[News] Marines vs. Zetas: U.S. Hunts Drug Cartels in Guatemala

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Thu Aug 30 11:03:15 EDT 2012

  Marines vs. Zetas: U.S. Hunts Drug Cartels in Guatemala

    * By Robert Beckhusen
    * http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2012/08/marinesvszetas/
      <mailto:robertbeckhusen at gmail.com>
    * August 29, 2012

The war on drugs just got a whole lot more warlike. Two hundred U.S. 
Marines have entered Guatemala, on a mission to chase local operatives 
of the murderous Zeta drug cartel.

The Marines are now encamped after having deployed to Guatemala earlier 
this month, and have just "kicked off" their share of Operation 
Martillo, or Hammer. That operation began earlier in January, and is 
much larger than just the Marine contingent and involves the Navy, Coast 
Guard, and federal agents working with the Guatemalans to block drug 
shipment routes.

It's a big shift for U.S. forces in the region. For years, the Pentagon 
has sent troops to Guatemala, but these missions have been pretty 
limited to exercising "soft power" --- training local soldiers, building 
roads and schools. Operation Martillo is something quite different.

The news comes as two U.S. agents wounded in an attack in Mexico last 
week were discovered to be likely working for the CIA. The attack 
appears to be a case of mistaken identity after the agents fled from a 
Federal Police checkpoint, thinking the plain-clothed Mexican cops were 
cartel members. Police, seeing the agents' bulletproof SUV flee their 
checkpoint, presumably thought the same thing, followed them and shot up 
their car. The agents have now been discovered as likely working for the 
CIA, as one of the wounded agents' false identity was linked to a post 
office box in Virginia previously tied to CIA rendition flights 

The Marines' share of the operation involves chasing drug traffickers 
with UH-1N Huey helicopters. The Marine contingent has four of the 
choppers, and the Marines are carrying weapons. "It's not every day that 
you have 200-some Marines going to a country in Central and South 
America aside from conducting training exercises," Staff Sgt. Earnest 
Barnes, the public affairs chief for Marine Corps Forces South, tells 
Danger Room. Prior to the Marines' deployment, there were only a 
"handful" of Marines in the country, Barnes says.

However, the Marines can't technically use their guns except in 
self-defense, and Barnes wouldn't say whether they're authorized to 
pursue drug traffickers on the ground. The description of what they're 
doing, however, suggests that they probably can't. Instead, they'll be 
looking out for suspicious boats --- including crude narco-submarines 
<http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2008/09/drug-runners-st/> --- and then 
radio the Guatemalans, who do the work seizing their drugs and arresting 
cartel members. That could be on rivers, or along Guatemala's two 
reports the /Marine Corps Times/.

"Overall the Marines are there to provide aerial detection and 
monitoring, and aerial surveillance, and so the appropriate authorities 
can do their job, whether it being Guatemalan military or some other 
form of law enforcement agency or authority to perform their duties," 
Barnes says. Among the force are pilots and communication teams, as well 
as combat engineers to build landing sites.

On the other hand, just because the Marines may not be officially 
authorized to stop drug traffickers --- instead only spot them --- 
doesn't mean they won't be drawn into a conflict. The drug war is messy 
and involves going after criminal groups that don't for the most part 
wear uniforms or identify themselves as cartel members. Nor is it true 
to say the U.S. isn't already involved in a shooting war in Guatemala, 
with potentially ill consequences.

On the night of May 11, Honduran troops along with Drug Enforcement 
Administration agents allegedly killed two civilians --- possibly four 
according to local accounts --- including a pregnant woman. According to 
a report released this month by the Center for Economic Policy and 
Research, Guatemalan troops and U.S. agents seized a boat on a river 
containing cocaine near the town of Ahuas, when another boat --- 
containing civilians --- rammed into the first boat in the darkness. DEA 
agents and Guatemalan troops circling in a helicopter then fired on the 
second boat 
(.pdf). The U.S. has denied 
that any of its agents took part.

The DEA isn't a military organization, but what the Ahuas shootings 
represented was a military approach to the drug war gone bad. A case of 
mistaken identity, sure, as the mayor of Ahuas said following the 
But it also reflects a danger of stopping drugs at the point of a gun.

The Ahuas shooting "demonstrates the risks of flooding foreign countries 
with armed representatives of the U.S. government, to fight an enemy 
that is largely indistinguishable from the civilian population 
on unknown terrain," wrote Patrick Corcoran of InSight, a Latin America 
crime monitor. "The Ahuas shooting may not have been inevitable, but as 
Americans take a more hands-on role, such scandals are likely to be 
repeated," he wrote.

On the other hand, as Mexico's drug violence worsened, cartels like the 
Zetas began spilling over Mexico's southern border 
Guatemala is now a base for the Zetas, who use the country's remote 
northern region shipment route for narcotics and weapons. In February, 
Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina said his country is "not doing 
what the United States says, we are doing what we have to do 
--- in other words, decriminalize drugs. But Molina has also emphasized 
cracking down on the cartels in a mano dura, or "iron fist," approach to 

Now, on the contrary, the U.S. hasn't gone anywhere close to suggesting 
drugs be decriminalized. Gen. Douglas Fraser, the head of U.S. forces in 
South and Central America, said last year to the House Armed 
Sevices Committee that "the violence continues to increase in Central 
America, and that's where and why we are focusing there."

That's where the Marines come in. And as far as the Zetas go, the U.S. 
hasn't directly confronted them with troops. Mexico City will absolutely 
not allow it <http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2012/08/el-chapo/>. 
Guatemala is different, which means the distance between the gun barrels 
of a militarized cartel, and that of the U.S. military, could start to 
get much shorter.

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