San Marcos Department

San Marcos

Finca El Platanillo coffee plantation, with the Tajumulco volcano behind


Coat of arms

San Marcos
Country  Guatemala
Department San Marcos
Capital San Marcos
Municipalities 30
  Type Departmental
Population (Census 2002)[1][2]
  Total 794,951
  Religions Roman Catholicism, Evangelicalism, Maya
Time zone -6

San Marcos is a department in northwestern Guatemala, on the Pacific Ocean and along the western Guatemala-Mexico border.

The department's capital is the city of San Marcos.


Colonial period

The Spanish conquest of Guatemalan Highlands occurred in the 1520s, followed by the establishment of the Province of Tecusitlán and Lacandón within the Viceroyalty of New Spain. Candacuchex, a settlement of the Mayan Mam people, became the site of the city of San Marcos, established in 1533.

In 1546, once the Guatemalan archdiocese was established, bishop Francisco Marroquín split the ecclesiastical duties in the region among the Order of Preachers, Franciscans and Mercedarians, being the latter appointed to take care of "El Barrio" (in present-day San Marcos and Huehuetenango Departments), which was then a part of the Province of Quetzaltenango].[3] In 1609 the Captaincy General of Guatemala was established.

In 1690, the Tejutla "curato" had a large area and included the modern municipalities of Comitancillo, Ixchiguán, Concepción Tutuapa, Sipacapa, Sibinal, Tajumulco, Tacaná and part of what is now San Miguel Ixtahuacán. According to the historical writings from Recordación Florida of Francisco Antonio de Fuentes y Guzmán, Tejutla belonged to Quetzaltenango Department and it was a "prosperous land with rich weathers and comfortable forest with enough water".[4]

Tejutla was an important commercial and religious center; in August 1767, Joseph Domingo Hidalgo described Santiago Tejutla as "El Curato" -i.e., the focal center of commerce of all the towns that were around it− in the Gaceta de Guatemala, the official newspaper of the times. Then, in the last quarter of the 18th century, bishop Dr. Pedro Cortés y Larraz, who arrived from Cuilco in 1770 as part of the inspection he was doing of the Guatemalan dioceses, called Tejutla "Santiago en la Cima del Monte" (English: Santiago at the top of the hill" and reported that there were "sixty four families who lived very well" in the area.[5]

In 1754 the Mercedarians gave away their convent to the secular clergy per the Borbonic reforms that were instituted by the King of Spain, and Tejutla became a secular "curato".[6]


The Act of Independence of Central America was issued in 1821. The Provincial Council of the Province of Guatemala within the Captaincy General of Guatemala proclaimed the independence of Central America from the Spanish Empire. After being annexed by the First Mexican Empire in 1821, the Federal Republic of Central America was founded in 1823, which included the present day San Marcos region of Guatemala.

The department was created by a governmental decree on 8 May 1866, together with Huehuetenango, Izabal and Petén departments.[3] In 1902 the eruption of the Santa María volcano in the neighbouring department of Quetzaltenango was responsible for the destruction of the twin towns of San Marcos and San Pedro Sacatepéquez.[7] The towns were rebuilt and in 1935 were joined to form the new municipality of San Marcos La Unión.[7] This new municipality did not last long and the unified municipalities were again split in 1945 with San Marcos remaining the departmental capital.[7]

21st century

Towards the end of the 20th century San Marcos became a hot spot for drug trafficking in Central America, and one of the top lords was Juan Chamalé Ortiz, who was heavily involved in cocaine trafficking, and was accused by US authorities of helping to move over 40 tons of cocaine through Central America en route to the United States. Ortiz worked with local fishermen to smuggle cocaine in small fishing boats and may have also commissioned semi-submersibles to transport the drug. Ortiz also controlled a major opium poppy producing area, the San Marcos Department, where he was a popular local figure. He owned at least ten estates in his area of operations, including a large farm in Malacatán and provided numerous jobs, in addition to cultivating local support by throwing parties and sponsoring beauty contests.[8]

San Marcos is one of the most important regions in Guatemala given its proximity to the highlands, Mexico and to the Pacific Ocean coast, where most of the drugs coming from South America land. Ortiz exerted influence over local politicians and police in the region, and relied on a powerful local support network to conduct his business. He is thought to have worked out a deal that made him the Sinaloa Cartel's top transporter, helping the Mexican group move drugs that arrived via Pacific routes. Ortiz Chamalé was captured in 2011 in Quetzaltenango and extradited to the United States in 2014 where he was sentenced to 262 months in jail; when Ortiz was arrested in 2011, locals protested to demand his release.[8]


Location San Marcos within Guatemala

San Marcos is bordered on the northeast by the department of Huehuetenango, on the east by the department of Quetzaltenango, to the south by the department of Retalhuleu and by the Pacific Ocean, and on the west by the Mexican state of Chiapas.[9]

The department has a total territory of 2,397 square kilometres (925 sq mi).[10]

The northern portion of the department is mountainous, being crossed by the Sierra Madre de Chiapas mountain range. The two highest volcanoes in Central America being located within its borders,[9] Tajumulco (4,220 metres (13,850 ft) high) and Tacaná (4,092 metres (13,425 ft) high).[9][11] The Tajumulco volcano is the highest peak in Central America.[12] Other notable peaks include San Antonio Ichiguán at 4,022 metres (13,196 ft) above mean sea level.[9] The southern portion of the department drops away towards the Pacific coast.[13]

The Tacaná volcano, which occupies the border with Mexico and has slopes in both countries, has been historically active, with activity recorded in 1855, 1878, from 1900 through to 1903, from 1949 to 1950 and from 1986 to 1987.[11]

Principal rivers in the department include the Suchiate River, which marks the border between San Marcos and Chiapas, Mexico, and flows into the Pacific Ocean.[13] The Cabuz River has its source on the slopes of the Tajumulco volcano.[13] Other rivers include the El Pajapa, El Rodeo, Ixlamá, Ixtal, Meléndrez, Nahuatán, Tilapa, and Ocosito Rivers.[13]

The climate varies widely within the department, due to the dramatic differences in altitude, with the north possessing a cold Guatemalan Highlands climate and the south having a temperate or hot climate, depending on the specific altitude.[13]


The 2002 census recorded the total population of San Marcos department as 794,951.[14] Languages spoken in the department include Spanish, Mam and Sipakapense.[15]

Economy and agriculture

Farming communities below Volcán Tajumulco in San Marcos.

The wide variety of climates within the department resulting from differences in altitude gives rise to a variety of agricultural products.[13] Agricultural products include apples, bananas, barley, beans, cacao, coffee, maize, oats, peaches, plantains, potatoes, rice, sugarcane and wheat.[16] Livestock include cattle, horses and sheep.[13] San Marcos department produces more wool than any other department of Guatemala.[13] It is generally exported to the departments of Quetzaltenango and Totonicapán, where it is processed into finished products.[13] The department produces wooden furniture, with production being concentrated in the Pacific lowlands due to the greater variety of wood available, including cedar, ceiba and tepemixte.[13]

The department is notable for the importation of black market Mexican products, which are sold openly in local markets throughout its territory and from there are exported throughout Guatemala.[17]


The department of San Marcos is divided into 30 municipalities:[15]

San Marcos municipalities[15]
Municipality[14] Ethnicity Population[14][nb 1] Festival[18] Altitude[17] Extent[17]
Ayutla 27,435 1st Friday of Lent 24 metres (79 ft) 204 square kilometres (79 sq mi)
Catarina 24,561 25 November 233 metres (764 ft) 76 square kilometres (29 sq mi)
Comitancillo 46,371 3 May 2,280 metres (7,480 ft) 113 square kilometres (44 sq mi)
Concepción Tutuapa 49,363 8 December 2,910 metres (9,550 ft) 176 square kilometres (68 sq mi)
El Quetzal 18,979 12 November & 6 January 940 metres (3,080 ft) 88 square kilometres (34 sq mi)
El Rodeo 14,125 19 March 700 metres (2,300 ft) 81 square kilometres (31 sq mi)
El Tumbador 35,501 6 January 920 metres (3,020 ft) 84 square kilometres (32 sq mi)
Esquipulas Palo Gordo 8,613 15 January 2,474 metres (8,117 ft) 21 square kilometres (8.1 sq mi)
Ixchiguan 20,324 5th Friday of Lent, 23 January & 29 July 3,200 metres (10,500 ft) 183 square kilometres (71 sq mi)
La Reforma 14,623 1 January 1,139 metres (3,737 ft) 100 square kilometres (39 sq mi)
Malacatán 70,834 13 December 390 metres (1,280 ft) 204 square kilometres (79 sq mi)
Nuevo Progreso 26,140 12 December 660 metres (2,170 ft) 140 square kilometres (54 sq mi)
Ocós 29,257 3 metres (9.8 ft) 205 square kilometres (79 sq mi)
Pajapita 16,600 8 December 97 metres (318 ft) 84 square kilometres (32 sq mi)
Río Blanco Mam[19] 4,872 8 July[19] 2,650 metres (8,690 ft) 21 square kilometres (8.1 sq mi)
San Antonio Sacatepéquez 14,658 17 January 2,338 metres (7,671 ft) 79 square kilometres (31 sq mi)
San Cristóbal Cucho 13,928 29 July 2,350 metres (7,710 ft) 36 square kilometres (14 sq mi)
San José Ojetenam 16,541 19 March 3,050 metres (10,010 ft) 37 square kilometres (14 sq mi)
San Lorenzo 9,714 10 August 1,620 metres (5,310 ft) 25 square kilometres (9.7 sq mi)
San Marcos 36,325 25 April 2,397 metres (7,864 ft) 121 square kilometres (47 sq mi)
San Miguel Ixtahuacán 29,658 29 September 2,050 metres (6,730 ft) 184 square kilometres (71 sq mi)
San Pablo 36,535 25 January 610 metres (2,000 ft) 124 square kilometres (48 sq mi)
San Pedro Sacatepéquez 58,005 29 June 2,330 metres (7,640 ft) 253 square kilometres (98 sq mi)
San Rafael Pie de La Cuesta 13,072 24 October 1,038 metres (3,406 ft) 60 square kilometres (23 sq mi)
Sibinal 13,268 29 September 2,510 metres (8,230 ft) 176 square kilometres (68 sq mi)
Sipacapa 14,043 24 August 1,970 metres (6,460 ft) 152 square kilometres (59 sq mi)
Tacaná 62,620 15 August 2,410 metres (7,910 ft) 302 square kilometres (117 sq mi)
Tajumulco 41,308 8 July 2,050 metres (6,730 ft) 300 square kilometres (120 sq mi)
Tejutla 27,672 25 July 2,520 metres (8,270 ft) 142 square kilometres (55 sq mi)
La Blanca[20]


Sunset at Tilapa beach, Ocos, San Marcos

The main tourist attractions of the San Marcos department are its various Pacific beaches and the Tacaná and Tajumulco volcanoes.[10] Other attractions include thermal baths and the caves of Castalia.[10]

Geographic location

Notes and references

  1. 2002 census.


  1. "XI Censo Nacional de Poblacion y VI de Habitación (Censo 2002)". INE. 2002.
  2. "Comunidad Lingüística Ch'orti'". Academia de Lenguas Mayas. 2008. Retrieved 2008. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  3. 1 2 del Aguila 2005, p. 2
  4. Fuentes y Guzmán 1932.
  5. Cortés y Larraz 1770.
  6. Pérez 1966, p. 90.
  7. 1 2 3 Hernández & Martínez 2004.
  8. 1 2 "Juan Chamalé profile". Insight crime. Archived from the original on September 13, 2015. Retrieved 12 September 2015.
  9. 1 2 3 4 del Aguila 2005, p. 13
  10. 1 2 3 Servicio de Información Municipal de Inforpress (1).
  11. 1 2 INSIVUMEH
  12. Encyclopædia Britannica Online 2011.
  13. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 del Aguila 2005, p. 14
  14. 1 2 3 del Aguila 2005, p. 9
  15. 1 2 3 del Aguila 2005, p. 15
  16. del Aguila 2005, p. 14; Hernández & Martínez 2004
  17. 1 2 3 del Aguila 2005, p. 16
  18. del Aguila 2005, p. 17
  19. 1 2 Servicio de Información Municipal de Inforpress (2).
  20. "Crean nuevo municipio en San Marcos". Agencia Guatemalteca de Noticias (in Spanish). Guatemala. 24 January 2014. Retrieved 24 January 2014.
  21. 1 2 SEGEPLAN. "Municipios del departamento de San Marcos". Secretaría General de Planificación (in Spanish). Archived from the original on 10 July 2015.


del Aguila, Juan Enrique (2005). San Marcos: Información Histórica-Geográfica del Departamento (in Spanish). Guatemala: Del Aguila Consultores. 
Cortés y Larraz, Pedro (1770). Descripción Geográfico-Moral de la Diócesis de Goathemala (in Spanish). Guatemala: Diócesis de Guatemala. 
Encyclopædia Britannica Online (2011). "Tajumulco Volcano.". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 2011-01-14. 
Fuentes y Guzmán, Francisco Antonio de (1932) [1690]. Recordación Florida. Discurso historial y demostración natural, material, militar y política del Reyno de Guatemala. Biblioteca Goathemala de la Sociedad de Geografía e Historia Volumen VI (in Spanish). I-III. Guatemala: Tipografía Nacional. 
Hernández, Gonzalo; Martinez, Mildred (2004). "San Marcos: La capital de la hospitalidad" (PDF) (in Spanish). Guatemala: Prensa Libre. Retrieved 2011-01-14. 
INSIVUMEH. "Volcanes de Guatemala" (in Spanish). Guatemala City: Instituto Nacional de Sismología, Vulcanología, Meteorologíá e Hidrologíá (INSIVUMEH) - Ministerio de Comunicaciones, Infraestructura y Vivienda. Retrieved 2011-01-14. 
Servicio de Información Municipal de Inforpress (1). "Departamento de San Marcos" (in Spanish). Guatemala City: INFORPRESSCA. Retrieved 2010-01-12. 
Servicio de Información Municipal de Inforpress (2). "Río Blanco, San Marcos" (in Spanish). Guatemala City: INFORPRESSCA. Retrieved 2010-01-12. 

Coordinates: 14°57′40″N 91°47′44″W / 14.96111°N 91.79556°W / 14.96111; -91.79556

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