U.S. backs creation of anti-drug military task force; Zeta-connected drug lord Walther Overdick arrested

The Drug War continues to deepen in Guatemala, with the implementation of new militarized approaches to combating the drug trade alongside the successful criminal targeting of key traffickers.  During Holy Week, drug smuggler Horst Walther Overdick was arrested in a joint operation between the U.S. DEA and Guatemala's police forces, Attorney General, and Interior Ministries.  Overdick is the 10th high level drug trafficker arrested in recent years, and the U.S. is likely to request his extradition to face criminal charges in the North. Overdick's father was mayor of the town of Panzos, Alta Verapaz in 1978, when the Guatemalan military massacred dozens of Q'eqchi' peasants protesting for land rights; the elder Overdick has testified in the ongoing legal case for the Panzos massacre.

Overdick is alleged to have controlled a criminal network in the Alta Verapaz region of Guatemala and to have allied with the infamous Zeta paramilitary cartel, which is accused of the massacre of 27 people on a Peten plantation last year. On April 7th, an AP report citing Guatemalan intelligence sources reported that the Zetas are recruiting urban Mara Salvatrucha gang members, "providing paramilitary training and equipment to the Maras in exchange for intelligence and crimes meant to divert law-enforcement resources and attention" into the cities and away from the rural drug trafficking corridors that the Zetas hope to control. This report was officially denied on April 9th by Interior Minister Lopez Bonilla, who said that the Interior Ministry source cited in the AP article was not in fact a Ministry employee, and that there is no evidence for the article's claims.

While a formal alliance would be a new strategy for both the Zetas and the Mara, informal cooperation between drug traffickers and gangs already exist. As President Otto Perez Molina continues to raise debate in international forms on the alternative of drug legalization and regulation, it is worth questioning why supposed government sources are raising fears of thousands of gang members armed with military grade weapons.

While the criminal justice system has advanced in the capture of high-level drug traffickers, Defense Minister Ulises Anzueto announced on March 30th the creation of the "Tecun Uman" military task force, which will police drug trafficking on the Pacific Coast and in the department of San Marcos.  According to Anzueto, the task force will be partially financed by the U.S., including "vehicles, communications equipment and other technical support." Analysis by the website Insight Crime suggests that, "with the funding of this task force, the Obama administration may be signaling its willingness to pressure Congress" to reinstate direct military aid to Guatemala.

Human rights activists question the legitimacy and efficacy of using the military to combat drugs and crime, raising concerns for civil liberties and pointing to the deep historical connections between the military and organized crime. The Zetas are known to have contracted former members of the Kaibil special forces, and in 2011 Insight Crime published a video of active duty, uniformed military officers alongside known drug traffickers--including Walther Overdick--at a horse race in Coban, Alta Verapaz. Nevertheless, the Perez Molina administration has emphasized its intention to use the Kaibil forces in operations against drug traffickers.