Reuters: Support for Guatemalan Narcotraffickers

Local community defends family accused of drug trafficking

"We're with you" read one message of support in La Reforma, Guatemala.

Residents of a poor Guatemalan town have rallied around a family sought by the United States for drug trafficking but respected at home for handing out food, jobs and medicine to people in need.

Guatemala has become a major transit route for drugs smuggled north to Mexico and the United States, and in small towns like La Reforma, wealthy capos are filling the vacuum left by weak governments.

The country’s drug trade is run by powerful families that can wield vast control over their smuggling territory.

Hundreds of protesters recently staged a rally to support the notorious Lorenzana family after the Guatemalan police, army and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration raided La Reforma last month to arrest members accused of working with Mexico’s feared Gulf Cartel.

“The Lorenzana family generates jobs to provide daily bread for the poor. We support you from the bottom of our hearts,” read one demonstrator’s sign.

“The majority of people in this area work on the family’s melon and tobacco farms and if there wasn’t this work, we couldn’t pay for food or medicine,” said Miguel Saguil, 52, at the rally outside of one of the Lorenzana’s luxurious houses.

The hot and dusty land around La Reforma in eastern Guatemala is inhospitable and the region has one of the highest hunger rates in the country, with people often struggling to farm enough beans and corn to feed their families.

The government provides few welfare services and many fear their livelihoods will disappear if the Lorenzanas are arrested.

The DEA joined Guatemalan security forces in last month’s raid, acting on outstanding U.S. arrest warrants for the family members.

But the Lorenzana patriarch Waldemar, three of his sons, and two other men linked to the family had already fled long before the helicopters swooped into town, likely tipped off about the operation.

Ovaldino Lorenzana

Ovaldino Lorenzana, a fourth son not targeted by the DEA operation insists the family became wealthy through legitimate businesses, like a construction company and agriculture.

“We’re farmers, we grow coffee … but we are so hated that they’ve even blocked our bank accounts,” he said, strolling the garden of his house by a swimming pool.

The family has an ostentatious lifestyle and owns armored cars and exotic pets including a pair of scarlet macaws, a monkey and a deer.

WIDE SUPPORT

Guatemalan authorities allege Waldemar Lorenzana heads the operation and that his sons organize the reception of drugs from drop-off points on the country’s Pacific coast and ship them north through Guatemala to Mexico.

Police say the Lorenzanas use their local backing to create a network of informants, making them difficult to catch.

“This is the first time that we’ve openly seen a demonstration in favor of suspected drug traffickers,” police spokesman Donald Gonzalez said, adding that several drug-running families across the country had also been able to garner local support in their patches.

An international food-aid worker in eastern Guatemala said that drug capos can sometimes do more to directly help the poorest people than the government or aid groups.

Authorities say other drug trafficking families hold similar sway in towns like Morales in Guatemala’s Caribbean department of Izabal, and in the jungle of the Peten, along the border with Mexico.

“There’s a connection with money laundering as this is how they pay all their employees and suppliers, and all their work to build schools, pay for people to bury their loved ones. It’s all a way of building political support,” said Lizardo Bolanos, a Guatemalan economist.

The threat of drug violence always looms in the background. In March last year a shootout between drug gangs killed 11 people near La Reforma. Eight months later, the charred remains of 15 Nicaraguans and one Dutchman were found close by on a burned-out bus suspected of carrying a drugs cargo.

But locals are grateful for any help they can get from the Lorenzana family.

“I have one son who is sick and they pay for his medicine, and another who is studying to be a priest and they have given him a scholarship,” said Edelmira Hernandez, 40, a mother of eight.