Guatemalan president Otto Perez Molina announced yesterday (3 September) that three military bases will be opened on the northern borders with Mexico and close to Belize in an effort to combat drug and people trafficking. His announcement follows the creation in April of a new mobile military battalion to patrol the border with Mexico, based in the volatile San Marcos province, and also targeted at cross-border organised crime. The bases announced yesterday--to be located in San Marcos, Peten and Izabal--will be multi-agency initiatives, staffed by officers of the National Civil Police (PNC), the tax superintendency, and the immigration service, and will be backed by the acquisition of radars and aircraft from Brazil. The opening of the bases represents a further step to bring better security to Guatemala's semi-lawless border areas, and comes just two weeks after the United States confirmed that it would supply 171 marines to support the Guatemalan security forces in counter-drug-trafficking operations the first time that US troops have deployed to the country in over 50 years. The primary target of Guatemalan and US efforts is the Zetas organised crime network from Mexico, which has made the Peten, in particular, a base for its regional trafficking operations.

Significance: Notably, one of the three bases will be opened in Puerto Barrios (Izabal), which--despite high levels of violent crime--was not a previous priority for the government. This would appear to recognise that the focus of the government's efforts needs to diversify beyond traditional targets in the Peten (a major area for moving cocaine) and San Marcos (notable for opium poppy production as well as cocaine trafficking). This may also suggest greater co-operation with Belizean authorities, given that counter-narcotics operations in and around Belize are generally conducted on a lower scale. Meanwhile, equipment procurement from Brazil, although not specified by Perez Molina, may well include units of the Embraer EMB-314 light attack and counter-insurgency aircraft, which would be well suited to operations in the areas of the new bases. More broadly, continued efforts to secure Guatemalan territory and its borders could displace some drug trafficking and organised criminal elements to elsewhere in the region, such as Belize and Honduras, where security force capabilities are less robust.

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