GUATEMALA CITY — A team of 200 U.S. Marines began patrolling Guatemala's western coast this week in an unprecedented operation to beat drug traffickers in the Central America region, a U.S. military spokesman said Wednesday.

The Marines are deployed as part of Operation Martillo, a broader effort started last Jan. 15 to stop drug trafficking along the Central American coast. Focused exclusively on drug dealers in airplanes or boats, the U.S.-led operation involves troops or law enforcement agents from Belize, Britain, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, France, Guatemala, Honduras, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Panama and Spain.

"This is the first Marine deployment that directly supports countering transnational crime in this area, and it's certainly the largest footprint we've had in that area in quite some time," said Marine Staff Sgt. Earnest Barnes at the U.S. Southern Command in Miami.

It was 50 years ago when the U.S. military last sent any significant aid and equipment into Guatemala, establishing a base to support counter-insurgency efforts during a guerrilla uprising. That movement led to 36 years of war that left 200,000 dead, mostly indigent Maya farmers. The U.S. pulled out in 1978.

Guatemalan authorities say they signed a treaty allowing the U.S. military to conduct the operations on July 16. Less than a month later an Air Force C-5 transport plane flew into Guatemala City from North Carolina loaded with the Marines and four UH-1 "Huey" helicopters.

After two weeks of setting up camp, establishing computer connections and training at the Guatemalan air base at Retalhuleu, the Marines ran through rehearsal exercises, Barnes said. Last week, their commander "gave us the thumbs up" to begin active operations, he said.

This week the Marines have been patrolling waterways and the coastline, looking for fast power boats and self-propelled "narco-submarines" used to smuggle drugs along Central America's Pacific Coast. U.S. officials say the "drug subs" can carry up to 11 tons of illegal cargo up to 5,000 miles.

Col. Erick Escobedo, spokesman for Guatemalan Military Forces and Defense Ministry, said that so far the Marines have brought about the seizure of one small-engine aircraft and a car, but made no arrests. He said he expected the Marines to in Guatemala for about two months.

If the Marines find suspected boats, Barnes said, they will contact their Guatemalan counterparts in a special operations unit from the Guatemalan navy that will move in for the bust. Barnes said the Marines will not go along on arrest missions, but they do have the right to defend themselves if fired on.

Eighty percent of cocaine smoked, snorted and swallowed in the U.S. passes through Central America, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Eight out of every 10 tons of that cocaine are loaded on vessels known as "go fasts," which are open hulled boats 20 to 50 feet long with as many as four engines, according to the Defense Department.

In a recent congressional briefing in Washington, Rear Adm. Charles Michel said the boats, carrying anywhere from 300 kilograms to 3.5 metric tons of cocaine, typically leave Colombia and follow the western Caribbean coastline of Central America to make landfall, principally in Honduras. In the Pacific, the same type of vessels will leave Colombia or Ecuador and travel to Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica or Mexico, Michel said.

"We fight a highly mobile, disciplined and well-funded adversary that threatens democratic governments, terrorizes populations, impedes economic development and creates regional instability," he said, noting that authorities are able to stop only one out of every four suspected traffickers they spot.

Drug Enforcement Administration special agent Jeffrey Todd Scott said that although the agency has supported Operation Martillo, it has no agents working in Guatemala beyond its normal in-country presence.

This month's Guatemala operation by the Marines comes soon after raids under an aggressive enforcement strategy that has sharply increased the interception of illegal drug flights in Honduras resulted in the death of one person in June and four in May.

U.S. officials said a DEA agent fatally shot a suspected drug trafficker in late June as he reached for his gun in a holster during a raid in a remote northern part of Honduras. That operation resulted in the seizure of 792 pounds (360 kilograms) of cocaine, the officials said.

A raid on May 11 killed four people, whom locals claimed were innocent civilians traveling a river in Honduras at night. Honduran police said the victims were in a boat that fired on authorities. The DEA said none of its agents fired their guns in that incident.

Both Honduras and Guatemala are struggling with widespread corruption that weakens their rule of law, according to recent State Department reports.

"We're concerned about the impact on Guatemalan civilians, many indigent, who are stuck in the middle of this conflict between drug traffickers and a Guatemalan military known to associate with criminals," said Kelsey Alford-Jones, director of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA in Washington.

Guatemala has widespread institutional corruption, "including unlawful killings, drug trafficking, and extortion; and widespread societal violence, including violence against women and numerous killings, many related to drug trafficking," according to a recent State Department report.

The Marine operation is the largest in Guatemala since U.S. military aid was first eliminated in 1978, halfway through the civil war. Over the years, the U.S. Congress has approved limited funding for training Guatemala's military response team for natural disasters.

U.S. law says Guatemala can regain aid once Secretary of State Hillary Clinton certifies Guatemala's military is "respecting internationally recognized human rights" and cooperating with judicial investigations of former military personnel and with the U.N.-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala.

___

Associated Press writer Romina Ruiz-Goiriena reported this story in Guatemala City and Martha Mendoza reported from Santa Cruz, Calif.

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  • Los Zetas

    The Zetas are thought to have become the <a href="http://www.aljazeera.com/news/americas/2012/01/201212645739134301.html" target="_hplink">largest cartel</a> in Mexico recently, <a href="http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-16712239" target="_hplink">operating</a> in over half the country's states. <b>Leader:</b> The notoriously brutal gangster <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/23/miguel-angel-trevino-zetas_n_1826236.html" target="_hplink">Miguel Angel Trevino Morales</a> (alias "Z-40") is believed to be the new leader of the Zetas drug cartel following a showdown with Heriberto "El Lazca" Lazcano. Trevino is infamous for human "cookouts" in which he stuffs people in oil drums and lights them on fire. "If you get called to a meeting with him, you're not going to come out of that meeting," a U.S. official <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/23/miguel-angel-trevino-zetas_n_1826236.html" target="_hplink">said of Trevino</a>. <strong>Territory:</strong> The Zetas control a swath of territory on Mexico's east coast extending along the Gulf of Mexico. <strong>Rivals:</strong> The Zetas are bitter rivals with the Sinaloa Cartel. In turn, the group is allied with the Beltran Leyva Cartel and the Tijuana Cartel. <strong>Notable incidents:</strong> In August 2011, gunmen <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/25/casino-royale-attack-leav_n_937413.html" target="_hplink">stormed the Casino Royale</a> in Monterrey and lit it on fire, killing dozens. In February 2012, 30 prisoners linked to the Zetas <a href="http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-17135362" target="_hplink">broke free</a> from Apodaca jail during a riot. 44 inmates from the rival Gulf Cartel were killed. In May 2012, the Zetas cartel allegedly was involved in <a href="http://edition.cnn.com/2012/05/13/world/americas/mexico-remains/index.html" target="_hplink">dumping 49 decapitated bodies</a> on a busy highway near Monterrey. <em>Photo: Army soldiers flank Daniel Ramirez, alias "El Loco," during his presentation to the media in Mexico City, Monday, May 21, 2012. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini)</em>

  • Sinaloa Cartel

    Mexico's second major cartel reportedly <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/17/magazine/how-a-mexican-drug-cartel-makes-its-billions.html?pagewanted=all" target="_hplink">operates</a> in over a dozen countries, including trafficking cocaine and other drugs to the United States. <strong>Leader:</strong> Mexico's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/07/joaquin-el-chapo-guzman-mexicos-most-wanted_n_1751671.html" target="_hplink">most-wanted drug lord</a>, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, remains at large after he <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/07/joaquin-el-chapo-guzman-mexicos-most-wanted_n_1751671.html" target="_hplink">escaped from prison</a> by hiding in a laundry truck in 2001. In 2012, Guzman <a href="http://www.forbes.com/sites/erincarlyle/2012/03/13/billionaire-druglords-el-chapo-guzman-pablo-escobar-the-ochoa-brothers/" target="_hplink">appeared</a> on <em>Forbes</em>' list of billionaires for the fourth year in a row. <strong>Territory:</strong> The Sinaloa Cartel operates in northwestern Mexico (<a href="http://www.insightcrime.org/criminal-groups/mexico/sinaloa-cartel/item/192-sinaloa-cartel" target="_hplink">map</a>). <strong>Rivals:</strong> Arch-nemesis of Los Zetas, the Sinaloa cartel is <a href="http://www.insightcrime.org/criminal-groups/mexico/sinaloa-cartel/item/192-sinaloa-cartel" target="_hplink">allied</a> with the Gulf cartel and the Familia Michoacana. <strong>Notable Incidents:</strong> A 755-foot <a href="http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jul/12/nation/la-na-nn-drug-tunnel-details-20120712" target="_hplink">smuggling tunnel</a> running under a U.S. border fence was suspected to be operated by the Sinaloa cartel. The Sinaloa cartel may have been responsible for massacres in the border city of <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/may/05/bodies-bridge-23-mexico-drug" target="_hplink">Nuevo Laredo in May 2012</a>. The bodies of 23 people <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/may/05/bodies-bridge-23-mexico-drug" target="_hplink">were found</a> decapitated or hanging from a bridge, followed hours later by the discovery of 14 human heads in coolers near city hall. <em>Photo: In this June 10, 1993, file photo, Joaquin Guzman Loera, alias "El Chapo" Guzman, is shown to the press after his arrest at the high security prison of Almoloya de Juarez on the outskirts of Mexico City. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)</em>

  • Gulf Cartel

    One of the oldest cartels, the Gulf Cartel recently has lost influence, but is <a href="http://www.insightcrime.org/criminal-groups/mexico/gulf-cartel" target="_hplink">backed up</a> by the Sinaloa cartel. <strong>Leader:</strong> Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, alias "El Coss." The U.S. has a <a href="http://www.state.gov/j/inl/narc/rewards/115354.htm" target="_hplink">$5 million bounty</a> on his head. Costilla Sanchez once allegedly held FBI and DEA agents at gunpoint with AK-47s and <a href="http://www.state.gov/j/inl/narc/rewards/115354.htm" target="_hplink">threatened</a> to kill them. <strong>Territory:</strong> The cartel operates out of the state of Tamaulipas, with other bases in Matamoros, Nuevo Laredo, and Reynosa, <a href="http://www.insightcrime.org/criminal-groups/mexico/gulf-cartel/item/90-gulf-cartel" target="_hplink">according to InsightCrime</a>. <strong>Rivals:</strong> The Gulf Cartel is allied with Sinaloa and enemies of Los Zetas. <strong>Notable Incident:</strong> In June, footage purporting to show masked members of the Gulf Cartel beheading Zetas members <a href="http://articles.nydailynews.com/2012-06-29/news/32475737_1_gulf-cartel-drug-cartel-leader-zetas-cartel" target="_hplink">surfaced online</a>. <em>Photo: From left: Andrea Escamilla Juarez ("La Negra," 21), Rene Cortez Zapata ("El Nicanor," 45), Nestor Hugo Del Angel Ferretis ("El Tango," 29), Jose De Jesus Mosqueda Mora ("El Chucho," 41), Jorge Fernando Larios Nossiff ("El Camaron", 57), and Ricardo Abraham Velazquez Del Castillo ("El Ricardillo, 24), all alleged members of a cell belonging to the Gulf Cartel criminal organization, are shown to the press by federal police in Mexico City, Friday, Dec. 9, 2011. (AP Photo/German Garcia)</em>

  • Juarez Cartel

    The Juarez Cartel reportedly <a href="http://www.insightcrime.org/criminal-groups/mexico/juarez-cartel" target="_hplink">smuggles</a> tons of narcotics into the U.S., using local gangs to <a href="http://www.insightcrime.org/criminal-groups/mexico/juarez-cartel" target="_hplink">act as enforcers</a>. <strong>Leader:</strong> Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, aka "<a href="http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2019221_2019202_2019187,00.html" target="_hplink">The Viceroy</a>," has a $5 million bounty on his head from the U.S. government. <strong>Territory:</strong> Based in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas. <strong>Notable incidents:</strong> In July 2011, Antonio Acosta Hernandez ("El Diego") told police he had <a href="http://articles.cnn.com/2011-07-31/world/mexico.drug.arrest_1_lesley-enriquez-consulate-employee-drug-gang?_s=PM:WORLD" target="_hplink">ordered the killings</a> of 1,500 people. In 2010, a report suggested that an associate group of the Juarez Cartel was <a href="http://www.borderlandbeat.com/2010/08/juarez-cartel-trains-beautiful-women-as.html" target="_hplink">training beautiful</a>, young women as assassins. <strong>Rivals:</strong> Sinaloa cartel. <em>Photo: Jose Antonio Acosta Hernandez, 33, is presented to the media by federal police officers in Mexico City, Sunday July 31, 2011. According to federal officials, Acosta, nicknamed "El Diego," is a key drug cartel figure, who acknowledged ordering 1,500 killings. Authorities identified Acosta as head of La Linea, a gang of hit men and corrupt police officers who act as enforcers for the Juarez Cartel. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)</em>

  • Tijuana Cartel

    The Tijuana Cartel, aka the Arellano Felix Organization, <a href="http://www.insightcrime.org/criminal-groups/mexico/tijuana-cartel/item/193-tijuana-cartel" target="_hplink">operates</a> in the strategically important town of Tijuana, bordering San Diego, California. The cartel was depicted in the film '<a href="http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0181865/" target="_hplink">Traffic</a>' (2000). The cartel has been <a href="http://www.insightcrime.org/criminal-groups/mexico/tijuana-cartel" target="_hplink">weakened</a> by infighting. <strong>Leader:</strong> Fernando Sanchez Arellano, alias "El Ingeniero." (The "Engineer.") <strong>Territory:</strong> Baja California <strong>Notable Incident:</strong> The cartel allegedly dissolved bodies using chemicals or burned them in the desert to <a href="http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-202_162-57408368/tijuana-cartel-leader-arellano-felix-gets-25-yrs/" target="_hplink">cover their tracks</a>. <em>Photo: Seized drugs and packages of marijuana and crystal meth are displayed during a presentation to the press in Tijuana, Mexico, Wednesday, March 24, 2010. (AP Photo/Guillermo Arias)</em>

  • Knights Templar

    The Knights Templar are a bizarre, cult-like group. <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/aug/26/mexican-corpses-acapulco" target="_hplink">The Guardian writes</a>: "Propaganda from the Knights Templar blends a mix of Michoacan regionalism, Christianity and revolutionary slogans." The Knights Templar are a major trafficker of methamphetamine. <strong>Leader:</strong> Servando Gómez Martínez, alias "La Tuta," <a href="http://www.insightcrime.org/insight-latest-news/item/3085-knights-templar-leader-appears-in-video" target="_hplink">denied</a> in a filmed address that the Knights Templar are a cartel. Gómez Martínez is also called "El Profe" ("The Professor"), and <a href="http://www.insightcrime.org/component/k2/item/319-familia-michoacana-leader-reportedly-employed-as-teacher" target="_hplink">InSight reports</a> that Gómez Martínez was still a publicly-employed teacher as of 2010. <strong>Notable Incident:</strong> The group recently was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/28/sabritas-firebombing-attack_n_1551355.html" target="_hplink">blamed</a> for coordinated firebombings of a PepsiCo subsiadary. It was a Mexican drug cartel's first attack on a transnational company. <strong>Rivals:</strong> Los Zetas. <em>Photo: Juan Gabriel Orozco Favela, alias "El Gasca," an alleged member of the Knights Templar drug cartel, is escorted by Mexican Army soldiers as he is presented to the media in Mexico City, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini)</em>

  • Beltran Leyva (Disbanded)

    The Beltran Leyva largely disbanded following a power struggle after the death of its leader, Arturo Beltrán Leyva. <strong>Leader:</strong> Héctor Beltrán Leyva, alias "El Ingeniero," or "El H," is wanted for up to <a href="http://www.state.gov/j/inl/narc/rewards/133311.htm" target="_hplink">$5 million</a> in the U.S. He is the brother of former cartel leader Arturo Beltrán Leyva. <strong>Territory:</strong> Northern Sinaloa. <strong>Rivals:</strong> Allied with Los Zetas after <a href="http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/story/2011/08/28/f-mexico-drug-cartels.html" target="_hplink">splitting from Sinaloa</a> in 2008. <strong>Notable incident:</strong> Former cartel chief Arturo Beltrán Leyva died in a <a href="http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/laplaza/2009/12/mexico-drug-lord-arturo-beltran-leyva-mexican-navy-marines-raid-felipe-calderon-drug-war.html" target="_hplink">shootout</a> involving 200 Mexican marines in late 2009. <em>Photo: In this photo released by Mexico's Navy, Navy marines arrest alleged drug kingpin Sergio Villarreal Barragan, alias "El Grande," center, in Puebla, Mexico, Sunday Sept. 12, 2010. (AP Photo/Mexican Navy)</em>

  • La Familia Michoacana (Extinct)

    La Familia Michoacana, a pseudo-religious gang, has been largely <a href="http://www.excelsior.com.mx/index.php?m=nota&id_nota=779205&rss=1" target="_hplink">disbanded</a>. <strong>Leader: </strong> Nazario Moreno González, alias "El Más Loco" ("The Craziest One"), died in December 2010. <em>Photo: Martin Rosales Magana, aka "El Terry" and alleged leader of the Mexican La Familia drug cartel, is escorted by police officers during his presentation to the media in Mexico City, Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011. Authorities allege Rosales is one of the last major leaders of the La Familia cartel. (AP Photo/Leonardo Casas)</em>