San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Mexican cartel threatens to kill civilians in Guatemala

GUATEMALA CITY – People purporting to speak for Mexico’s Los Zetas drug cartel have threatened to attack civilians in the northern Guatemalan province of Alta Verapaz if Guatemala’s government continues the state of siege it imposed on the region.

Reporters for radio stations in Alta Verapaz said Tuesday they have received text messages warning of possible assaults on shopping malls or other public places unless Guatemalan security forces cease counternarcotics operations in the region.

Authorities are already investigating the origin of the threatening messages, Interior Ministry spokesman Nery Morales said, while vowing that efforts to “restore governability” in Alta Verapaz will continue for as long as necessary.

President Alvaro Colom’s administration imposed the 30-day state of siege Dec. 19 with the announced aim of expelling Los Zetas from the northern province.

The cartel is using Alta Verapaz as a transit corridor and staging area for South American cocaine coming up through Central America, according to authorities.

Officials say the Colom government resorted to the emergency measure after concluding that Los Zetas cells had effectively taken control of Alta Verapaz.

The state of siege allows the suspension of constitutional guarantees and makes “anyone suspected of conspiring against the state” 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.

Eighteen suspected Zetas have been taken into custody since the state of siege was declared.

One of those arrested, Guatemalan army veteran Jose Leon, is suspected of directing the Mexican cartel’s operations in the Central American country.

Security operations in Alta Verapaz have also netted quantities of assault rifles and grenade-launchers, nearly 19,000 rounds of ammunition, five airplanes, several armored SUVs and the equivalent of more than $62,000 in cash.

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