Guatemalan soldiers on post in Izabal province after three soldier were killed by the drug cartel in September. After the killings, Guatemalan Security forces in a joint operation with U.S. Intelligence agencies took down the largest jungle cocaine lab in the Western Hemisphere. The area was under a state of siege for two months by security forces. (photo/Sara A. Carter)

Izabal, Guatemala – The horrific murders of nine Americans last week, including six innocent children, is an example of the increased brutality of Mexico’s most powerful cartels, its growing armed militias and its expansive power throughout the region.

In Guatemala, where this reporter was working last week, the evidence that U.S. and Guatemalan officials have a crisis on their hands was ripe with examples. The discovery and destruction of one of the largest cocaine jungle labs in the Western Hemisphere suspected to be operated by Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel reveals the complex and borderless operations of the narco-trafficking organizations. Sinaloa is also suspected of being connected to the slayings of the Americans last week.

U.S. and Central American government officials say the war against the cartels must be fought jointly with the cooperation of nations in the Western Hemisphere if there is to be any success in dismantling the cartels.

Guatemalan Intelligence Chief Mario Duarte surveys the region of Izabal province from a security forces helicopter. In September, Guatemalan Security forces in a joint operation with U.S. Intelligence agencies took down a the largest jungle cocaine lab in the Western Hemisphere. The area was under a state of siege for two months by security forces. (photo/Sara A. Carter)

Guatemalan Intelligence Chief Mario Duarte accompanied this reporter into the dense forest where the cartels had established a major cocaine jungle lab. As the helicopter made its way above the jungle hills, preparing to land in the tall grass, the canopy of Ceiba trees covered what is described by U.S. and Guatemalan Intelligence officials as one of the ‘most sophisticated cocaine labs in the western hemisphere.”

Guatemala And U.S. Intelligence Battle Cartels

Duarte said the operation in Izabal, could not have been accomplished without the aid of U.S. intelligence agencies working in concert with Guatemalan security forces.

Cultivating the cocaine in Guatemala, instead of Columbia, saved the cartel roughly $12,000 a kilo in transportation costs, he said, adding the site had been well hidden in the jungle for about five years.

The lab was expected to produce up to 500 kilos of cocaine a day, that’s roughly 1,102 pounds, he said.

“The cartels have been setting up this lab for five years to put it into operation, growing coca plants, bringing in all the equipment,” said Duarte. “With United States intelligence agencies that provided support for us we were able to get our military and police forces to cover the area, destroy the facilities and capture some of the people working here.”

Failure to eliminate the narco-trafficking organizations has resulted the expansion of their illicit operations allowing the kingpins to garner territory both in the United States and abroad to distribute their contraband.

“Most of our assistance comes from U.S. intelligence agencies and the U.S. military,” said Duarte, who admitted technology in these areas to target the cartel operations is limited and human intelligence operations are more reliable. He said President (Jimmy) Morales has been focused on targeting the cartels and working diligently with the United States to do so.

Duarte warned that the cartels have the capability to rebuild quickly and have resources as comparable or in some cases more sophisticated than those employed by government agencies.

Another senior official, with direct knowledge and who asked to speak off the record, said the “Guatemalan security forces have been able to seize in 4 years, 40 percent more cocaine than the previous 3 administrations combined (8 years).”

This despite, the officials said the other “administrations received bigger and more expensive programs financed by State Department. This proves that State Department security programs have not been successful in the counternarcotics and security arenas, but have been utilized to influence the judicial system under the cover of “capacity building”.

The Jungle Canopy 

The mountainous terrain and jungle canopy in Guatemala seemed to go on forever from the skies above the province of Izabal. From the air it is easy to understand how difficult the war on the cartels has been for intelligence and law enforcement agencies. The nation sits midway between Columbia and the United States making it the central corridor for narco-trafficking in the region. It’s temperate cool highlands, rich soil, and growing poverty make the nation a major target for poppy and cocaine cultivation.

Those same cartels, including Sinaloa Cartel members, also have their home in the United States. Their members hide among us in the vast jungles of our cities, our coastline and in the rural plains of the midwest. They hire children to sell their contraband, recruit gang members, hold communities hostage and plague our nation with addiction and poison.

And right next door, the U.S. southern neighbor Mexico is under siege by vicious cartel operations and battles. The death toll far exceeds the deaths we’ve seen in war zones oversees, like Iraq and Afghanistan.

For example, 2017, there were over 29,000 murders in Mexico and in 2018, the numbers jumped even higher to more than 33,000, according to the best estimates from the DEA and Mexican officials.

The dense fog made it difficult for Guatemalan security forces to navigate into the jungle. Eventually the pilots found a clearing and landed the helicopter in an area that had been under siege by the government in the northeastern area of the region. The state of siege was ordered by Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales in September and had just lifted last Wednesday, as this reporter made her way through the muddy terrain.

According to the Organization of American States (OAS), 80 percent of the cocaine heading to the United States passes first through Central America and Mexico. Guatemala is the transit route for most of it and the mountainous region of Izabal is one of those routes.

Morales’ government has seen results in targeting cartel operations in the country and in seizures of narcotics. For example, from 2008 to 2015 the Guatemalan government, under two previous presidents combined, interdicted only 71,994 pounds of cocaine, according to official data. Yet, from 2016 until 2019 under Morales, more than 125,302 pounds of cocaine has been seized. During that same time period narco related apprehensions totaled almost 9,000, with 1,754 apprehensions happening in the first months of 2019.

However, government officials contend, so much more needs to be done.

The Soldiers

For the dozen Guatemalan soldiers standing underneath the awning of a large guano palm thatched home that Wednesday the numbers are little consolation for the men that were killed months earlier. However, there was noticeable pride that the land had been taken from the cartel and the soldiers, with automatic weapons, stood watch to ensure they would not return. Roughly 900 people were arrested after the raid in Izabal.

“The people in the region are stuck in the middle,” said a Guatemalan Army Lieutenant, whose name is being withheld for security reasons. He is charged with securing the area captured from the cartels, along with his troops, comprised of both men and women who have made this area their home during their deployment.

“They have been cooperative,” he said. “The most difficult part was accessing the area, but the people charge with the area left – they fled- and we were able to take control.”

The government state of siege, which is similar to U.S. Marshall law, encompassed 22 municipalities. It began in September, after three Guatemalan soldiers were killed by cartel members after they stumbled onto the cocaine lab, Guatemalan officials said.

Old metal drums, used to soak the cocaine leaves in the first part of processing, lay on strewn across the jungle floor. Torn down make shift walking bridges – resembling planks on an old ship – pushed from the sides of the ravines over a creek bed below to nowhere. Down by the creek bed large ‘calderas,’ the Spanish word for cooking pot, used to make the cocaine paste prior to packaging the contraband, lay on its side framed by the wood that was once a make-shift shack for the workers.

More than 2 million cocaine plants were destroyed in the raid, said Duarte, as he walked up a wet hillside to the jungle lab hidden in the brush.

“We suspect it was Sinaloa Cartel, working in conjunction with Colombian and Guatemalan cartels,” said Duarte, discussing the September bust.

He described the swift response of the agencies and the Guatemalan forces, saying the ability to uncover the land and retake control of the cartels. The government sent police and military personnel to Alta Verapaz, El Progreso, Izabal, Peten and Zacapa provinces. It is considered a drug-trafficking corridor that runs from the Honduran to Mexican borders and the cartel suspected of controlling the multi-million dollar cocaine lab: Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel.

The Cartels Are Terrorists 

The cartel, whose former narco-kingpin Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman was sentenced months ago for drug trafficking and murder charges, continues to operate unscathed. At the time of Guzman’s arrest, U.S. officials said it was an enormous success. However, it appears the cartel is stronger than ever and is also suspected of being behind the recent killing of the nine Mormon family members, who have lived in a rural area in the Sonoran region for decades.

The tragic deaths of Dawna Langford, 43, and two of her children, Trevor, 11, and Rogan, 2, as well as for Rhonita Miller, 30, and four of her children: Howard, 12, Kyrstal, 10, and 8-month-old twins Titus and Tiana should not be vain, said surviving family members.

Devin Langford, 13, who is the son of Dawna described the horror of walking 14 miles from the site of the murders to get help, he told Fox New’s Martha McCallum Monday.

His father David told MacCallum “to me, this was an act of terrorism against our community.”

David Langford is right.

In the documentary Not In Vein produced last year by this reporter’s non-profit The Dark Wire: An Investigation foundation, numerous federal law enforcement officials described the horrific acts of brutality being perpetuated by the Sinaloa Cartel, as well as other transnational criminal organizations.

Those officials say these outfits are no longer operating in the bounds of criminal organizations, but more like terrorist groups. They qualify, under State Department guidelines, to be designated as terrorist organizations.

“The Mexican cartels have left a trail of blood using intimidation and terrorist acts of ruthless violence,” Derek Maltz testified before the Ohio House Criminal Justice Committee, which passed concurrent House Resolution Bill 10 to urge the federal government to designate several of the Mexican drug cartels Foreign Terrorist Organizations.

This reporter also testified to urge the federal government to designate the top Mexican drug cartels terrorist organizations.

“The cartels engage in beheadings, car bombings, dissolving humans in acid, mass murders, torture, bombings and political assassinations. Their actions are consistent with the behaviors of traditional terrorists and they have infiltrated the highest levels of the Mexican government with bribes and corruption.”

Leaving the jungle was much easier than the early morning arrival. The fog had cleared and the helicopter pilots circled several times around the fields that were once covered in coca plants.

“It won’t be long before we find more,” said Duarte. “These operations are very well hidden. It’s difficult to access how much damage we really did considering. Mexico under (President Manuel Lopez) Obrador isn’t doing much to stop the situation or limit the cartels.”

“It’s a fight that will continue to get worse,” he added. “It’s a battle we have to be in together or we all will lose.”

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