COBAN, Guatemala — The Guatemalan military declared a state of siege Sunday in a northern province that authorities say has been overtaken by Mexican drug traffickers.
The government initiated the monthlong measure in the Alta Verapaz province to reclaim cities that have been taken over by the Zetas drug gang, Ronaldo Robles, a spokesman for Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom, told radio station Emisoras Unidas.
“It is to bring peace to the people and recover their confidence in the government,” he said.
A state of siege allows the army to detain suspects without warrants, conduct warrantless searches, prohibit gun possession and public gatherings, and control the local news media. Guatemalan law allows the measure amid acts of terrorism, sedition or “rebellion,” or when events “put the constitutional order or security of the state in danger.”
The state of siege was put in place for 30 days, but “will last as long as necessary,” Colom told Emisoras Unidas. He asked citizens to trust and co-operate with authorities.
The Zetas are a group of ex-soldiers who started as hit men for the Gulf drug cartel before breaking off on their own. Authorities believe they established a presence in Guatemala more than two years ago.
Robles said that numerous cities in the Alta Verapaz province have been overrun by drug traffickers and that the government decided it was time to take them back.
Anti-drug agents wearing ski masks to hide their identity patrolled the streets of the provincial capital, Coban, on Sunday.
Police officers and soldiers searched at least 16 homes and offices, as well as all vehicles entering and exiting the city, the government said on its website.
Gudy Rivera, a congressman from the opposition Patriotic Party, said the government’s action came too late.
The state of siege also is meaningless “if we continue to have police corruption, a weak justice system and weak jails,” added David Martinez Amador, an analyst and expert on criminal behaviour.
Guatemalan news media have reported that the local population lives in fear of drug traffickers, who they say roam the streets in all-terrain vehicles and armed with assault weapons. Some were forced to give up their property to the traffickers, according to the reports.