World News

Guatemala captures 22 drug traffickers in sweep

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Guatemala captured nearly two dozen suspected drug traffickers, automatic weapons and small planes in a country-wide sweep to crack down on Mexican cartels smuggling drugs through Central America.

The arrests, four on Saturday and 18 over the past week, are the biggest blow yet to Mexico’s “Zetas” drug gang, now operating in around 75 percent of the Guatemala’s territory, according to security officials.

“These individuals were not just preparing to confront the security forces, they were preparing to take control of the country,” Guatemala’s President Alvaro Colom told reporters last week after sending hundreds of soldiers and police to the state of Alta Verapaz to take on the cartel.

The government declared a “state of siege” in the remote state on December 19, which gives security forces expanded powers to arrest and interrogate suspects while limiting freedom of movement and assembly for a month.

Police have so far confiscated 239 assault weapons, explosives, 28 vehicles and five small planes in the raids.

A top leader of the Zetas -- formerly a Guatemalan special forces soldier -- was also caught in the operations.

The Zetas, originally formed by Mexican army deserters, have been known to recruit elite Guatemalan troops, called Kaibils, who are trained in jungle warfare and infamous for brutal massacres during Guatemala’s 1960-1996 civil war.

Once the armed wing of Mexico’s Gulf Cartel, the Zetas broke off on their own and are now fighting their former employers for control of valuable drug trafficking routes.

Guatemala, with two coasts and a long, porous border with Mexico, is strategic territory for cartels who use small planes, trucks and even makeshift submarines to move Colombian cocaine to consumers in the United States.

Drug lord Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa cartel, was arrested in Guatemala in 1993 and extradited to Mexico. Guzman escaped from a maximum security prison in 2000 and is now Mexico’s most wanted man.

Reporting by Herbert Hernandez; Writing by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Todd Eastham