Deeply incised drainage networks are thought to be robust and not easily modified, and are commonly used as passive markers of horizontal strain. Yet, reorganizations (rearrangements) appear in the geologic record. We provide field evidence of the reorganization of a Miocene drainage network in response to strike–slip and vertical displacements in Guatemala. The drainage was deeply incised into a 50-km-wide orogen located along the North America–Caribbean plate boundary. It rearranged twice, first during the Late Miocene in response to transpressional uplift along the Polochic fault, and again in the Quaternary in response to transtensional uplift along secondary faults. The pattern of reorganization resembles that produced by the tectonic defeat of rivers that cross growing tectonic structures. Compilation of remote sensing data, field mapping, sediment provenance study, grain-size analysis and Ar40/Ar39 dating from paleovalleys and their fill reveals that the classic mechanisms of river diversion, such as river avulsion over bedrock, or capture driven by surface runoff, are not sufficient to produce the observed diversions. The sites of diversion coincide spatially with limestone belts and reactivated fault zones, suggesting that solution-triggered or deformation-triggered permeability have helped breaching of interfluves. The diversions are also related temporally and spatially to the accumulation of sediment fills in the valleys, upstream of the rising structures. We infer that the breaching of the interfluves was achieved by headward erosion along tributaries fed by groundwater flow tracking from the valleys soon to be captured. Fault zones and limestone belts provided the pathways, and the aquifers occupying the valley fills provided the head pressure that enhanced groundwater circulation. The defeat of rivers crossing the rising structures results essentially from the tectonically enhanced activation of groundwater flow between catchments.