By TIM JOHNSON
WASHINGTON — Crime groups in cahoots with venal army officers are looting military arsenals in Central America, giving them powerful weapons that allow them to outgun police and challenge the region’s regular armies.
The weapons run the gamut from assault rifles to anti-tank missiles, some of which the U.S. supplied during regional conflicts more than two decades ago. The slippage from military armories occurs regularly.
The feared Mexican organized crime group known as Los Zetas has stolen weapons from military depots in Guatemala three times in recent years, Guatemalan Deputy Security Minister Mario Castaneda told an anti-narcotics conference in early April in Cancun, Mexico.
In February, U.S. prosecutors unsealed a five-count indictment against a retired army captain from El Salvador for allegedly selling or offering C-4 plastic explosives, assault rifles, grenades and blasting caps to undercover agents.
U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and passed to McClatchy Newspapers show that American envoys have repeatedly voiced concern over lax controls on military weapons depots in Guatemala and Honduras.
One cable from June 2009 carries a simple message line: “Rogue elements of Guatemalan military selling weapons to narcos.”
The cable was sent after a narcotics raid on a warehouse south of Guatemala City on April 24, 2009, when agents clashed with “a number of heavily armed Zetas,” leaving five agents dead. Inside the warehouse, the unit found 11 machine guns, a light antitank weapon, 563 rocket-propelled grenades, 32 hand grenades, eight landmines and abundant ammunition in crates with the seal of a Guatemalan military industrial facility.