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Feb 13, 2013 | 11:00 GMT

Mexico Security Memo: Guatemalan Gunmen Join Mexican Turf War

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On Feb. 5, federal police detained at least five Guatemalans at a hotel in the Lomas del Lago neighborhood of Zacatecas, Zacatecas state. According to the Zacatecas state attorney general, the Guatemalans had recently arrived in the state to reinforce Los Zetas, one of the two principal cartels fighting for control over the state. Along with the arrests, authorities seized an unspecified number of assault rifles and grenades, indicating the Guatemalans intended to engage in violent acts on behalf of Los Zetas. On Feb. 4, authorities discovered the bodies of two Guatemalans accompanied by rifles in Monteczuma in neighboring San Luis Potosi state after responding to reports of a shootout. And on Jan. 20 in Valparaiso, Zacatecas state, authorities detained four Guatemalans and seized assault rifles after a confrontation between gunmen and federal police.

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Mexican organized crime has long worked with Guatemalan organized crime, and Los Zetas have had links to Guatemala since operating as an enforcer arm for the Gulf cartel. These ties remained after Los Zetas separated from the Gulf cartel and pushed to expand operations further down the supply chain of illicit drugs.

Recent reporting suggests Los Zetas are partly relying on Guatemalans in their attempts to regain control over states where a Zetas faction led by Ivan "El Taliban" Velazquez Caballero broke away to align with Los Zetas' principal rival in the region, the Gulf cartel. Velazquez's dissidence led to rising levels of violence in several Mexican states, most notably in San Luis Potosi and Zacatecas. Using Guatemalans to augment Los Zetas' forces is understandable since the organization suffered a substantial loss in operational capacity due to the breakaway faction.

As Los Zetas' need for gunmen increased, opportunities to recruit diminished because the organization likely had lost territory when Velazquez's faction splintered and probably did not trust the local population after such a betrayal. By recruiting Guatemalans, Los Zetas can bring in gunmen less likely to be compromised by rival cartels.

As long as Los Zetas retain operational ties in Guatemala, they will likely continue to use Guatemalans to make up for declining domestic recruitment. Guatemala has a large pool of unemployed military-age men to recruit from, and if Los Zetas face additional pressures, such as new incursions by rival cartels or another internal split, their recruitment of Guatemalans could increase. However, Guatemalans likely stand out from the local populations in which they operate in Mexico, which could lead to increased targeting by rival criminal groups and Mexican authorities.

Editor's Note: We now offer the daily Mexico Security Monitor, an additional custom intelligence service geared toward organizations with operations or interests in the region, designed to provide more detailed and in-depth coverage of the situation. To learn more about this new fee-based custom service, visit www.stratfor.com/msm.

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