GUATEMALA CITY – Security forces seized a small plane, 150 AK-47 assault rifles and the equivalent of nearly $63,000 in cash Tuesday during operations against suspected drug traffickers in the northern Guatemalan province of Alta Verapaz, where a state of siege was imposed over the weekend.
Authorities have also arrested 10 suspected members of Mexico’s Los Zetas drug cartel since the state of siege took affect at midnight Saturday, police spokesman Donald Gonzalez told reporters.
Police found 300,000 quetzales ($37,735) in cash inside a small aircraft impounded at the airport in Coban, while another 200,000 quetzales ($25,157) was discovered during the search of a private residence, Gonzalez said.
President Alvaro Colom declared a 30-day state of siege in Alta Verapaz in an effort to regain control of cities officials say are being terrorized by traffickers linked to Los Zetas.
The aim of the emergency measures is “to restore governability, attack and dismantle the organized crime structures established in Alta Verapaz,” Interior Minister Carlos Menocal said Tuesday.
Guatemala’s defense minister, Abraham Valenzuela, told a press conference the army may permanently station a counternarcotics detachment in the province.
Security forces confiscated nine vehicles, four of them armor-plated, Monday in the course of detaining the 10 suspected Zetas.
The Colom administration decided to act after investigators determined that Los Zetas cells, mostly comprising Mexican hired guns and former Guatemalan soldiers, “took control” of Alta Verapaz more than a year ago, presidential spokesman Ronaldo Robles said Sunday.
The state of siege allows the suspension of constitutional guarantees and the government said in a statement that “anyone suspected of conspiring against the state” is subject to arrest without a warrant.
Security forces can also “repel or repress any individual or collective action” by groups opposed to re-establishment of state control in the province, the government said.
Colom acknowledged Tuesday that Guatemala lacks sufficient police and troops to immediately expand the state of siege to other provinces where Los Zetas are said to be active.
He added, however, that the government plans to expand the army next year from 17,000 to 21,000 members.
Making the army bigger does not represent a militarization of society, Menocal said later, apparently seeking to reassure Guatemalans who remember the massacres carried out by soldiers during the 1960-1996 civil war.
Gunmen and smugglers working for Los Zetas, the former armed wing of Mexico’s Gulf cartel, have been operating in Guatemala for more than two years, becoming one of the bloodiest criminal organizations in the Central American country, officials say. EFE