LatinNews Daily - 25 May 2011

After massacre, Guatemala claims coup against Los Zetas

The massacre, in which 27 rural workers were shot dead (and 26 were later decapitated), took place on 15 May in a cattle ranch near La Libertad, in the northern department of Petén, which borders on Mexico. Graffiti painted in blood at the site alluded to a theft of drugs and was signed by ‘Z200' which, the authorities promptly said, represented a ‘cell' of Los Zetas called ‘Zetas 200'.

The very next day President Colom flew to Petén and after having been briefed by the local authorities, the police and the army, announced that he was imposing a 30-day state of siege in the department. Only hours earlier in Santa Elena, next to the departmental capital, Flores, a two-person team on a motorcycle threw grenades at a school, a restaurant and a police station in the outlying municipality of San Benito. In the latter, a police officer was gravely injured.

Before the day was out, the authorities were announcing that a joint army-police unit had been involved in a gun battle with suspected Zetas close to the ranch where the killings had taken place. Three of the gunmen were killed and one was captured; one police officer was injured. President Colom announced that there would be ‘important captures' within the following 48 hours.

On 18 May police announced the arrest of Hugo Álvaro Gómez Vásquez who, they said, was a top leader of the Zetas 200 organisation known as ‘Comandante Bruja'. He was captured in Tactic, a municipality at the southern extreme of Alta Verapaz, the huge (8,686 sq km) department immediately to the south of Petén. Gómez Vásquez, a Guatemalan national, was presented as a former member of the army (the media were told informally that he was a former member of the notorious special forces' unit known as ‘Kaibiles').

Six days later President Colom himself announced the capture of the person believed to have led the group that carried out the Petén massacre: a Guatemalan national called Elder Estuardo Morales Pineda, identified as a ‘top leader' of the Zetas 200 known by the nom-de-guerre ‘el Pelón'. He was arrested in San Benito, next to Santa Elena. The same day, Interior Minister Carlos Menocal announced the arrest of five members of Los Zetas in the northwestern border department of Huehuetenango and the seizure of documents linking them with ‘Comandante Bruja' (now identified as Hugo Álvaro Betata).

It must be noted that Los Zetas did not simply melt into the background, as they had six months earlier when President Colom imposed a state of siege on Alta Verapaz. Apart from the grenade attacks next to the capital of Petén, they hung banners signed by Z200 in Quetzaltenango, capital of the southwestern department of the same name, in which they announced, ‘The war is not against the civilian population, the government or, even less, the media. It is against those people who work for the Gulf [cartel] and against Otto Salguero, who is one of the most important suppliers of cocaine to the Gulf cartel.' They also claimed that the people killed in Petén were employed by Salguero to ‘maintain his organisation'. Salguero had been identified by the authorities as the owner of the ranch where the massacre took place. On 21 March police arrested in Quetzaltenango three Guatemalan nationals as they were carrying similar banners.

The police interpreted the grenade attacks as a diversionary tactic, meant to spread thin the efforts of law enforcement agencies. The appearance of banners in Quetzaltenango has been interpreted as a sign that the influence of Los Zetas is spreading across the country. They have so far been strongest in Zacapa, Alta Verapaz and Petén, on the cocaine route from the Honduran coast to Mexico, and they have been vying with the Sinaloa cartel for the control of Huehuetenango.

On 24 May, as Colom was announcing the capture of ‘el Pelón', body parts began to turn up in Cobán, capital of Alta Verapaz. The victim was identified when the head, accompanied by a note signed by Z200, appeared in a bag in the central market. He was Allan Stowlinsky Vidaurre, an assistant public prosecutor who had been kidnapped a day earlier and had been involved in the investigation that led to the capture of ‘Comandante Bruja'. The message from Z200 said, ‘This is for the 500 kilos of cocaine confiscated.'

In the state of siege imposed last December in Alta Verapaz, which lasted into mid-February, the government announced the arrest of 18 suspects of involvement in ‘organised crime', but of these only two were specifically linked to the drugs trade.

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