Guatemalans live in fear again as drug gangs move in

Fri Oct 7, 2011 12:18pm EDT
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By Mica Rosenberg and Mike McDonald

COBAN, Guatemala (Reuters) - Fifteen years after the end of a brutal civil war in Guatemala that sent tens of thousands of people fleeing to Mexico, refugees are again camping at the border.

But these days they are running from a new kind of conflict -- the occupation by drug traffickers of large swathes of Guatemala's territory.

Mexican cartels working with local gangs control around 40 percent of Guatemala, military experts say, a massive challenge for a new president set to be elected in November and a serious worry for Mexico and the United States.

Both candidates in the election run-off -- a former general and a congressman from the largely lawless north -- plan to beef up security forces to regain control although some worry the problem has already gone too far.

"There are parts of Guatemala that have been abandoned by the state, where there are no public services, that are being taken over by the capos," said Francisco Dall'Anese, who heads a special United Nations panel on corruption in Guatemala.

The situation is most serious in the jungle-covered, northern regions of Peten and Alta Verapaz. In May, a ruthless Mexican drug gang, the Zetas, beheaded 27 farm workers on a Peten ranch in a dispute with the farm's owner.

"The victims were poor farmers who had nothing to do with crime," a source close to the investigation told Reuters. "They had just been hired and had no knowledge of the conflict."

Not much more is known because the prosecutor probing the case was murdered, his body chopped up and dumped in public.   Continued...

<p>Police officers stand guard while others search a house in Coban, some 200 km (124 miles) northeast Guatemala City, September 9, 2011. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez</p>