Guatemala: 27 massacred, decapitated in Petén by paramilitary drug gang Los Zetas (UPDATED)

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Written in the blood from a victim's severed leg, in Spanish: "What's up, Otto Salguero, you bastard? We are going to find you and behead you, too. —Sincerely, Z200." Guatemalan media reports Otto Salguero is the owner of the ranch where at least 27 workers were killed, 26 of whom were decapitated, yesterday. Salguero is believed to be linked to the drug trade, and in conflict with the Zetas.

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Update, 10:45pm PT: Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom has declared a state of martial law in the Péten region, in response to Sunday's massacre.


On a cattle ranch in the northern Petén region of Guatemala yesterday, at least 27 agricultural workers were murdered, 26 of whom were decapitated, after dozens of armed commandos (reported numbers vary between 30 and 200) stormed the ranch and demanded to know where owner Otto Salguero was. Guatemalan authorities say none of the victims were involved in drug trafficking, all were innocent laborers, none knew where the ranch owner was. Among the confirmed victims: two women and two children. One man is reported to have survived by pretending to be dead after the attackers stabbed him in the stomach. He told a reporter the killing began around 7 pm Saturday, and ended around 3 am Sunday. He escaped two hours later, badly wounded, encountering a pile of human heads along the way.

Another survivor, possibly the only other survivor, was a pregnant mother. According to various reports, the armed men let her go because her little girl was screaming so loudly. What happened to her child, and other children at the scene not confirmed dead, is unclear.

A spokesman for Guatemala's police described what they found on Sunday morning: "One whole body, 26 bodies without heads, and 23 heads." This is the worst single incident of violence since the country's 36-year civil war ended in 1996, and is seen by many in the country as a symbolic act of political terror, while the nation prepares for presidential elections. Messages at the scene written on a wall in the victims' blood (various reports say they were scrawled with a severed leg) make clear who is responsible: Los Zetas, a paramilitary Mexican drug gang that in recent years has expanded throughout Central America and operates with particular impunity and freedom within Guatemala. The organization has long recruited from the ranks of kaibiles, the elite special forces division of the Guatemalan army trained in jungle warfare who carried out massacres of indigenous peasants during the civil war. The brutality evidenced in this massacre, even the killing techniques, brings to mind the worst of the death squad attacks in the 1980s. The leader of the armed group that carried out this massacre is reported to have identified himself to the workers as "kaibil."

Renata Avila at Global Voices has a thorough roundup of news links and updates from people in Petén who posted first-hand observations and photos to Twitter.

The violence continued today. AP:

Two men were killed and one suspect in the massacre was taken into custody after a confrontation with police Monday morning, while grenades were tossed at a home and business in a town near San Benito, where the bodies were taken for identification.

At the top and inset of this post, above: photographs tweeted from the scene by Twitter user Tekandi Paniagua, who traveled there today, as did Guatemalan president Alvaro Colom with senior members of the Guatemalan government and military police. Tweeting from the site, Tekandi described what he saw as "scenes from a horror movie," with the farmworkers' residences torn apart, belongings shredded, blood everywhere. Tekandi described what he witnessed as "unforgettable and horrendous," adding, "I honestly believe that [now] only God can rescue Guatemala."

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The massacre took place in a small pueblo in the jungle about 275 miles (440 km) north of the nation's capital, Guatemala City. The site is close to the Mexican border, and not far from the town of La Libertad: Google Maps link here. The Péten region has become increasingly lawless in recent years as the power and presence of drug cartels grows; some refer to it as the country's "Wild West." As regular readers of this blog know, I have traveled and worked as a volunteer extensively in Guatemala. I have avoided the Petén over the past couple of years as security conditions grew poorer, for locals and foreigners alike. This region is rich in pre-Columbian history: it's where some of the greatest ruins of the ancient Maya are located, including Tikal. In much of the sparsely populated Petén, there are more plants and wildlife than there are humans. The infrastructure throughout is limited. Narcos aside, the people here are among the country's poorest and most marginalized.

News coverage: Prensa Libre (Spanish, includes video); BBC News, Reuters, Associated Press a second AP item, CNN, WSJ, AFP.

Below, graphic photos from Reuters taken today that show Guatemalan police standing by the decapitated bodies, and forensic workers in a field of severed heads. Click to un-mosaic and view photos unaltered.

[WARNING, GRAPHIC IMAGES]

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Google Maps link: the red marker is La Libertad, the closest town to Caseria la Bomba, the pueblo where the massacre took place.

Below, an aerial view of the massacre site, photographed today for Reuters.

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