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In Latin America, Mexican drug cartels have been expanding their operations ever since the Mexican government launched an offensive against them two years ago. Alleged members have been arrested as far south as Argentina. One of the countries most affected by the spread of the cartels is Guatemala, on Mexico's southern border. NPR's Jason Beaubien travelled to Guatemala and sent this report.

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JASON BEAUBIEN: El Gallito is a barricaded barrio of Guatemala City. There are only two streets in and two streets out. All the other roads have been cordoned off with concrete blocks. Women sell vegetables from makeshift stalls on the street. Young boys on bicycle taxis blare their radios while waiting for customers. Soldiers sit in sandbagged kiosks, and police patrol in pickup trucks. But residents say the cops and the military are there only for show. El Gallito is run by the drug cartels. At night, people drive with their windows rolled down and their interior lights on so that the gang lookouts won't shoot them. Several people here declined to be interviewed, saying they'd be killed if they were caught talking to a reporter.

Father JOSE BARRIOS: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: A local priest, Jose Barrios, says if you go out and walk around El Gallito, you won't see street thugs, you won't see robbers, you won't see prostitutes. This is a clean neighborhood, he says. The only issue is drug trafficking.

Barrios runs a small evangelical church in El Gallito. He says the muchachos -or the boys, as he calls them - control the area. They keep the streets clean. They enforce the cartel's rules. One downside is that outsiders - taxis, delivery drivers, public servants, journalists - don't usually enter. Even the coroner won't come into El Gallito. If someone gets killed, Barrios says, the boys bring the body out to the barricades on the edge of the neighborhood.

Father BARRIOS: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: The muchachos take the body out to the avenue, he says. The city officials pick it up.

While free of petty crime and prostitution, El Gallito suffers from many of the same problems as other places in Guatemala. Guatemala's one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere. The government is racked by allegations of incompetence and corruption. Just a few weeks ago, the president was accused of murder.

An impoverished, corrupt, crisis-plagued country is a paradise for drug traffickers. They thrive in chaos, where they can easily bribe officials as they move cocaine north from Colombia towards the United States.

Carlos Menocal, one of Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom's top advisers on security, says over the last two years, Mexican cartels have moved aggressively into Guatemala. He says the Mexican traffickers have taken over entire parts of the north of the country.

Mr. CARLOS MENOCAL (Adviser to Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: One of the objectives of the government is to reclaim territory from the Mexican cartels, Menocal says. This is a war, and to fight these criminals, we need to have a military presence in these areas.

Menocal says the Mexicans, particularly a group called the Zetas, are setting up airstrips and warehouses in remote parts of the jungle. The Zetas are a group of former Mexican soldiers allied with the Gulf Cartel. Menocal says the Zetas operating in Guatemala are well-organized, well-funded and well-armed.

Mr. MENOCAL: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: We've dismantled bases from Los Zetas in which we came across anti-aircraft guns, military uniforms, anti-personnel mines, Menocal says. We suspect that these guys are preparing to defend their territories inside Guatemala.

Drug trafficking is nothing new to this Central American nation. Locals have been plying the trade for decades. But officials say the Mexican smugglers have changed the climate. In December, a shootout involving Mexican gangs killed 17 people. Another Zeta rampage in the capital left 11 dead. Guatemalan police say the Zetas have issued death threats against the president. Miguel Castillo, a political scientist at Francisco Marroquin University in Guatemala City, says Guatemalan narcos traditionally were very close to their communities. They gave out presents at girls' coming-of-age parties. They built churches.

The Mexicans, on the other hand, Castillo says, are brutally gunning down their rivals and intimidating local officials.

Professor MIGUEL CASTILLO (Political Science, Francisco Marroquin University): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: In a country as weak as Guatemala, Castillo says, this could be devastating. Mexico is a much larger country with far greater resources to fight these groups, yet Mexico has been struggling to contain them. Castillo says the Mexican drug cartels pose one of the greatest threats to Guatemala's future. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Guatemala City.

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