RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Mexico's drug cartels are carving out new territory in Central America in some of the poorest and most fragile countries in the hemisphere. The Mexican gangs are cutting clandestine airstrips in the Guatemalan jungle, laundering money in El Salvador and unloading boatloads of cocaine on the coast of Honduras.

In the first story in our series on the impacts of drug trafficking in Central America, NPR's Jason Beaubien reports on how Guatemala is now dealing with one of Mexico's most feared cartels.

JASON BEAUBIEN: In the capital of the northern Guatemalan Peten region, the bus station is just a small parking lot in the city's main market. Grimy vans and small buses idle by the curb spewing clouds of powdery black soot. Several of the drivers have pistols strapped conspicuously to their belts. This is the Guatemalan equivalent of the Wild West, a remote, sparsely populated area along Mexico's southern flank.

Unidentified Man (Bus Driver): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: The bus drivers call out the names of Mexican border posts, destinations for migrants, food smugglers and traveling merchants.

A local Catholic priest, Father Javier Pla, says in this area there are few health clinics, schools, police posts or other government services.

Father JAVIER PLA (Catholic Priest): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Eighty percent of the residents in the vast Peten province live off subsistence agriculture, Father Javier says, with little or no help from the government.

Mr. PLA: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: The consequence is this, the priest says: people live poorly, or migrate to the United States, or align themselves with criminal groups in order to get by.

And over the last three years there's been a new, powerful criminal group offering work - the Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas. The Zetas have been blamed for some of the worst massacres in Mexico's bloody drug war. Their presence here in Guatemala has been no different. Earlier this month, dozens of heavily armed gunmen, allegedly from the Zetas, stormed a cattle ranch near here. They tied up the ranch staff, beat them and left 27 people dead. Most were decapitated.

It was the worst massacre in Guatemala since the end of the civil war in 1996. In an interview with NPR the day before the massacre occurred, President Alvaro Colom said international drug trafficking gangs are the biggest threat facing Guatemala and the region.

President ALVARO COLOM (Guatemala): (Through translator) Definitely, these groups are very strong financially. They are strong in terms of violence. They're strong in how they manipulate authorities. We are doing what we can against them with our limited resources.

BEAUBIEN: The cartels, with their tens of billions of dollars in revenue each year, have access to machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. They use airplanes, speed boats and even submarines to move cocaine from Colombia into the region.

Under attack in Mexico, the Zetas have built their own airstrips in the Guatemalan jungle. President Colom says some parts of his country near the Mexican border are currently controlled by the cartels.

Mr. COLOM: (Through translator) It's a huge aggression. At times our resources are limited, but yes, we are regaining control of our territory.

BEAUBIEN: The push into Guatemala by the Zetas and other Mexican gangs has coincided with a significant rise in violent crime. Guatemala's murder rate is now twice that of Mexico's. Neighboring Honduras, which faces a similar problem with drug traffickers, is even worse. Honduras now has the highest homicide rate in the hemisphere.

Drug smuggling in Central America is nothing new. What's changed recently is the volume of drugs and the levels of violence.

Ms. JULIE LOPEZ (Writer, Researcher): Before 2008, violent incidents related to drug trafficking weren't as common as they've been in the last three years.

BEAUBIEN: Julie Lopez is a Guatemalan writer and researcher. She recently wrote a report for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington titled "Guatemala's Crossroads." The report chronicles how Guatemala's state security apparatus broke down in the years after the 1996 peace accords, a period in which the army was cut by two-thirds, yet a new national police force was still in its infancy.

Organized crime rushed in to exploit this security vacuum. And Lopez says Guatemala still isn't in a position to confront the international drug gangs.

Ms. LOPEZ: You have in some areas some policemen with nine-millimeter guns that maybe work, or not, having to face drug traffickers with AK-47s and grenade launchers and so on. So it's a lot to ask from a policeman who doesn't have any means protecting himself.

BEAUBIEN: But the problem in Guatemala isn't just whether or not the police have sufficient firepower. Fernando Giron Soto, a security analyst at the Myrna Mack Foundation in Guatemala City, says that drug trafficking money has permeated Guatemalan society. It corrupts government officials. It flows directly or indirectly into the coffers of the business elite.

Mr. FERNANDO GIRON SOTO (Security Analyst, Myrna Mack Foundation): (Through translator) An economy as small as Guatemala's does not support the quantity of banks we have here, nor could it support them given the difficult economic situation facing this country.

BEAUBIEN: More than half of Guatemala's workforce toil in the informal economy - selling goods on the street, doing manual labor for $10 or less a day. At the other end of the economic spectrum, the small upper-class drive German sports cars and avoid paying most taxes. Even by Latin American standards, income distribution in Guatemala remains dramatically skewed in favor of the rich.

Giron and others warn that the volatile mix of a weak state, powerful drug traffickers, lots of weapons and intractable poverty could cause the country to collapse.

Mr. GIRON: (Through translator) Unless the elites take seriously the question of this country's survival, we run the risk of becoming something - not exactly equal, but something similar to Haiti.

BEAUBIEN: The impact of the narcotics trade is felt throughout this small country. Drug-fueled violence and corruption discourage new business investment. The government is forced to expend resources and money chasing gunmen from the latest massacre. And Guatemala's fragile tourism industry loses customers.

Anselmo Galicia is a tour operator in Flores in Peten.

Mr. ANSELMO GALICIA (Tour Operator): Besides all this ugly stuff about the drug trafficking, this is a safe place.

BEAUBIEN: Galicia takes American and European tourists on trips to the Mayan pyramids at Tikal and on treks in the jungle. He's never heard of a single tourist getting caught up in the narcotics violence. Yet news reports of bloody drug gang shootouts, he says, drive away foreign visitors. Galicia recounts being in the travel agency office just after word got out of an hours-long clash in Peten between a convoy of Zetas and the police.

Mr. GALICIA: And after that event, they cancelled they cancelled all the reservations. Only three or four reservations were left. Yeah.

BEAUBIEN: He adds that this is just at one travel agency and the loss in revenue for the region was huge. President Colom says there's no way Guatemala can tackle this problem on its own and he says bluntly the best solution would be for U.S. consumers to stop buying cocaine.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, our series on drug trafficking in Central America takes us to El Salvador and the intersection between Mexico's drug cartels and El Salvador's street gangs.

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