Understanding the Limits of Mexican Cartel Power by Looking at the Geopolitics of Guatemala

First, a story…

The first time I ever had a pistol to my head, Ernesto (name change for obvious reasons), an ex-intelligence officer from the feared Guatemalan intelligence service, was on the other end of it.  He pulled the trigger and…click.  After a few seconds spent staring into my eyes with a half smirk on his face, he broke into a loud guffaw, pointed at my privates and exclaimed “ vos serrote, hay juevos!” (This loosely translates to – “you piece of shit, you ‘actually’ have balls!”).  In reality I was in shock.  Nary a single nerve twitched telling me to duck, run or in any way move.  I would later find out this was completely normal reaction and took years of training to overcome.  At the time, I wondered how someone with his training could make such a mistake as to think I actually had juevos.  The more I got to know him, the more I realized it was no mistake at all.  He knew exactly what had happened to me, but it was his way of telling me I was alright, for a pinche gringo.  He expressed his friendship the only way he knew how, down the barrel of an unloaded gun.  Clearly, I wanted to keep the friendship intact because I could guess how he expressed the ending of said friendship.

Years later, I was having a drink with Ernesto when he informed me that a mutual friend of ours, (lets call him Carlos), had been assassinated a few nights before.  He believed Colombian assassins had carried out the hit.  The killer apparently followed Carlos from a bar as he made his way home.  When Carlos pulled over to take a piss, he took two rounds to the head, execution style.  I asked Ernesto what this meant for Guatemala.  Were the Colombians going to muscle in and take the routes north to the US?  After all, the closer a trafficker gets to the United States, the higher price he can get for the cocaine (and other products).  If the Colombians control the routes right up to the border of Mexico, they can ask 4 to 5 times the amount for a kilogram of cocaine.  It is the same reason why the Mexicans also want to take over the Central American routes.  It reduces the price of a kilo of cocaine and it reduces friction in the supply chain.  For every 100 miles closer to the border of the United States, the price of cocaine and other narcotics goes up.  Ernesto stared into my eyes with the same smirk as years before.  He leaned in and whispered, “This is Guatemala, and it is ours.  Fuck the Colombians; they won’t take shit.  Nobody can out kill us.”


The average Guatemalan has been raped and pillaged by the wealthy and powerful for damn near all of their known history.  Being a victim of the strong and powerful teaches a person to survive.  It also makes very clear what is necessary for survival.  For example, a Guatemalan will not stop coming to the United States if there is work.  Build a fence, hell, cover the border in landmines, it won’t matter.  They will find a way, and someone will be willing to smuggle them in for the right price.  These smugglers also have something they won’t give up – complete control of the routes running through their country to the United States.  The outlaws can be co-opted, bought off, and contracted to the highest bidder, but Guatemalans remain in control of the actual routes and surrounding geography.  They may work for the Zetas, or supply Sinaloa, but if the foreign organization loses power at home in Mexico, Colombia or anywhere else, and can no longer pay, the people, and more importantly the drugs, will still move north, and the Guatemalan traffickers will still get paid.  They are not Zetas; they are Guatemalans.  The cartels are corporations, and when they go away, the demand, routes, and people willing to move the product will remain.

The Central American isthmus is a very difficult region to control by a centralized authority.  Some would argue the Mayans did a pretty good job.  However, the Mayan Empire was a loose confederation of powerful city-states, not a nation controlled by a government that exerted control on all of the Mayan people.  The reason for the city-state configuration is simple; a country of mountains, jungle and mountainous jungle is not an easy place to build the infrastructure necessary to integrate an entire “country” under centralized control.  Without access to a massive amount of capital, it is impossible.  Central American countries do not have the capital or any way to raise it.  Resources that are available for profit are extracted and profited on by multinational corporations and their Guatemalan enablers; with very little left over for the development of the country.  When a government cannot build infrastructure, it cannot project its power over its territory, therefore making it difficult if not impossible for them to provide for the people or protect them from the men with the biggest guns: landowners and outlaws.  The landowners in the periphery, who are almost always ladino or European descent, come from the cities (or another country like say, Germany), and buy or steal all of the land from indigenous subsistence farmers.  The landowners typically have support of the central authority because they are all one and the same: wealthy elites.

Outlaws in Guatemala understand the game.  They know who is in charge, and how to profit from the system in place.  They will sell their services to Mexicans or Colombians or anyone else wanting to move product through their country.  Walther Overdick (believed to be the leader of the Zetas in Guatemala who was arrested and is facing extradition to the United States) is no more a Zeta than I am.  He is a good businessman who realized the Zetas could help him monopolize control of some of the most important routes into Mexico by helping to kill his competitors, bankroll his operations in the country, and supply him with more cocaine to traffic than he ever dreamed.  It is a dangerous game of course, as some believe the Zetas sold out Overdick after he became too greedy and possibly double-crossed them.  It seems strange to think the Zetas wouldn’t just hang him off a bridge, but the Zetas are much better businessmen than the mainstream media give them credit for.  Turning him in, if in fact that is what happened, was the right play at the time.

If the Zetas or any other cartel is ever forced to pull their forces and their money back into Mexico, the Guatemalans who worked for them will find other patrons wanting to move product north, or they will just do it themselves.  There are signs that the Zetas are currently doing just that, with some analysts believing the Zetas are cracking.  Especially after the apparent killing of Heriberto Lazcano, believed to be the Zeta numero uno.

Businessmen are always looking for the best way to maximize their profit, which in turn increases their power.  This typically results in the diversification of products and clients.  However, when a client is able to completely overwhelm the profits to be had through diversification, they are able to guarantee the “loyalty” of a vendor.  Drug traffickers and producers are businessmen.  As long as the Mexican cartels can guarantee massive profits, they can continue to co-opt Guatemalans to do their bidding.  If that dynamic changes, so will the relationship between the Guatemalan traffickers and Mexican cartels.  Guatemala cannot be tamed by any central authority without massive investment into the country, and this goes for governments in the capital and drug cartels from Colombia or Mexico.


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