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Guatemalan government declares siege to fend off drug gang

By the CNN Wire Staff
Guatemala National Civil Police patrol the streets in Coban, Alta Verapaz department, north of Guatemala City.
Guatemala National Civil Police patrol the streets in Coban, Alta Verapaz department, north of Guatemala City.
  • 30-day state of siege allows the military to arrest suspects without a warrant
  • Government data says Los Zetas have overtaken parts of Alta Verapaz province
  • Country's interior minister says the goal is regaining control of territory
  • Los Zetas led by Mexican military deserters and known for violence, DEA says
  • Guatemala

(CNN) -- Guatemala's government has declared a state of siege and sent hundreds of troops to a northern province where officials say a Mexican drug gang is overtaking towns and threatening residents.

President Alvaro Colom announced the 30-day emergency rule in Alta Verapaz on Sunday. The rule allows the military to order anyone suspected of conspiring against the government to be arrested and imprisoned without a warrant, the state-run AGN news agency said.

"Starting today, combined forces will retake the streets of Alta Verapaz," a government statement released Sunday morning said.

Government data shows cells of the drug gang known as Los Zetas are in the area to protect drug trafficking paths between Honduras and Mexico, "intimidating the population with their heavy weapons and threatening farmers to give up their land for criminal activities," AGN reported.

The state of siege also allows the government to place greater restrictions on public gatherings, travel visas and gun licenses, among other things, according to AGN.

"The population should be calm. What we are doing is not intended to persecute honest, working people," Interior Minister Carlos Menocal told reporters.

Menocal said operations in the coming days would aim to boost regional security, regain control of territory, identify criminal gangs and capture their members.

In an interview with CNN en Espanol last month, Menocal said his country needed more help from the United States to combat cartels, which were increasingly carving out new drug transport paths.

"In the end, the large majority of drugs travel through Central America, and the assignment of resources or the financial support of the United States government is not the same as Colombia and Mexico receive," he said.

Menocal said clashes between authorities and Los Zetas had notably increased.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration describes Los Zetas as "a group of Mexican military deserters...who have kidnapped, tortured, and murdered -- including beheadings -- of law enforcement officials, innocent citizens, informants, and rival drug gangs."

A report released by the Stratfor global intelligence company last week said Los Zetas have also "long been active in human smuggling, oil theft, extortion and contract enforcement."

Corruption and violence are high in Guatemala, according to the United Nations, which created a committee in 2006 to investigate those issues there.

Carlos Castresana, the former head of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, announced his resignation earlier this year because he felt the country had not made enough reforms to its justice system.

More than 200,000 people have been killed in the nation since 1970, mostly as a result of organized crime, drug-trade violence and a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996.

CNN's Miguel Escalona contributed to this report.