Guatemala faces a growing, potentially existential threat. Territories and routes which once experienced moderate trafficking of goods, humans, and drugs have become superhighways for the transfer of high value products, chemical products, weapons, and cash required by the illicit drug industry. Due to Guatemala’s border with Mexico and a permissive environment for contraband and crime, the country has become a funnel for 90 percent of the cocaine sent from South America to the United States—the largest drug market in the world.

Contraband routes in Guatemala traditionally controlled by local groups are coming ever more under the control of the Mexican cartels. Around half of the nation’s territory is believed to be under the control of criminal organizations. Local criminal organizations have long penetrated the Guatemalan police, army, courts and government, and Guatemala’s gangs are extremely violent. However, the Mexican cartels with their financial resources, military grade weapons, and reputation for indiscriminate killing and brutality have elevated these threats. Today Guatemala and its neighbors Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador, have homicide rates among the highest in the world. Guatemala’s murder rate is as high as those during the worst years of the civil wars in the 1980’s. Impunity for traffickers and murderers is the rule, not the exception.

Drug trafficking networks operate most intensely in communities along or near smuggling routes, many of which are located in border regions. Guatemala has more than 800 miles of borders which cross forests and mountain ranges and are seldom monitored or even marked. The communities close to the borders tend to be rural and engaged in subsistence farming often with little or no government presence in the form of clinics, schools, or police. Without the presence of state institutions, these communities are left vulnerable to exploitation at the hands of criminal groups which use a variety of tactics, including not only threats and violence but also the distribution of money, public services, and other benefits to obtain compliance, acceptance, and even the support of local residents.

Various independent and governmental reports have explained the gravity of the violence and organized crime in Guatemala, and the danger these factors pose to regional stability. These reports focus on the failures of national security policies, attempts to reform the national police and judicial systems, and international counter-narcotics efforts. Local dynamics which underpin this national crisis, such as the relationships between criminal networks and local authorities and institutions, go overlooked.

This report tackles this gap by examining the effects of illicit trafficking and criminal organizations within the three border municipalities of Guatemala: Sayaxché in the department of Petén, Gualán in Zacapa, and Malacatán in San Marcos. These municipalities sit on important smuggling routes and are well-known by Guatemalan police, intelligence agencies and local populations to be regional centers for organized crime. They differ in terms of their economies, demographics, political institutions, and the local and foreign criminal groups who control the trafficking.

In this report, we examine the local economic, political and social variables of these communities and how these factors shape the relationships between criminal organizations and local communities. The data is based on interviews and information collected during weeks of field investigation between April and July 2011. A comparison of these how these three economically and politically diverse communities have coped with local drug trafficking and criminal groups provides a broader understanding of the relational dynamics that determine the impacts of trafficking on nearby communities. We find the concept of “social capital,” defined as a local community’s capacity for self organization in seeking collective benefits, to be useful in describing these dynamics.

Our fieldwork and analysis lead us to conclude that effective border control and law enforcement in Guatemala is more about changing the habits and attitudes of local residents and communities, than it is about improving technology, infrastructure, or state presence per se. Based on these conclusions, we offer recommendations for policies designed to contribute to Guatemalan and international efforts to improve security, state presence, and the rule of law in these and other border communities.

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