Three men were arrested in Guatemala for trying to hang banners, signed by Mexican gang the Zetas, seeking to justify the recent massacre of 27 laborers on a ranch, and assure locals that they are only killing other drug traffickers.
The mass killing took place on May 15 on a property owned by rancher Otto Salguero, in the north Guatemalan state of Peten. Many of the bodies were decapitated and had marks of torture. The murders have been widely attributed to the Zetas, sparking fear of the danger posed by the presence of Mexican networks in the country. However, like many of those arrested in the Central American country for links to the Zetas, the three men were all Guatemalan.
The men were caught while attempting to hang the message in the city of Quetzaltenango. It read:
The war is not with the civilian population, nor with the government, and much less with the press, so let’s take it easy. The war is against those people that work with the Gulf. Otto Salguero is one of the most important suppliers of cocaine to the Gulf and those who paid with their lives are employees of his who maintain his organization. Press, stop f***ing around before the war is with you.
Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
Sincerely, Z-200 [a local cell of the Zetas]
The message contradicts the previous reporting on the massacre. First, most reports have stated that the dead were not drug traffickers, but rather ranch hands. Second, the Guatemalan government has suggested that Salguero was working with a local group called the Mendozas, and precipitated the massacre by stealing a shipment of cocaine from the Zetas.
The banner, however, suggests that the killings were merely a part of the ongoing feud between the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas. If true, this would indicate that the fighting has spilled out of Mexico’s northeastern region, where both groups have their roots, and into Central America. While the Zetas have long been known to be increasing their power in Guatemala, reports of the Gulf Cartel operating outside of Mexico have been comparatively rare.
The two groups were for many years part of the same organization, with the Zetas serving as gunmen for the Gulf Cartel. The Zetas began to branch out following the 2003 arrest and 2007 extradition of their founder, former Gulf leader Osiel Cardenas. After years of tension, the two sides have been locked into a ferocious battle since early 2010.
Over the past couple of years, public banners, known as “narcomantas” have emerged as a popular way for Mexican drug gangs to communicate with the public, the government, and their enemies. To take one recent example, the Beltran Leyva Organization hung narcomantas in the state of Morelos to express support for the anti-violence movement led by Javier Sicilia, whose son was murdered in March by a Beltran Leyva splinter group known as the South Pacific Cartel.
It is a matter of debate why drug traffickers, who have no political goals, feel the need to justify their actions the way an insurgent group might. In some cases, there seem to be tactical considerations in play. If, for instance, the authorities blamed the South Pacific Cartel for the Sicila murder, they would devote more resources to bringing down this group, leaving the field open for the Beltran Leyvas to control the region.
Other narcomantas seek to win support by portraying the gang in question as the benign victim of an overzealous government. The idea here is that locals will support the group and refuse to collaborate with the police. The Familia mastered this trick; in November 2009, it blamed the Federal Police for the decline of public security in Michoacan via a handful of mantas in the port city of Lazaro Cardenas.
The Zetas’ banner in Quetzaltenango appears be at least partly of this type. As well as a threat against the media, it seems to be an attempt to carry out some late public relations work to convince the Guatemalan public that the killings were not a massacre of innocent farm workers, but a strike against a rival group.
With the Mexican public, at least, accustomed to seeing narcomantas and skeptical of their efforts to convince, such crude attempts to manipulate public opinions are generally unlikely to succeed. And many mantas don’t even try; some, such as this missive directed at Joaquin Guzman, alias “El Chapo“, seek only to intimidate and taunt the gang’s enemies, and paint themselves as the strongest.