The slaughter and decapitation of at least 27 people at a farm in north Guatemala is likely part of the brutal conflict between Mexico’s Zetas and local gang the Leones, who are battling for control of the region.
Witnesses said that the killers, numbering between 30 and 40 men, arrived in pickups and four-by-fours to carry out the attack, reports elPeriodico. The bodies were discovered just a day after the murder of Haroldo Waldemar Leon, one of the remaining heavyweights of the Leones, elsewhere in the state of Peten.
It’s not clear who is behind the attack. The authorities are investigating two possible explanations; that the Zetas carried out the massacre as part of the same operation that killed Leon, or that the Leones did it as retaliation for their boss’ murder. Most reports blame the Zetas, and the country’s interior minister told press that a cell of that group, known as Zeta 200, had reportedly been looking for the owner of the farm where the killing took place.
In response, the government sent “dozens” of federal troops to the area to prevent the shooters fleeing into Mexico. However, given Peten’s proximity to the frontier, the density of the terrain, and the several hundred miles of border in that region, this appears unlikely to succeed. (See Prensa Libre’s video report below)
The Leon clan, formerly dominant along Guatemala’s eastern border with El Salvador and Honduras, has been locked into a battle with other local gangs and with the Zetas for the past several years. The gang got its start as a ring of cattle and car thieves, before moving into narcotics by robbing drug shipments, typically belonging to the Mendoza and Lorenzana organizations, that passed through the city of Zacapa. The leader of the group, Juan Jose Leon, also known as Juancho, was gunned down along with ten others in 2008, an event that precipitated the Leones’ decline in power in Guatemala’s underworld. Fourteen men linked to the Zetas were eventually convicted of carrying out the massacre in which Juancho was killed.
The Zetas, native to Tamaulipas state in Mexico, are developing an increasing international presence, with links in countries from Europe to Central America as well as in neighboring Guatemala.
Most recently, the Zetas have been linked to an increase in violence in the Guatemalan state of Alta Verapaz, which borders Peten. As a consequence of the rising bloodshed, Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom sent the army to Alta Verapaz in December, declaring a “state of siege.” In January, he announced the creation of a three-nation task force to combat the Zetas and other Mexican gangs in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
The siege may have had little permanent impact. A Plaza Publica report documented the return of the Zetas to the town of Coban after the measure ended on February 19, murdering a businessman and torching a car shop.
Peten, where the recent massacre took place, accounts for roughly a third of Guatemala’s total area. It is a rural state that shares a long (and largely unpatrolled) border with Mexico, and has also seen a significant upsurge in violence in recent months, with Governor Rudel Alvarez calling in February for a state of siege like the one that brought the army to Alta Verapaz.
The exact relationship between the Zetas operating in Mexico and those in Guatemala remains a subject of debate. Some evidence suggests that the Mexican group is merely co-operating with local gangs. Of 22 alleged Zetas arrested in Alta Verapaz in December, for instance, only one was Mexican. Furthermore, while the Zetas were responsible for attacks on revelers in Morelia during Mexico’s 2008 independence day celebration, indiscriminate attacks against civilians have been rare. However, others say that the Zetas are exercising direct control in the region rather than just supporting local allies, and that the failure to arrest Mexican Zetas is merely evidence of how ineffective the government’s response has been.
While Guatemala is valuable terrain for moving cocaine from Colombia to Mexico, the Zetas’ criminal activities in the Central American country demonstrate a focus on territorial control that transcends mere smuggling, much as has been the case with the gang’s work in Mexico. According to Plaza Publica, the Zetas have begun to intimidate local business owners in Guatemala and are seeking to take over virtually all facets of local crime, including extortion, local drug distribution and money laundering.