Scene of a massacre in Huehuetenango, Guatemala

A Christmas massacre in Huehuetenango, a Guatemalan province on the Mexican border, provides clues about the extent to which the country's elite is interlinked with organized crime.

The dead included Luis Antonio Palacios, a local hotel owner and businessman; an official from the province's Attorney General's Office; a high level officer at the first lady's public works project; along with four others.

The group was intercepted by an armed caravan of vehicles on December 23, as they traveled with Palacios' bodyguards along one of the province's mountainous roads. The murder scene was dramatic: authorities found the bodies of the victims in two cars, which had been burned, with multiple bullet wounds, and 200 bullet casings in the vicinity.

Palacios has two partners in the hotel, one of whom also worked with him in a coffee export business, according to elPeriodico. The hotel, La Ceiba, has two pools, a nightclub and a jacuzzi.

The December 23 attack did not slow down business. The hotel's Facebook page has flyers advertising a New Year's day celebration and other activities through Valentine's Day.

According to elPeriodico, authorities have linked Palacios to drug trafficking groups in the area, and said that one of the torched vehicles had a hidden compartment.

However, no drugs or money were found in the car. What's more, there is no formal investigation open into Palacios' activities.

InSight Crime Analysis

In many ways, the massacre is a classic story in Guatemala, where business and political elites regularly intersect with organized crime. But the exact nature of these links, which is a critical part of the puzzle, remains unknown.

Guatemalan sources, for instance, told InSight Crime that Palacios was laundering money for Aler Samayoa, alias "Chicharra," the local underworld power broker in Huehuetenango. Samayoa is part of a triumvirate of crime families that included Walter Montejo, until Montejo's capture in June 2012

The group allegedly works closely with the Sinaloa Cartel. Its areas of influence stretch from Nenton to La Democracia, and towards Santa Ana Huista and Jacaltenango (see map, below). But their names appear rarely in press accounts or official reports. (See elPeriodico report for the most complete account of criminal activities in the area.)

This alliance has withstood pressure from others in the zone who work closely with the Zetas, the region's most violent criminal group. In November 2008, Chicharra's men ambushed some alleged Zetas who were trying to ambush his party. They reportedly executed dozens, although the official body count was 17.

The death of Palacios, however, appears to be connected to an internal squabble, according to local sources consulted by InSight Crime. The hotel, and other businesses, are apparently fronts for money laundering, according to sources who did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation. It's not clear whether the officials traveling with Palacios had any connection to organized crime, or were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Huehuetenango's traditional elite is suffering, and many seem to be fleeing or changing businesses. Coffee producers, for instance, have struggled in recent years and many have reportedly sold their land to traffickers, who now use the land as weigh stations and passage points.

Still, this is difficult terrain to investigate, and there is no reliable information on any of these matters. Indeed, Huehuetenango and its surroundings are largely a black hole when it comes to news and official information.

The area has grown in importance as Guatemala has become the choke point for cocaine moving north to Mexico. The US Department of State estimates that as much as 300 tons of cocaine move through the country each year on its way to the United States. Numerous local "transportista" groups have emerged to fill a demand for transport services for these drugs. Poppy production and human smuggling are also important underworld activities in the area.

Some of these transportistas have become incredibly powerful along the way, entering into legitimate business to camouflage their activities and developing strong ties with the authorities to keep them out of jail.

One of the more common means criminal groups use to form liaisons with the government is public works contracts, making the presence of a presidential-level public works official in the list of dead all the more suspicious. Criminal groups obtain contracts to carry out the public works, or subcontracts to provide for the public works. This allows them to obtain funds, and launder their illegal proceeds at the same time.

For its part, Huehuetenango is part of a long-standing contraband and human smuggling route. It is growing in importance with the development project known as the Franja Transversal del Norte, which will connect the country from east to west with modern infrastructure, passing through the province. 

Sinaloa operatives have been in Huehuetenango for at least a decade, intermarrying and establishing community ties by paying for festivals and other "public services." The group has also established strong ties in government, judicial and military circles, local sources tell InSight Crime.

The Zetas, on the other hand, have employed a different, more brusque style, attempting to push their way into the area rather than working with locals. The Zetas model depends more on controlling this territory. They do not appear to have as many international contacts to purchase cocaine, and have to rely on Guatemalan partners or their ability to steal it as it moves along main corridors such as the Franja Transversal del Norte.


View Huehuetenango - Criminal Activity in a larger map

The research presented in this article is, in part, the result of a project funded by Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Its content is not necessarily a reflection of the positions of the IDRC. The ideas, thoughts and opinions contained in this document are those of the author or authors.

 

IDRC logo blue full name

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

MS-13's 'El Barney': A Trend or an Isolated Case?

MS-13's 'El Barney': A Trend or an Isolated Case?

In October 2012, the US Treasury Department designated the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) as a transnational criminal organization (TCO). While this assertion seems unfounded, there is one case that illustrates just why the US government is worried about the future.

Barrio 18 Leader 'Viejo Lin' on El Salvador Gang Truce

Barrio 18 Leader 'Viejo Lin' on El Salvador Gang Truce

Barrio 18 leader Carlos Lechuga Mojica, alias "El Viejo Lin," is one of the most prominent spokesmen for El Salvador's gang truce. InSight Crime co-director Steven Dudley spoke with Mojica in Cojutepeque prison in October 2012 about how the maras view the controversial peace process, which has...

El Salvador's Gang Truce: Positives and Negatives

El Salvador's Gang Truce: Positives and Negatives

The truce between El Salvador's two largest gangs -- the MS-13 and Barrio 18 -- opens up new possibilities in how to deal with the seemingly intractable issue of street gangs. But it also creates new dangers.

The FARC 2002-Present: Decapitation and Rebirth

The FARC 2002-Present: Decapitation and Rebirth

In August 2002, the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) greeted Colombia's new president with a mortar attack that killed 14 people during his inauguration. The attack was intended as a warning to the fiercely anti-FARC newcomer. But it became the opening salvo of...

Criminalization of FARC Elements Inevitable

Criminalization of FARC Elements Inevitable

While there is no doubt that the FARC have only a tenuous control over some of their more remote fronts, there is no evidence of any overt dissident faction within the movement at the moment.

The FARC and the Drug Trade: Siamese Twins?

The FARC and the Drug Trade: Siamese Twins?

The FARC have always had a love-hate relationship with drugs. They love the money it brings, funds which have allowed them to survive and even threaten to topple the state at the end of the 1990s. They hate the corruption and stigma narcotics have also brought to...

A Look Inside El Salvador's Prison Nightmare (Video)

A Look Inside El Salvador's Prison Nightmare (Video)

El Salvador's Cojutepeque jail is a perfect illustration of how prisons in this country have become the main breeding and training grounds for street gangs.

The FARC 1964-2002: From Ragged Rebellion to Military Machine

The FARC 1964-2002: From Ragged Rebellion to Military Machine

On May 27, 1964 up to one thousand Colombian soldiers, backed by fighter planes and helicopters, launched an assault against less than fifty guerrillas in the tiny community of Marquetalia. The aim of the operation was to stamp out once and for all the communist threat in...

Ivan Rios Bloc: the FARC's Most Vulnerable Fighting Division

Ivan Rios Bloc: the FARC's Most Vulnerable Fighting Division

When considering the possibilities that the FARC may break apart, the Ivan Rios Bloc is a helpful case study because it is perhaps the weakest of the FARC's divisions in terms of command and control, and therefore runs the highest risk of fragmentation and criminalization.

The Reality of the FARC Peace Talks in Havana

The Reality of the FARC Peace Talks in Havana

If we are to believe the Colombian government, the question is not if, but rather when, an end to 50 years of civil conflict will be reached. Yet the promise of President Juan Manuel Santos that peace can be achieved before the end of 2014 is simply...