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The text message, translated from its original Spanish, begins with a cheery salutation. Manners are everything when you're writing a good death threat. And this particular specimen, sent not long ago to a human rights activist campaigning against organised crime in Coban, a town just over four hours' drive north of Guatemala City, is a real doozy. Its recipient, who asks to remain anonymous, can be accurately described as living in fear.
How else do you react, when the sender the "Z" who claims to be ranged "contra el mundo, or "against the world" is Los Zetas, a spectacularly brutal Mexican drug cartel currently expanding its operations south through Central America? Death threats have lately become a fact of life for the 80, citizens of Coban. Five years ago, the bustling market town surrounded by coffee and cardamom plantations was — like most of Guatemala — trying to rebuild in the aftermath of the country's brutal, year civil war, which ended in Then the "Narcos" showed up, hoping to seize a region exactly halfway between the world's largest cocaine producer, Colombia, and its biggest market, the US.
In short order, Coban found itself on the front line of a spiralling drug war which has now doubled Guatemala's murder rate to five times the global average. By this year, the Zetas had an estimated members in the region. According to the Institute of Strategic Studies, Coban and its surrounding provinces of Alta Verapaz and El Peten are now part of the 40 per cent of the country where violent gangs, rather than the government, control the levers of power. Last November, Guatemala's President, Alvaro Colom, declared a two-month "state of siege" in Coban, suspending normal laws and putting the army on the streets.
At the time, 20 people a month were being killed, giving it a higher homicide rate than post-invasion Iraq.
Since then, the bloodletting has slowed a touch. Between three and eight killings a month is now average. But this weekend, drug violence in Coban and across the country will nonetheless be front and centre of the country's presidential election. But it's instead become a game of right-wing one-upmanship between two relative conservatives — Otto Perez Molina and Manuel Baldizon — seeking to secure the law-and-order vote. In Coban, people talk of little else but crime.