's army during the notoriously brutal civil war.

Law and disorder

$10bn: Value of drugs the current President, Alvaro Colom, says have been seized under his administration

52: Murders annually per 100,000 inhabitants

1.6m: The number of illegal weapons in circulation in the country

200,000: people killed in Guatemala's brutal, 36-year civil war

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