As his vehicle rumbled through Guatemala’s remote northern jungle this month, a soldier removed the clip from his ageing rifle and eased out a round of ammunition.
“It’s a 5.56 calibre,” he said. “The narcos use bigger ones.”
A few years ago, the size and type of his armament might not have mattered. The Central American country of about 13m had embraced a peace process in 1996 that ended 36 years of civil war. Peace appeared inevitable.
But today the country has a new enemy in the form of rich and powerful criminal organisations, which use it as a logistics centre for the international drugs trade. And Guatemala’s army is proving too small, too under-funded and too ill-equipped to stop it.
“We just can’t do it alone,” Álvaro Colom, the president, told the Financial Times.
Guatemala’s importance for the international drug trade has been growing for years and, in particular, since the US clamped down on traditional smuggling routes through the Caribbean during the late 1980s.
Recently, Mexican cartels have started to move into the country, finding in its thick northern jungles a perfect operations centre and staging post away from Mexican authorities, whose declared war on drugs since 2006 has disrupted their activities back home.
The Zetas, a Mexican cartel renowned for its brutal tactics, has established a presence in Guatemala, through which most cocaine heading north to the US is now understood to pass.
Already one of the most violent countries in the western hemisphere, Guatemala has suffered several gruesome killings recently, including the murder in May of 27 farmers, each of whom had been decapitated.
Mr Colom, who is now in his last year in office, says the presence of drugs groups has made it hard to reduce the murder rate. Last year, there were more than 40 murders per 100,000 inhabitants – nearly double the rate in the years after the peace accord.
Things have become so bad that General Douglas Fraser, commander of the US Southern Command, said in March: “The northern triangle of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras is the deadliest zone in the world, and far more dangerous than active war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Against that backdrop, Guatemala’s armed forces struggle to keep pace. One problem is that the army is too small to cope: at a mere 17,000 members, it is more than the 15,500 when Mr Colom took office but still about 70 per cent smaller than after the transition to peace.
A second problem is that the country’s armed forces have to work with inadequate equipment. Mr Colom says many of their vessels and aircraft date from the second world war. In a recent attempt to intercept a high-powered motorboat on its way to Mexico, Guatemalan forces had to draft in a Douglas C-47 military transport plane dating from the 1940s.
Nowhere is the lack of funds more evident than in the Petén, a vast jungle wilderness that accounts for one-third of Guatemala’s territory and which has more rivers than paved roads.
On a recent patrol, army forces scratched around for vehicles to make up the convoy. They came up with four Toyota Hilux pick-ups, which are more at home in a peaceful Latin American suburb than in one of the world’s toughest jungle terrains.
The region’s drugs gangs move quickly and with almost unlimited resources. Colonel Benjamín Casiano Sánchez Laparra, commander of the Guatemalan army’s first infantry brigade in the Petén, says the gangs use bulldozers and diggers to carve out landing strips to service specially adapted cocaine-laden planes: “They make them almost overnight.”
Col Sánchez Laparra says recruitment drives by the drug cartels, including the Zetas, have meant defections from his own forces as highly trained soldiers place financial reward over patriotism or regard for the law. “They [the drug traffickers] can buy whatever help they need,” he says.