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US Military Intervening in Guatemala Drug War

by Bob Morris, published
Guatemala - Mexico border. Credit: Google Maps

In a major escalation of the war against drug cartels, US Marines are now involved in the Guatemala drug war, aiming to stop drug shipments by airplane and boat. About 200 Marines are there with the express permission of the Guatemala government. However, some question whether our Constitution permits such an agreement.

In mid-July, the Guatemalan government signed what news reports and officials described as a “treaty” with the Obama administration — the U.S. Senate, however, never ratified any such agreement as required under the Constitution. Within a month of the controversial deal, U.S. Marines, equipment, and military helicopters began arriving in Guatemala.

The Marines cannot use weapons except in self-defense in the Guatemala drug war. Instead, they patrol primarily in helicopters, looking for potential drug smuggling, and then notify Guatemala military or law enforcement of anything suspicious. Nevertheless, war is murky, mission creep is always possible, and this is a new type of war. The US is attempting to defeat powerful transnational drug cartels and their allies. The enemy here is not a rebel force that wears uniforms nor are they located in just one country.

The US is targeting the Los Zetas drug cartel in Guatemala. The Zetas are based in Mexico where they are currently fighting the Sinaloa Cartel for dominance. The US government says the Zetas are the "most technologically advanced, sophisticated, and dangerous cartel operating in Mexico." Los Zetas began when several elite members of the Mexican military, some of whom received Special Forces training in the US, went rogue and became enforcers for the Gulf Cartel. They later split with the Gulf Cartel and formed Los Zetas.

The Zetas have a well-deserved reputation for extreme violence, which includes beheadings, torture, and mass slaughter. The Sinaloa Cartel, some say, prefers to corrupt with an implied threat ("our silver or our lead") while Los Zetas simply terrorize. The Zetas have camps where they train new recruits and possess powerful weapons, including anti-tank weapons, grenade launchers, and large machine guns. They have fought battles that lasted hours against law enforcement in Mexico. Given their huge profits from drug trafficking, human smuggling, and kidnapping, they can afford expensive weapons.

All of this suggests that US plans to eliminate Los Zetas drug smuggling in Guatemala will not be easy nor simple - and perhaps not even bloodless. Sophisticated transnational criminal cartels possessing seemingly unlimited amounts of money are a new phenomenon, especially since they also have characteristics of being insurgencies.

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