Guatemala’s criminal organizations are among the most sophisticated and dangerous in Central America. Some of them have been in operation for decades. They include former members of the military, intelligence agencies and active members of the police. Transporting illegal drugs north comprises the bulk of their activity, but organized crime in Guatemala is also involved in marijuana and poppy cultivation, as well as human trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, money laundering, arms smuggling, adoption rings, eco-trafficking and other illegal enterprises. They often work with groups from Mexico, Colombia and other Central American nations and they have the potential to expand and command other Central American nations’ underworlds.
Guatemala’s current turmoil and pronounced problems of violence, crime and impunity have their roots in a historically weak state, protracted periods of direct military rule or interference by the armed forces in politics and deep-seated economic, social and cultural inequality. Central America’s largest country has long had one of the most unequal distribution of resources and capital in the world, concentrating wealth in the hands of a small elite. The indigenous population, which represents 41 percent of Guatemala (according to the latest census), has been systematically marginalized since colonial times. Guatemala’s independence from Spain in 1821 and the subsequent foundation of the republic did not improve the situation of the largely rural-based indigenous communities, who were excluded from government, education and other social services. Broken up by geography, culture and the 24 different languages spoken among them, these indigenous groups have had a difficult time forming a cohesive political movement and have faced years of repression on the part of Guatemala’s military and police forces.
In effect, during much of its history, Guatemala’s political regime was akin to apartheid in South Africa. White elites (of Spanish ancestry) sought to maintain long-established patterns of control of the means of economic production at the expense of the majority of the population, including large indigenous groups. Paradoxically, these same elite interests have sought to keep the state weak in terms of its ability to exert control over their wealth. While Guatemala has had some strong institutions, in particular the military, a strong central government and state were never established. The government is perpetually in debt, in part because of its inability to collect taxes, in part because of the economic elite’s disinterest in reforming the tax and legal codes that oversee their interests.
During the past quarter century (1985-2010), Guatemala has seen some institutional and political change and modernization, including the return to democratic elections after a long period of mostly military rule and the enactment of a new constitution in 1985. However, the pattern whereby the government serves as a tool to advance the private interests of the elite rather than for the public good has been hard to break.
Historically, the most visible conflicts in Guatemala have been centered in the rural areas, where struggles over land and labor disputes laid the foundation for political resistance movements and the internal armed conflict that followed the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. This overthrow led to a rebellion in 1960 by a small group of army officers who, after suffering initial defeat at the hand of the military government, fled to the countryside and mountains and began a guerrilla insurgency.
The 36-year civil war that followed the 1960 insurrection led to the formation of several leftist guerrilla organizations. But these groups failed to gain any significant military or politic traction. Instead, the Guatemalan military (along with advisors and aid provided by the United States) used the rise of the rebels as a pretext to extend its power and influence over the hobbled and incompetent state. Part of the military’s strategy included creating civilian militia groups. Known as the Civil Defense Patrols, these groups were used to control and repress the largely rural populations in those areas where the guerrillas were based.
Ultimately, the internal conflict left an estimated 200,000 people dead or “disappeared,” over 600 rural villages massacred, and over 1 million Guatemalans in exile in Mexico and the United States, most of them from rural indigenous populations. The Historical Clarification Commission, a United Nations organization that began working in 1997 after the signing of the final Peace Accords between the government and the insurgents, found that the government and Civilian Patrol forces were responsible for the vast majority of these deaths, “disappearances” and displacement.
Throughout the war, criminal organizations – including small bands of human smugglers, drug traffickers and “contrabandistas” – operated in relative obscurity. Most of them were family-run operations that emerged near the border crossings, ports, or in the unpopulated jungles in the northern part of the country. At that time, they were of secondary concern to the government as it focused its forces against the leftists insurgents. However, during the war, more and more military officers and police units became deeply involved in organized crime. These state actors began first in petty corruption schemes, but soon branched into the business of drug trafficking. By the early 1980’s, there were hundreds of clandestine airstrips, most of them in the northern jungle province of Peten. State security forces often facilitated the arrival and passage of contraband and illegal narcotics, which mostly made its way north to the United States. Military and police officers began to control the large and unmonitored arms trafficking networks in the region. These networks furnished weapons to all the illegal armed groups in the region, including the Guatemalan rebels.
The peace process between the Guatemalan government and the coalition of rebel groups, begun in 1986 and ending with the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996, did little to resolve the core issues that divided Guatemala. The actual accords were linked to a constitutional referendum, which did not pass. The new police force included 11,000 of the old (and quite corrupt) police force. The military, which was whittled down to 44,000 and later 31,000 troops, was called in to help the police with law and order issues. But with little training, a diminished mandate, and already established connections to the criminal networks, the army did little to hinder the spiraling crime rate.
Taking advantage of a hungry and divided population and a weak and corrupt state, the major criminal groups operating in Guatemala are involved in a myriad of illicit activities, with the most lucrative being drug trafficking. The groups controlling this trade are popularly known as “transportistas.” They have their historical basis in the contraband traders that have moved illicit products across Guatemala’s largely ungoverned territory for decades. These include several crime “families,” (names omitted for personal safety reasons) each of which controls strategic areas near the borders and have strong contacts within the security forces and in political circles. There is also a smattering of small, lesser known gangs that have established themselves in strategic corridors like the Alta Verpaz, Huehuetenango and San Marcos provinces. In recent years, a string of arrests have weakened some of these groups. However, that has created space for the emergence of new networks, such as the drug-trafficking groups the Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel.
These criminal networks move products for larger criminal organizations, mostly Colombian and Mexican drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs). Facing increasing pressures in their own country, Mexican DTOs have established a firm foothold in Guatemala. As mentioned above, the Zetas’ (with alleged ties to the Guatemalan army special forces, the Kaibilies) advance into Guatemala was rapid and brutally violent and at one point had established some level of control over almost all of the country’s strategic drug-trafficking locations. However, the Zetas’ power peaked in 2011-2012, but then diminished after a series of blows against their organization both in Guatemala and Mexico left them weakened. The Sinoloa Cartel meanwhile, which favors forging alliances over the Zetas’ tactics of extreme violence, remains entrenched in the country’s illicit trade and maintains control over a broad network of smaller, local operators.
Police and Military Involvement in Criminal Activities
Organized crime’s power is evident in much of Guatemala. The situation parallels that of a country facing an insurgency: several the of the northern provinces (or departments) are considered under the control of the drug-trafficking organizations. The level of their penetration was evidenced in March of 2010 when authorities arrested the chief of the Guatemalan National Police and his top intelligence officer for their alleged connections to the Mexican criminal syndicate, the Zetas. In fact, the high level of organized crime in Guatemala is largely thanks to a permissive and often complicit police force. Poorly paid, poorly educated and often faced with the option of corruption or death, police officials most understandably elect the former. The police are not controlled by any particular criminal organization – they act semi-autonomously or sometimes in the temporary employ of traffickers. In some cases there have been battles between different police units employed by rival organizations. Their primary function is to facilitate the transportation of drugs, but they have also been known to engage in robberies, extortion, kidnapping, arms trafficking, and black market adoption rings. Despite some high-profile arrests (see above), this corruption continues, mostly unabated.
To be sure, both active and former members of the military and police are a key part of the illicit networks. In fact they are so entrenched they have taken on a name: the Illegal Corps and Clandestime Security Apparatus. This group has its origins in government intelligence units and think tanks. Their behind-the-scenes influence in the government has led some to see them as the “hidden powers” who secretly run the country. These men reached the height of their power between 1997 and 2005, during which time they operated under an organized command structure directed by former generals and colonels in the military. However, since that time, they have splintered into several smaller groups, but remain powerful actors in the criminal underworld and maintain close ties to the major political parties.
The United States Government estimates that between 250 and 300 tons of cocaine moves through Guatemala every year, most of it on its way to the United States. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) says that 70 percent of the drugs that move through Guatemala are brought from Colombia along the Pacific coast in boats or “semi-submersibles.” In October 2009, one of these submersibles was captured with four Colombians and one Mexican man on board and what Guatemalan authorities say was 10 tons of cocaine, although DEA officials say the figure was actually 4.9 tons. Drugs are also brought into the country in smaller shipments by land and air. The bulk of the air cargo comes in from Venezuela while most of the ground shipments come from Colombia in vehicles equipped with hidden compartments. Guatemala is also a drug producer country, with a small but rising quantity of opium poppy cultivated in the province of San Marcos on the Mexican border. In 2013, the government said they had eradicated 2,500 hectares of poppy, suggesting cultivation has reached the highest levels since the early 1990s.
Guatemala has long played an important role in human trafficking activities. In addition to the large number of Guatemalans migrating to the U.S., other migrants moving north from other countries in Central and South America often dock or pass through Guatemala. Numerous agents and coyotes operate from Guatemala, coordinating travel or acting as go-betweens for agents further south. Gangs, such as the Mara Salvatrucha 13 and the Barrio 18, are playing an increasing role in moving illegals through the country, although the dynamic may have shifted as a result of the incursion of the Zetas, a group that is monopolizing the human trafficking networks in Mexico. The government is also known for issuing false passports, mostly to Asians seeking to establish themselves in Canada or Europe. More recently, there has been an uptick in trafficking women into sexual slavery in Guatemala.
Urban Gangs (Maras)
Generally believed to have been first organized among Central American immigrants in Los Angeles, gangs were exported back to Central America as gang members returned to their countries of origin after being deported by U.S. immigration officials. These gangs, primarily Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18, have found fertile ground among poor, urban youth in Guatemala, and have prospered due to the lack of employment and educational opportunities, as well as the ineffectiveness of the police force and justice system.
Over the last 4 decades, the armed conflict, the lack of jobs in rural areas, and the widespread poverty exacerbated by increasingly erractic weather patterns caused by global warming have driven hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans into the urban areas, and most specifically into the area in and around Guatemala City. In the cities, youths encounter few opportunities for employment and education, and often live in dirty, overcrowded “barrios” or slums. In addition, the state is largely absent and provides few, if any, social services.
With the highest fertility rate in the Western Hemisphere and rapidly increasing population growth, 73% of the Guatemalan population is under 30 years of age, and 30% of the population is between the ages of 14 and 30. On average, gang members are initiated between 14-15 years of age (although recent reports show gangs using children as young as 6-11 years old to transport drugs.) Currently, it is estimated that there are almost 14,000 gang members in Guatemala.
The two largest gangs in Guatemala are the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Barrio 18 (18th Street Gang). Combined, their members make up around 95% of the total number of gang members in the country. The 18th Street Gang was originally organized in Los Angeles in the 1960’s while MS-13 was founded by Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles in the 1980’s to protect themselves from the 18th Street Gang and other gangs (Bloods, Crips) that already existed.
Both gangs are made up of clikas, or cliques. Each clika has a leader who is in contact with other clikas. While there is some debate about whether there is one leader for the gang as a whole, recent indications are that the gangs have become more hierarchical in their structure and are strengthening their connections with other international gangs such as the Mexican Zetas by hiring themselves out as “hitmen” for the drug cartels. (The current street rate for an assassination is $20.00)
At the local level, gang members are involved in robbery, extortion, street-level drug-dealing, human trafficking, and turf wars with rival gangs. It is very common to read about bus drivers being killed by gang members for not paying extortion fees to the gangs. Over the last four years, an average of around 200 bus drivers and/or their ayundantes (assistants) have been murdered, making the occupation of bus driver in Guatemala one of the most dangerous in the world.
Currently, the National Police Force of Guatemala (PNC) has approximately 25,000 officers and is officially charged with the maintenance of law and order in the country. However, according to the U.S. State Department, the PNC is “understaffed, inadequately trained, and insufficiently funded.” The UN High Commisioner for Guatemala has also indicated that the government has not implemented effective measures to ensure that judges are protected from external influences so that they can act with impartiality, transparency and accountability. This has led to the situation where responsibility for citizen security relies more and more on private security companies with an estimated combined workforce of over 35,000 – often ex-military personnel. In other words, the rich elite and private businesses rely on armed sucurity guards to protect them from criminal activity and violence.
So what options for justice exist for the poor? Since the 1990’s, Guatemala has seen a steady increase in the number of extra-judicial “lynchings” (not actual hangings, but more often public castigation of the accused with beatings and sometimes immolation after the accused has been doused with gasoline.) These have occurred most often in rural indigenous communities and stem from public frustration with the PNC and the judiciary. In many villages local “security committees” patrol the streets and when an alleged criminal is apprehended the committees will respond with force with the acquiesence or even participation of the entire community. The crimes in which the victims of these lynchings were accused most often involved assault, robbery, and homicide. A good example of this occurred in our own village of San Cristobal El Alto, where a person from another village was caught robbing a home. After over an hour of consultation with the villagers, the “security committee” turned the alleged robber over to the police (knowing that he would likely be released without charge in 24 hours), but kept possession of his motorcycle and burned it at the entrance of the village as a warning.
Acknowledgements and Additional Resources
We wish to acknowledge the organization InsightCrime for much of the information in this article. Their website also contains many more in-depth articles on organized crime in Central America, drug-trafficking, and gang-related activities.
Another excellent resource for following human rights and the Guatemalan justice system is the Human Rights Watch website.
Amnesty International also maintains a page on their website specifically focused on justice (or lack thereof) in Guatemala.
Finally, an excellent read on the background of Central American Gangs is Adiós Niño : The Gangs of Guatemala City and the Politics of Death by Deborah T. Levenson, Duke University Press, 2013. A concise summary and review of this book can be read at https://lareviewofbooks.org/review/gangs-guatemala
Final Thoughts: Education and Crime
Many studies indicate that criminal/gang activity and/or domestic violence is often a result of the lack of economic opportunity and connectedness to strong positive social structures (family, school, church, etc.) We at Avivara believe that by providing better access to education, we are fighting, in our own small way, the social forces that encourage criminal activity and violence. Our scholarship program helps young people stay in school, eventually find work that can support their families, and be future leaders in their communities. If you would like to help us in this, please donate to our programs.