We arrived in Palenque in time to see the Maya ruins before they closed for the day.
Our route for the next 12 or more hours. Leaving Comitán, Chiapas, where I’ve spent the night, and driving the highway that follows the Mexico-Guatemala border all the way back to where this whole trip started more than a week ago. We’ll arrive in Villahermosa sometime tonight. Then Saturday morning we fly back home.
This great trip is almost over. I’ll post photos and/or observations whenever cellular service exists.
A vehicle-mounted machine gun, earlier today on the Mexican side of the border crossing between Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, Mexico and La Mesilla, Guatemala.
We left the Pacific coastal highway zone and spent yesterday afternoon and evening in San Cristóbal de las Casas, a touristy and picturesque colonial city in the heart of Chiapas. This is where most of the state’s human rights groups are concentrated.
We had a 3 1/2-hour discussion with many of them. The activists highlighted numerous local concerns, some of them quite alarming.
It was a rather grim discussion in a very pretty town. Now we’re headed back down to the Guatemala border.
In Tonalá, Chiapas, Mexico. Subcomandante Marcos is the one who’s not sweating disgustingly in the 95-degree heat.
The Suchiate River between Talisman, Mexico and El Carmen, Guatemala. I’ve never seen anyone cross an international border in their briefs before.
These men aren’t migrants—they’re bringing products to sell in Mexico.
This is the view from the back of a Guatemalan Army truck (U.S.-donated!), en route to a meeting yesterday near the Mexican border. We visited a forward operating base of “Tecún Umán,” a new border security task force that combines elements of Guatemala’s army, police, and customs.
Tecún Umán has been operational for six months. While its actual personnel strength is secret, it is roughly battalion-sized, and thus likely somewhere between 500 and 1,000 members. Its main area of responsibility is the southern part of Guatemala’s side of the common border, moving into the interior 30 or more miles, where one finds its main base in the city of Coatepeque, Quetzaltenango. However, the Task Force can be sent anywhere in the country.
"More or less everything you see here was paid for by the United States," an Army official told us. The Tecún Umán Joint Task Force was prepared and equipped with funds from Defense Department counter-drug accounts. Annual foreign aid budget law has long prohibited (and now strongly conditions) aid to Guatemala’s army due to human rights concerns. These restrictions don’t apply, though, to the money that has gone to the Task Force’s facilities, training, and vehicles, because it’s in the defense budget, not the foreign aid budget.
The Defense Department supports Tecún Umán with anti-drug funds because it is concerned about drug trafficking in this area, which sits astride the point where the Pan-American Highway crosses from Guatemala to Mexico. The nearby coastline, too, is a frequent landing site for illicit shipments, particularly of cocaine and methamphetamine precursors, while local ranches have private airstrips that could be misused. The area also suffers high levels of organized crime activity, extortion, and human trafficking.
The Task Force potentially represents a big new internal role for the Guatemalan military: public security in border zones. Officials are quick to point out that this is a joint unit combining both army and police personnel, and that when an operation involves policing work, the soldiers’ role is to support the police, who are out front and interacting with civilians. (Earlier in the day, we passed through a Joint Task Force roadblock. It had police personnel out front, and soldiers positioned conspicuously, but a few yards back along the roadside.)
It’s not clear yet how well this model works in practice, as Tecún Umán has only been operational since August. There have been few concrete results to report, while violent crime in this zone has been in a bit of a lull. Though migrants continue to stream across the border, interdicting them is not a mission for the task force—it may detain them, however, if it finds any during an operation. It’s not clear how often this happens.
Though Tecún Umán still gets a lot of U.S. training, most U.S. aid to the unit has been drawn down after the initial setup. Maintaining vehicles and equipment, paying for gas and supplies, and similar services are now mostly funded through Guatemala’s treasury.
But the unit’s facilities still have a very American feel, as they were built by Salvadoran contractors according to a Southern Command-provided design. The exit signs even say “EXIT” instead of “SALIDA.” In the cafeteria, an official noted the odd American design, with the kitchen separated from the dining room.
Defense Department military and police aid continues, meanwhile, as the Joint Task Force model expands in Guatemala. By the second half of this year, expect the launch of JTF Chortí, which will operate along the country’s border with Honduras.