U.S. Marines in Combat Operations in Guatemala against Drug Cartel
In an attempt to take the so-called “war on drugs” to the home turf of the drug cartels, the United States in August deployed about 200 Marines to Guatemala as part of Operation Martillo, which began in January all along the Central American coasts. The U.S.-led operation involves troops or law enforcement from Belize, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, France, Guatemala, Honduras, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Panama, Spain, and the U.K. Since beginning active operations last week, the Marines have brought about the seizure of one small airplane and a car, but made no arrests. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, 80% of the cocaine consumed in the U.S. passes through Central America.
The Marines, who brought pilots, communication teams and combat engineers, have four UH-1N Huey helicopters. Their assignment is to spot drug traffickers from the Guatemalan drug cartel Las Zetas in boats—including crude mini-submarines—and then radio the Guatemalans, whose job is to seize the drugs and arrest cartel members. Although the Marines are carrying weapons, their rules of engagement technically limit their use to self-defense, and they are probably not authorized to pursue drug traffickers on the ground.
The U.S. government, which has a rather dismal history of intervening in the internal affairs of Central American countries, including Guatemala, clearly hopes this venture will meet with more success than its past efforts. Most notably, at the urging of the United Fruit Company, which felt its monopoly in Guatemala on banana exports was under threat, the CIA overthrew the democratically-elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Árbenz, in 1954. This led to a 42-year long civil war, during which the U.S. dispatched Green Berets to teach “counter-insurgency” tactics to Guatemalan Army units that soon became death squads. Two U.S. military personnel were killed in Guatemala in 1965 and two more in 1968. On August 28, 1968, the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala, John Gordon Mein, was assassinated by anti-government rebels.
An estimated 140,000 people were killed or disappeared as a result of the Guatemalan civil war, most of them impoverished Maya peasants.
Already this year, American agents in Central America were involved in the killing of innocent civilians in the course of drug interdiction efforts. On the night of May 11, Honduran troops and DEA agents killed two or four civilians—accounts vary—including a pregnant woman. According to a recent report by the Center for Economic Policy and Research, Honduran troops and U.S. agents seized a river boat containing cocaine near the town of Ahuas, when another boat hit the first boat in the darkness. The agents and troops circling in a helicopter then fired on the second boat, although the U.S. has denied that any of its agents were involved. The Ahuas shooting “demonstrates the risks of flooding foreign countries with armed representatives of the U.S. government, to fight an enemy that is largely indistinguishable from the civilian population on unknown terrain,” wrote Patrick Corcoran of InSight, a Latin America crime monitor. “The Ahuas shooting may not have been inevitable, but as Americans take a more hands-on role, such scandals are likely to be repeated,” he observed.
To Learn More:
Marines vs. Zetas: U.S. Hunts Drug Cartels in Guatemala (by Robert Beckhusen, Wired)
Guatemala Drug War: 200 U.S. Marines Join Anti-Drug Effort (by Romina Ruiz-Goiriena and Martha Mendoza, Associated Press)
DEA Operates Its Own Special Forces Squads in Foreign Countries (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)
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