ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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.
JOSE BARRIOS: (Spanish spoken)
BEAUBIEN: 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.
BARRIOS: (Spanish spoken)
BEAUBIEN: 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.
CARLOS MENOCAL: (Spanish spoken)
BEAUBIEN: 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.
MENOCAL: (Spanish spoken)
BEAUBIEN: The Mexicans, on the other hand, Castillo says, are brutally gunning down their rivals and intimidating local officials.
MIGUEL CASTILLO: 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.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.