Mexican drug gang menace spreads in Guatemala

GUATEMALA CITY, Feb 18 (Reuters) - Guatemala, scarred by years of civil war and rampant street gang crime, is suffering a new scourge as violent Mexican drug traffickers put down deep roots in the country.

A Mexican army crackdown has driven some cartels to seek a haven for their operations across the border in Guatemala, attracted by endemic corruption, weak policing and its position on the overland smuggling route north for Colombian cocaine.

That is a headache for President Alvaro Colom as the cartels employ the same violent tactics that have sown terror in Mexico.

"They are moving in because Guatemala is a paradise for drug traffickers. It's a poor country with a lot of corruption and the judicial system is very weak," Guatemalan Vice President Rafael Espada told Reuters in a recent interview.

Scores of Mexican traffickers are operating in Guatemala, including members of the Sinaloa cartel run by top fugitive Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman and the rival Gulf cartel's armed "Zetas" wing, officials say.

"It's the biggest challenge for Colom's government," said Guatemalan political analyst Manuel Villacorta.

Colom's security forces lack money, recruits, equipment, guns and intelligence to face the Mexicans, he said. "It's impossible for Guatemala, with the resources it has, to be able to address the problem."

As in Mexico, where about 6,000 people were murdered in the drugs war last year, the cartels buy off Guatemalan police and army officers as well as judges and politicians to protect their business, and pose a long-term threat to its democracy.

Guatemala's 1960-96 civil war left more than 200,000 dead, and street gangs that sprang up after the conflict have pushed the murder rate to among the highest in the Americas.

Colom was elected a year ago on a crime-fighting platform but 2008 was one of the most violent years on record with more than 6,000 murders out of a population of just 13 million.

Espada said half of all street crime is now linked to the drug trade.


A shootout at a horse race between rival drug traffickers linked to Mexican gangs killed 17 people in Guatemala in December, and 16 passengers were murdered and burned on a bus believed to have cocaine stashed on board.

Neighboring Mexico is pumping billions of dollars into its drug war but has still failed to gain the upper hand against cartels and the number of murders has soared.

Sandino Asturias, head of a Guatemalan think tank, said the country had more guns now than during the civil war. Legal ammunition sales alone have more than doubled to 50,000 rounds a year since the mid-1990s.

The smugglers pick up drugs from small planes that once flew from Colombia to Caribbean islands near Florida but now land at private airstrips hidden in Guatemalan jungle. The cargo is then moved up through Mexico to the U.S. border.

Colom is trying to tackle corruption, firing hundreds of police and bringing in new defense and interior ministers.

"The police and military were all contaminated and paid by the narco traffickers, from high-ranking officers all the way down to the guy who cleans the cars," Espada said.

Guatemala has also arrested dozens of drug suspects and torched huge marijuana and poppy fields, but is struggling. The U.S. government has sent speedboats and night-vision goggles under a regional drug aid package, but much more is needed.

Three-quarters of the cocaine leaving Colombia is now thought to go through Central America and the elusive Mexican smuggler Guzman is rumored to use hide-outs in Guatemala and Honduras although Mexican security officials say he is holed up in the mountains of Mexico. (Writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Kieran Murray)