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Guatemala massacre points to influence of Mexican drug gang

Guatemala has declared a state of emergency after the murder of 27 people in the northern part of the country. The Zetas of Mexico are accused of the worst massacre since the end of the country's civil war.

By Elyssa PachicoGuest blogger / May 18, 2011

Police agents look at a message written in blood at the site of a massacre at a local ranch in the hamlet Caserio La Bomba, in La Libertad, northern Guatemala, Sunday May 15, 2011. Assailants killed over two dozen, decapitating most of the victims on the ranch near the Mexico border, according to National Civil Police spokesman Donald Gonzalez.

Nuestro Diario/AP

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A massacre in northern Guatemala, which has left at least 27 people dead, is another reminder of the growing influence exerted by powerful Mexican drug gang, the Zetas, in Central America.

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The Zetas may have first entered Guatemala at the invitation of two drug bosses, Otoniel Turcios and Hearst Walter Overdick. But instead of partnering with local Guatemalan smugglers, the Mexicans became intent on displacing them.

The Zetas cemented their presence in Guatemala in 2008, when they ambushed and killed local crimelord Juan Jose Leon. Dislodging the Leon clan gave the Zetas power over key trafficking routes in the northern departments of Zacapa, Alta Verapaz, and Peten. It was in the latter that the recent massacre took place. In Peten, the government has now declared a "state of siege" similar to the security surge that failed to drive Zetas from Alta Verapaz at the end of last year.

As proved by the Peten killings, the Zetas' presence in Guatemala has drawn attention because of their willingness to use brutality. In contrast to the other Mexican cartel with sizeable presence in Central America, that of Sinaloa, the Zetas have frequently used extreme violence to establish control over a territory. While the Sinaloans have attempted to maintain their operations in Guatemala's western Huehuetenango department by buying the silence of authorities and negotiating deals with local traffickers, the Zetas have proven themselves more disposed to fight and kill their rivals.

IN PICTURES: Mexico's drug war

In other Northern Triangle countries, the Zetas have been more accomodating to local gangs, although no less ambitious in expanding their operations. As recently noted by El Salvador President Mauricio Funes, the Zetas have made contact with gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Barrio 18 (18), which echoes statements made by the president and the defense minister in 2010.

In El Salvador, the Zetas use gangs as drug peddlers and hired assasins, not for the purpose of trafficking cocaine via international routes. However, there is evidence that MS-13 is interested in deepening their relationship with the Zetas, with some cells reportedly soliciting training in combat from the Mexicans.

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