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Guatemalans live in fear again as drug gangs move in

Oct 2, 2011, 5:25 p.m.

By Mica Rosenberg and Mike McDonald

COBAN, Guatemala (Reuters) - Fifteen years after the end of a brutal civil war in Guatemala that sent tens of thousands of people fleeing to Mexico, refugees are again camping at the border.

But these days they are running from a new kind of conflict -- the occupation by drug traffickers of large swathes of Guatemala's territory.

Mexican cartels working with local gangs control around 40 percent of Guatemala, military experts say, a massive challenge for a new president set to be elected in November and a serious worry for Mexico and the United States.

Both candidates in the election run-off -- a former general and a congressman from the largely lawless north -- plan to beef up security forces to regain control although some worry the problem has already gone too far.

"There are parts of Guatemala that have been abandoned by the state, where there are no public services, that are being taken over by the capos," said Francisco Dall'Anese, who heads a special United Nations panel on corruption in Guatemala.

The situation is most serious in the jungle-covered, northern regions of Peten and Alta Verapaz. In May, a ruthless Mexican drug gang, the Zetas, beheaded 27 farm workers on a Peten ranch in a dispute with the farm's owner.

"The victims were poor farmers who had nothing to do with crime," a source close to the investigation told Reuters. "They had just been hired and had no knowledge of the conflict."

Not much more is known because the prosecutor probing the case was murdered, his body chopped up and dumped in public.

Guatemala's government imposed states of siege in Peten and Alta Verapaz earlier this year, suspending citizens' rights while troops carried out anti-drug raids. People were barred from meeting in large groups or leaving home after a certain time.

The harshest government restrictions were suspended earlier this year, although soldiers still patrol both regions.

CIVIL WAR FEARS

Human rights groups worry the army deployments are stirring frightening memories from Guatemala's 1960-96 civil war, when almost a quarter of a million people were killed.

Many of the civil war victims were Mayan villagers killed in army-led massacres in towns suspected of sympathizing with leftist guerrillas, and tens of thousands more escaped across the border into Mexico.

Last month, 91 families -- including dozens of children -- fled into Mexico after the government evicted them from illegally occupied land in Peten's vast protected wilderness.

Government officials say the families, from Nueva Esperanza less than a mile away from the Mexican border, are on drug gang payrolls and have been chased out of the national park by authorities a total of four times since 2007.

The families vehemently deny the charge and say they settled on protected land to grow corn and beans. Living in tents donated by the Red Cross, they are now struggling to find food and clean water on the Mexican side of the border.

"It's totally false. We are small farmers. If we were what they say we are, would we be living in these conditions of extreme poverty?" said Henry Gabriel, one of the displaced people from Nueva Esperanza.

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