How Salcaja Massacre Tests Guatemala’s Resolve

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Following the violent deaths of eight police in northwest Guatemala, the government began one of the biggest and most successful operations undertaken since the beginning of the current administration. However, a closer look shows the government may have prioritized one criminal group while ignoring another violent regional actor.

According to Guatemalan Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla, at the end of August more than 1,000 people, among them prosecutors, police and soldiers, began to encircle Eduardo Villatoro Cano, alias “Guayo,” in rural parts of the La Democracia municipality in Huehuetenango, Prensa Libre reported at the time.

Eduardo Villatoro led one of the main drug trafficking groups in this northwestern province and is allegedly linked to the Zetas.

The “hunt” for Villatoro began after the July 2013 murder of the eight police agents, and the kidnapping of a police official in the Salcaja municipality in Quetzaltenango.

According to various sources, the kidnapped police official was involved in a “tumbe” (or theft) of money and drugs from the Villatoro group. As revenge, Villatoro ordered the assassination of the policemen and the kidnapping, and subsequent murder, of the official.

The operation targeting the Villatoro group has been one of the largest carried out against an alleged drug trafficker during the administration of President Otto Perez Molina, and as of the writing of this article, government forces had captured over a dozen individuals — including close family members of Villatoro — and confiscated some illicit goods, although seizures of drugs and arms has been relatively low.

However, there is contradictory information regarding how hard the organization has been hit. According to some sources, the operation has only managed to damage the group’s network of hitmen, leaving intact the structures dedicated to drug transport, money laundering and security, while others say the organization has been practically disbanded.

The operation, called “Dignity” by security officials, aims to show that the government of Perez Molina, a retired general, can confront and control challenges to its authority — the public murder of police — and that the state can, when it wants or needs to, carry out a coordinated and forceful operation against criminal groups.

However, a detailed analysis of this operation reveals the government is choosing to respond differently to various drug trafficking groups in the same area.

In Huehuetenango, the most important group is known as the “Huistas Cartel,” which has connections with Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel. Led by Aler Baldomero Samayoa Recinos, alias “Chicharra,” the group is based in the municipalities of San Antonio Huista, Santa Ana Huista and La Democracia in Huehuetenango. The group controls important drug trafficking routes and synthetic drug laboratories, and also has structures dedicated to money laundering.

Even more surprising is that Aler Samayoa’s group is also believed to be responsible for various acts of violence against authorities. These include the murder of an Interior Ministry employee from Chiquimula, Jennifer Carolina Moscoso, and a number of her co-workers in December 2012; the assassination of two police agents on the Inter-American highway in March 2012; and the disappearance of four investigators from the Forensics Investigations Unit the same month.

In these cases, authorities did not respond in the same manner as they did with the Salcaja massacre. This forms part of a longer story of how these groups have been shielded from any judicial persecution because of their contacts with elites in the region and at a national level.

In regard to this particular case, there are a number of theories. The first, which is maintained in Huehuetenango but has not been sufficiently verified, points to the complicity of high-level authorities with the Huistas. These alleged links were strengthened during the 2011 electoral campaign and included the financing of Perez’s Patriotic Party, above all in district councils, according to various sources consulted.

Connections between politicians and drug traffickers are fairly common throughout the region and have the tendency to occur in border regions where there is a history of contraband smuggling. These same contraband traffickers are also those who emerge as regional elites, with their own political candidates and representatives.

It is in this context that the authorities have not pursued the criminal activities of the Huistas — a historic network of contraband traffickers that now forms part of the regional elite — but instead have taken advantage of the Salcaja killings to eliminate competition from the rival Villatoro clan in the territory. To be sure, the current situation has ended up benefitting the Samayoa group, which continues to dominate the province and has been able to continue acting with impunity.

A second hypothesis proposes that the different responses are related to internal investigative processes. While the cases attributed to the Huistas were assigned to local prosecutors, tied to and controlled by the province’s criminal groups, the Salcaja case was investigated and pursued by authorities from the central government in Guatemala City. This prevented information leaks and allowed for the development of an investigation that led to the capture of those responsible for the murders.

In this version of the story, the different response could be explained by the group’s closeness, or lack thereof, with investigators. The investigators further away from, and less connected to, the groups have a better capacity to pursue and capture their members.

Finally, a third hypothesis suggests that collecting and processing the information that will lead to the dismantling of the Huistas is just a matter of time.

In any case, Operation Dignity has shown that some criminal groups partly control some regions of the country. Nonetheless, this control is not absolute and the state can, when it decides to, recover these areas and take down the criminal groups. The question in this case is: is that what the Perez Molina administration wants to do?

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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.


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