Belize’s Ambassador to Guatemala, H. E. Alfredo Martinez, told Amandala on Monday that there is already evidence that Guatemala’s narcotics problems are trickling to this side of the border. Martinez informed our newspaper that the Government of Guatemala is about to dispatch Special Forces soldiers to conduct regular foot patrols in the southern areas of Peten, near the border, while Belize military will do coordinated patrols on this side of the border.
These Guatemalan Special Forces soldiers were reportedly trained in secret by the US Green Beret, a group within the US Army Special Forces. Fox News reported last December on anti-narcotics training that had been ongoing inside the Peten jungle, just south of Guatemala’s border with Mexico.
This happened on the heels of a staged prison breakout to release a drug lord and the appearance of several decapitated heads on the steps of Guatemala’s parliament in June 2010—a brazen signal undoubtedly sent to the government by drug cartels. The Guatemalan version of the US Green Berets is supposed to combat cartels which openly conduct drug transactions and advertise on billboards for recruits.
Ambassador Martinez said that Guatemala’s Green Berets, or “the green soldiers”, are to look after those natural parks which have become havens for drug traffickers. Previously, efforts had previously been concentrated more in the north, in the regions of the border with Mexico, Martinez indicated.
The Guatemala Green Berets also would be helping with the increasing incursions in southern Belize, and they are expected to commence border patrols on the Guatemala side within the next week or two, he added.
Belize is expected to continue separate but coordinated patrols on this side of the very porous Belize-Guatemala border.
Not only is Belize’s western border with Guatemala infamously porous—Guatemala disputes its very existence, particularly the portion to the South of the Sibun, where anti-narcotics efforts are supposed to be concentrated. The fear is that Guatemala’s narco-trafficking problem is slowly becoming Belize’s problem.
It is against this backdrop that Guatemala’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Haroldo Rodas, met in Belize with his counterpart, Belize Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, Wilfred “Sedi” Elrington, on Friday, February 18.
Rodas was accompanied by Guatemala’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Carlos Raul Morales.
Elrington was accompanied by his Chief Executive Officer Alexis Rosado, as well as Ambassador Martinez.
“They [the Guatemalans] wanted to tell us that operations are being strengthened in their area, so we must be on the lookout on our side,” Ambassador Martinez told Amandala.
The parties, Belize and Guatemala, have set up a mechanism of consultation as well as intelligence sharing, as Guatemala continues to step up operations in the Peten—the area of greatest concern, he explained.
Speaking with Amandala about the significance of Friday’s meeting, Ambassador Martinez said: “Guatemala recognizes that in the area of security in the region, it has to depend on Belize also.”
He added that Belize and Guatemala both form the funnel neck with Mexico for what comes through Central America from Colombia and other source countries. The drugs must pass through Guatemala and Belize, said Martinez.
As the battle against drug traffickers in Mexico rages on, more traffickers are drifting south, and Guatemala has a very serious problem with narco-trafficking, particularly the Zeta infiltration, explained Martinez.
He told us that whereas Guatemala has seen measurable improvements after it put Alta Vera Paz, just south of Peten, under a state of emergency and cut off all constitutional guarantees to crack down on the narco-trafficking, regular crime has escalated in Guatemala, on the whole. “It is a real challenge for the present government,” said Martinez.
Rodas, at his meeting in Belize Friday, outlined plans for Guatemala’s 6-month presidency of the Central American Integration System (SICA), including regional and international meetings.
Ambassador Martinez informed Amandala that the countries of SICA will be hosting international meetings on regional security in June, to which they are inviting the United States, Canada, Mexico, Colombia and the European countries. That meeting will be held in Guatemala, but ahead of that meeting is another international gathering.
That gathering, said Martinez, is the visit of the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, to Guatemala in March. The Prime Minister of Belize and the presidents of Central America have been invited to attend.
The guests at the June meeting of SICA plan to discuss how they can collaborate through financing and infrastructure to help combat this onslaught of drug-related crimes, the Ambassador said.
The countries in the Central American region are spending their own budget funds to fight, but it is not enough, and they are telling the international community that they need to help, he added.
Apart from discussing regional security on Friday, said Ambassador Martinez, the group also took the opportunity to discuss concerns on the Belize side over the illegal extraction of xate and logs from Belize’s forests, including the protected areas.
Martinez said that the parties discussed how they could cooperate more fully, and how Guatemala could dissuade its citizens from illegally coming into Belize’s national parks.
The ministries on both sides of the border under whose portfolios the environment falls would be setting up discussion groups, said Martinez.
Belize’s prized Chiquibul Forest—the country’s most expansive and richest forest—continues to be targeted for incursions and illegal extraction of both flora (plants and plant materials) and fauna (wildlife). Some of these people, said Martinez, may very well be in cahoots with narco-traffickers.
What was different at Friday’s meeting, said Martinez, is that Guatemala demonstrated the disposition and political will to cooperate with Belize on the ground.
“Incursions are increasing and we therefore need to keep those in check,” said Ambassador Martinez.
“We are doing our part; they have not been doing it along Chiquibul,” Martinez commented.
According to Martinez, both sides will do regular surveillance on foot patrols. Belize does not have the capacity to conduct regular aerial surveillance, but Guatemala does it periodically, although aerial surveillance along the Belize-Guatemala border was not specifically mentioned at Friday’s meeting, Martinez indicated.
Martinez said that they are already seeing evidence that Guatemala’s narcotics problems are spreading to Belize. When we asked him to be more specific, he cited a recent extradition as an example: In November 2010, Belizean authorities handed over Otoniel Turcios Marroquin, alleged drug lord of Guatemala, to US authorities. Ambassador Martinez declined to get into more details on observed trends.
“We have to coordinate along with Honduras very soon,” added Martinez, because, on their side, he said, there is a lot of sea-trafficking.
Martinez notes that as Guatemala continues to grapple with a murder rate of 16 bodies a day, and the parties are now in campaign mode, security is expected to be a leading campaign issue.
Campaigning started last month, January, and the first round of elections is due in September for presidential, Congress and municipal seats. There are 18 to 20 political parties running, since governments in Guatemala are normally formed by coalition—not by institutionalized parties, as is the case with Belize.
Alliances and groupings are created every four years for elections—that complicates matters even more, said Martinez. He added that should no presidential candidate get more than 50% of the votes, they have to engage in a second round of voting in November and the new government would take office in January 14, 2012.
The Ambassador indicated that the pending referendum between Belize and Guatemala, in which the peoples on both sides of the border would be asked whether they want to take the territorial dispute maintained by Guatemala to be litigated at the International Court of Justice, would not happen before the parties dispense with elections by 2013. The matter of the ICJ referendum, said Martinez, was only briefly mentioned at last Friday’s meeting.
He told Amandala that, “The political relationship between the two governments [Belize and Guatemala] has been very healthy, [and] ...security and regional issues that affect both parties are discussed very freely.”
Martinez described the drug and gang situation in Central America as “worrying.” He said that sooner or later this, too, will start trickling into Belize, but the situation is not yet as bad as in Central America, and particularly in San Salvador, Guatemala and Tegucigalpa—places he described as being “almost in a state of siege when it comes to the gang situation.”
But, Martinez emphasized, “...the problems can be aggravated in Belize if we are not careful.”