- by Chris Arseneault
Coban, Guatemala – Despite a "state of siege" declared by Guatemala's government under the auspices of fighting drug cartels, the state of Alta Verapaz in the country's north feels fairly calm.
As night falls, the central square in Coban, the region's main city, bustles with activity. Tortilla vendors serve up steaming plates from roadside stalls and young couples canoodle, as crowds mill about in cool mountain air.
Occasionally, a pick-up truck packed with police squatting in the back rolls by, but residents in the city centre don't seem perturbed by recent presidential declarations allowing for warrantless detention, prohibitions on public gatherings and control over the local news media.
The government of president Alvaro Colom declared a state of siege for at least 30 days, beginning December 19, arguing that Mexican drug cartels, specifically the ultra-violent Los Zetas organisation, had taken control over much of Alta Verapaz.
Police have arrested at least 22 "traffickers" and confiscated five small planes, 239 assault weapons, 28 vehicles and explosives in a series of raids, officials say.
No one disputes the power, corrupting influence or horrific violence projected by the cartels. "You could see them walking in the mall [in Coban] before the siege," says Cesar Bol, a leading activist with the National Indigenous and Campiseno Coordination Organisation (CONIC).
"They openly carried pistols on their belts, wore brand new clothes, drove brand new trucks and spoke with Mexican accents."
But in farming villages, church halls and independent research offices, there is deep scepticism about the government's actions.
"The state of siege is a strategy of the government to attack social movements," says Carlos Morales, who works for farmers' rights with the Union of Campiseno Organisations of Verapaz.
At least two activists, Chabil Utzaj and Pablo Sacrab, have been arrested in Alta Verapaz under the pre-text of the siege, another farmers' rights groups says.
Sitting beside bags of fertiliser and posters of the revolutionary Che Guevara in a warehouse-turned-office, Morales says the Zetas don't live in his municipality of Santa Cruz, a 15-minute drive from Coban.
He thinks the siege is staged and simply an excuse for repression, rather than a legitimate attempt to battle traffickers.
"There are agrarian conflicts in much of Alta Verapaz," he says. "The government is trying to silence groups organising for land reform and against mega-projects like hydro-electric dams and palm oil plantations."
While many urban Guatemalans do not share Morales's analysis, there is scepticism about why a state of emergency would be declared in Alta Verapaz, as it is not the country's most violent area.
Guatemala has one of the highest murder rates in the Americas, with 52 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, compared with 14 in Mexico and 5.4 in the US.
Haroldo Shetemul, a columnist with Prensa Libre newspaper, Guatemala's largest daily, notes that 57.7 per cent of the country's murders in 2010 happened in the region around Guatemala City, the capital.
If stopping violence and protecting average people is the goal of the siege, he writes, then Alta Verapaz "wasn't necessarily a priority".
The siege declaration didn't "exactly have the aim of protecting the population as a whole, but instead was a response to particular interests."
Even the Mayor of Coban, whose position would normally guarantee support for increased security, is somewhat critical of the siege.
Al Jazeera caught up with a sweaty Leonel Chacón after he finished a 10 kilometre fun-run through the city on New Year's Eve.
"If the government would have had a plan that they had carried out since the beginning of their term, we wouldn't have arrived at this," says Chacón, who does not belong to president Colom's governing National Union of Hope (UNE) party, which is considered left-leaning.
"If there were better policies, we wouldn't have to use this last resort," the Mayor says.
Poverty and police
Endemic poverty, police corruption, social exclusion, weak institutions, a history of violence, and a porous border with neighbouring Mexico - home-base for most cartels - are just some of the policy failures that must be addressed.
More than half of Guatemalans live below the nationally defined poverty line, with 15 per cent facing extreme poverty, according to figures from the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Indigenous people, representing more than one third of the population, are the hardest hit group, with 43 per cent of children under five facing chronic malnourishment, one of the worst records in the world.
"Because of the poverty, they [drug traffickers] can easily recruit youth in rural communities," says Bol, the indigenous rights activist.
But young men looking for a fast escape from poverty aren't the only ones susceptible to narco-gold.
Ronaldo Robles, a government spokesman, said police in Alta Verapaz had been "totally infiltrated by the Zetas" and moved some local officers out of the area to other states.
"Moving police out of the region could go either way," says Cesar Bol. "It could bring in clean cops. Or new recruits could be working for corrupt high-ranking officials."
The army option
Mexico attempted to circumvent corrupt police by sending the army and navy to fight drug cartels. But Guatemala's history with military dictatorships makes that option politically unpalatable.
After the US sponsored a coup against the democratically elected government of Jacob Arbenz in 1954, various military strongmen ran the country until 1996.
The American CIA justified their intervention by accusing Arbenz of initiating "an intensely nationalistic program of progress coloured by the touchy, anti-foreign inferiority complex of the 'Banana Republic'", declassified documents reveal.
During the era of dictatorships, the military committed mass human rights violations, killing an estimated 100,000 people, although exact numbers remain unknown.
"After 36 years of war, there is a lot of nervousness among the population," says Carlos Morales. "People are going back into the mind-frame of terror."
And, more importantly than popular distrust of major military operations, the strategy of sending in the army has not been effective in Mexico, as evidenced by more than 30,000 dead bodies since that country's president declared all out war on the cartels in 2006.
An open border
Standing at the border between Mexico and Guatemala, it is hard to imagine that a declaration of siege in one state will stem the flow of contraband between the two nations.
At a formal border crossing, people move freely between the two states, lifting a small bar to pass through. Black market money-changers hold wads of cash on either side, exchanging Guatemalan Quetzals for Mexican Pesos with no formal oversight.
Nobody seems to be checking the cars, motorbikes, people and animals that move freely and frequently between the two countries.
"It's like dealing with cockroaches," says Isain Mandujano, a journalist with Proceso magazine in southern Mexico, in discussing the state of siege and the movement of drug gangs between Guatemala and Mexico. "If you clean your house, they move to the neighbour's house.
"And they can always come back."