May 19, 2011 | 16:11 GMT

6 mins read

Sending a Message with a Mass Killing in Guatemala

A mass killing of Guatemalan laborers in northern Guatemala is thought to be the work of Mexico's Los Zetas, but there remains a great deal of uncertainty and uncorroborated information surrounding the incident. It is clear from the known facts and anomalies that an important message was being sent. It could have been the simple point that the cartel was present, in control and willing to do anything to maintain its grip on the region.
On the night of May 14-15, 25 to 30 Guatemalan laborers were murdered on the farm of a regional landowner near the village of San Benito, Peten department, Guatemala's northernmost province. The mass killing appears to be the work of Mexico's Los Zetas cartel, which is known to have a presence in the region and to control the two Mexican states that border Guatemala to the north and west, Campeche and Chiapas. There was also a scattered display of beheaded and dismembered victims, a Los Zetas trademark. Somewhat out of character was a message on a wall of a building written in blood, with a victim's leg as the writing implement, saying the owner of the land where the bodies were found would be next. The message was signed "Z-200," which would appear to be a Zeta radio call sign. Such "narcomantas" are not commonly left by Los Zetas. Over the last two years, however, Los Zetas have tended to kill their victims in particularly brutal ways when time allows and when they see a need to reinforce their fearsome reputation. That this event occurred and involved Los Zetas is not what makes the killing significant. Several unusual aspects of the event, taken together, suggest that a significant shift could be in progress in the dynamics of Zetas activities in northern Guatemala. (click here to enlarge image) Peten department is remote and consists largely of jungle and swamp. The people who live there are strongly independent and distrustful of the Guatemalan government due to the long and brutal civil war waged in Guatemala from 1960 to 1996, in which many of the department's inhabitants fought on the rebel side. It is known that Los Zetas over the years have recruited many Guatemalan kaibiles, current or former Guatemalan special operations soldiers, and there is a high likelihood that many Zetas gunmen operating in Guatemala, the Yucatan and southern Mexico are from Guatemala. Based upon the reported testimony of two of the survivors of the Peten massacre, the attackers wore military-style fatigues (not uncommon) and had Mexican accents. The presence of a large group of Mexican Zetas enforcers suggests that this group was sent into Peten department for a specific purpose.

Motives for the Attack

The surviving witnesses indicated that the gunmen demanded to know the whereabouts of the landowner, Otto Salguero. Since the laborers had just arrived to work for Salguero the previous week, they would not likely have possessed any useful knowledge for the gunmen to extract. While interrogating the peasants regarding the whereabouts of Salguero — who was not on the property at the time — the peasants were killed (some were shot and others were stabbed, according to media reports), then methodically decapitated and dismembered. According to reports from Latin American media, the Zetas force was camped for several days in what was described as a nearby redoubt, most likely to surveil Salguero's residence and activities, judging by the proximity of their camp to the target's house. Given this proximity, the Zetas probably knew their target was not on the property when they attacked. It was also reported that when the attack occurred Salguero was attending the funeral of his niece and her father-in-law, who had been killed the previous day by Zetas when the two were delivering ransom money for another family member who had been kidnapped. Presumably, the Zetas killed and beheaded the people they were interrogating because the peasants could offer no information, but the Zetas likely knew where their target was — and why. This points to the possibility that Los Zetas killed the peasants even though they knew the peasants were not relevant to whatever activities Salguero was engaged in that would have made him a Zetas target. Media reports suggest that Salguero's activities have run counter to Zetas interests for several years, though there is little clarity regarding this aspect of the case. STRATFOR is in the process of corroborating rumored connections between Salguera and Los Zetas. Another anomaly was the leaving of witnesses. Los Zetas typically do not do so unless the group wishes to deliver a specific message, though there have been times when a victim has "played dead" until the Zetas departed, which occurred during the massacre last year of Central American migrants in San Fernando. Guatemalan media reported that one survivor of the Peten massacre did play dead after he was wounded. The killers also apparently spared a pregnant woman, who said she was told by the Zetas leader that she would not be killed because of her daughters, who were with her and whom she reportedly tried to protect by covering them with her body. The woman may have been specifically instructed to convey a message after the killings came to light.

Unanswered Questions

There remains a great deal of uncertainty and uncorroborated information surrounding the mass killing in Peten. It is clear from the known facts and anomalies that an important message was being sent. STRATFOR's initial take is that the message was nothing more than the violence itself. Employing Mexican rather than Guatemalan killers, Los Zetas demonstrated that they are there and no one is safe — from peasant laborers to elite landowners. The more gruesome the scene created by Los Zetas the more it will remind Guatemalans of the horrific acts of the death squads during that country's 36-year civil war, squads that were made up of kaibiles, who now are aligned with Los Zetas. The fear the Peten massacre was likely meant to instill in Guatemalans is suggested by the silence of STRATFOR sources in Peten, who are not talking about the incident. We are delving deeper into the murders, which could be the beginning of a trend that would have a dramatic effect on the geopolitics of Guatemala and the greater Central American region.

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