EL REMATE, Guatemala — The Peten jungle, once known for its jaguars and Mayan ruins, has fallen prey to a notorious Mexican drug gang that operates from remote jungle ranches and has begun openly challenging Guatemalan security forces for control of the roads.
The struggle that's under way in this remote region could help determine the fate of Guatemala, a fragile democracy south of Mexico that's already under enormous pressure from narcotics gangs. It's certain to affect Mexico, which is struggling to maintain order against powerful armed gangs on its northern borders.
In a fierce clash that began south of the famous Tikal ruins, the drug gang known as Los Zetas, based in Mexico's northeastern border area and the Yucatan Peninsula, was able to outgun local police by deploying armored vehicles, bigger guns and far more ammunition. Then it fought a large army patrol to a draw, losing vehicles and taking wounded but apparently getting away with a stash of cocaine.
The transformation of the once-pristine jungle into a no man's land is the latest calamity to befall Guatemala, which has had a history of military domination, a 36-year civil war and a genocide conducted by the Guatemalan army against Mayan Indians some three decades ago. Although the CIA helped overthrow a government in 1952, Guatemala's newest drama is getting little high-level attention in Washington.
The recent confrontation between Los Zetas and the authorities began with a shouted warning from a bullhorn and a wrong turn.
Around midday on Oct. 5, when police stopped a convoy of 16 or so big double-cabin pickups and other vehicles a short drive south of the Tikal National Park, an amplified voice from one vehicle barked a warning:
"We are Los Zetas! Let us pass. We don't want problems."
To make their point, several men carrying assault rifles got out of the vehicles and fired hundreds of rounds into the air in a deafening display of firepower.
To describe the police as alarmed is an understatement.
"If you have an M16 rifle, and all I have is a 9 mm pistol, and you have 10 other guys behind you, I won't mess with you," said local police Sub-Inspector Oscar Bertruin, who was at the scene.
The police let the convoy pass, then called for help from the army, according to the accounts of several officers, nearly all of whom declined to give their names for fear of retaliation.
Los Zetas, a mercenary group founded by Mexican former special forces troops who broke off early this year from the Gulf Cartel in northeast Mexico, is at the top of the criminal heap. As the two groups wage a turf war in their home region, the Zetas have continued pushing into the eastern side of Central America, strengthening a cocaine pipeline from Colombia.
A larger rival Mexican cartel, the Sinaloa Federation, reportedly focuses on a corridor along Central America's Pacific coast.
The State Department's international narcotics and law enforcement chief, David T. Johnson, said in a speech Oct. 5 that 275 tons of cocaine transited Guatemala each year, nearly all of it destined for the United States.
Mexico is wary of the growing trouble on its southern frontier.
"If Guatemala goes down the drink, then Mexico is dealing with its northern and its southern borders. A major failure of democracy in Guatemala is going to directly impact Mexico City — resources, political capital, time, energy, human resources, everything — and that negatively affects the United States," said Samuel Logan, the regional manager for the Americas at iJet Intelligent Risk Systems, a consultancy on risk management based in Annapolis, Md.
From a stronghold in the Guatemalan city of Coban, the mountain capital of Alto Verapaz a little to the south, the Zetas have been pushing into the Peten, appearing sometimes in sizable numbers, maneuvering at ease and with military discipline.
"They circulate with numerous forces and carry the latest weaponry. When they use violence, no authority exists here that can control them," said Hector Rosada-Granados, a sociologist who helped negotiate the end to a 36-year guerrilla war in Guatemala in the 1990s.
The Zetas, striking up alliances with local drug clans, use a string of "narco-ranches" scattered deep in the Peten that are home to hundreds of dirt landing strips. In the remote Laguna del Tigre region, U.S. drug agents have spotted a "cemetery" where narcos abandon and torch aircraft after unloading cocaine from the Andes.
Sometimes rival gangs battle for the cocaine or underlings steal from their bosses. A 43-year-old ranch owner, Giovanni Espana, reportedly stung the Zetas that way back in June. A commando squad executed him June 26, but the missing shipment never turned up.
In early October, a Zetas contingent of some 80 to 90 heavily armed men arrived at the Espana ranch near El Naranjo, where the slain rancher's widow still resided, and used earth-moving machinery to dig for the dope. Later events indicate they might have found it.
The Zetas convoy started traveling west toward Mexico on Oct. 5, when it bullied its way past the police.
Then bad luck hit. The Mexicans got lost. At the eastern end of Peten Itza Lake, they turned up a road toward the Mayan ruins of Tikal. It was after nightfall. They turned around, and were heading down a hill at the hamlet of El Capulinar when they ran into military units backed up by police, who'd been lent army assault rifles. For 10 to 15 minutes, a full-bore battle unfolded.
Some Zetas gunmen sprayed heavy fire at the soldiers, while others launched grenades. Still others shot flares into the sky so the Zetas could see soldiers using their vehicles as parapets. As the firefight ebbed, the Zetas caravan broke through the roadblock, with vehicles peeling off two by two, some of them with tires shot out, to leave passage for key vehicles in the middle.
At least five Zetas vehicles, all apparently armored, pierced the roadblock. Police now suspect that the vehicles transported the recovered cocaine.
The soldiers managed to immobilize 11 of the Zeta vehicles. Three people are known to have died. A soldier was among the wounded. Most of the gunmen melted into the jungle.
The intensity of the battle jolted even the soldiers.
"A lot of the soldiers who were in the firefight asked to be discharged later because they were frightened," said Bertruin, the police official.
Migrant workers who clear land by slashing down forest, who've flooded to the Peten, also have found themselves dealing with criminal pressure.
"The narcos arrive at the farms and pay cash for whatever price the owner asks. If he refuses to sell, they threaten him," said Edgar Gutierrez, a former Guatemalan foreign minister. "The state (is) absent. Police, prosecutors and judges have been co-opted by the drug traffickers."
The Peten has only five legal border crossings with Mexico, Gutierrez said, but more than 100 unsanctioned crossings have opened up.
Along those dirt tracks, workers move cocaine toward Mexico on the backs of four-wheeled all-terrain buggies. Then they return to ranch jobs.
"Half the time they work as ranch hands, and half the time they offload airplanes and light torches along the sides of clandestine landing strips," Logan said.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY