Sixteen suspects were captured in recent weeks for their role in the June 13 massacre of an entire police station in Salcajá, Guatemala, a case that has shocked a country with a high threshold for violent acts. Still, many unanswered questions remain.
Gunmen killed all eight officers on duty in the assault on the Policía Nacional Civil (National Civil Police—PNC) station in Quetzaltenango department and kidnapped police sub-inspector Julio César García Cortez. Mexican drug cartels were initially suspected of carrying out the raid, but Guatemalan Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla revealed that the Villatoro Cano cartel, a homegrown group of Guatemalan criminals led by Eduardo Villatoro Cano and linked to Mexico’s Gulf cartel, is responsible. Several of the 14 suspects are police officers linked to Villatoro Cano.
“They are Guatemalan and have made the stupid decision to attack Guatemalan police,” said Bonilla. “These people felt immune, untouchable and thought they owned the entire area. Now we have linked them to many other crimes.”
The Guatemalan government’s “Operation Dignity,” an investigation into the attacks, has put over 1,000 agents on the case and initiated 128 raids in Huehuetenango since July 14, but three suspects remain at large. Authorities have tied over 100 murders to the Villatoro Cano cartel so far, including high-profile cases such as the murder of a prosecutor and four investigators for the División Especializada en Investigación Criminal (Specialized Criminal Investigation Division—DEIC).
Guatemalan authorities believe that sub-inspector García Cortez was the principal target of the attacks, and the other policemen were killed to avoid leaving any witnesses. Since García Cortez had previously worked in Cobán in the north-central department of Alta Verapaz, it was assumed that Mexico’s Zetas cartel had carried out the raid in possible retaliation for his investigative work and successes against them.
Three of the sub-inspector’s fingers and pieces of his uniform were the only remains found—a grisly reminder of the modus operandi of the cartels. Media reports theorize that the inspector had either stolen money, drugs or both from the local gang and that the raid was a response carried out by at least 15 men armed with automatic weapons.
Besides the nine deaths, 19 children lost their fathers during the attack. The widow of Héctor Bocel Tun, one of the murdered officers, asked police officer and suspect Milson Fredy García Chávez, “How can it be possible for someone who shakes your hand to stab you in the back? My husband was our provider, now I have to ensure my child gets what he needs.”
In 2010, authorities estimated that 40 percent of the country was controlled by cartels. Perhaps most concerning for Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina and the security forces is how the brutal tactics employed in Mexico are being exported to Guatemala and used by local criminals.
With the capture of Zetas leader Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales (also known as “Z-40”) last month, it remains to be seen how the Zetas will continue to operate in Guatemala. Treviño Morales was instrumental in moving the cartel to its new base of operations in Guatemala and setting up lucrative transportation routes. This tactic proved so successful that it was copied quickly by other Mexican cartels—and now many border routes, towns and infrastructure are under their control.
Pérez Molina, who has called for talks on the decriminalization of drugs, has seen his popularity slump in the first 18 months of his presidency. In a recent survey, 66 percent of those polled said that the former general, who rode to victory on the back of a “mano dura” (“iron fist”) campaign slogan, has made things worse.
Even if cartel influence weakens in Guatemala, cartel tactics have been eagerly seized on by local organized criminal elements and street gangs. Director of Police Telémaco Pérez García and Defense Minister Manuel López Ambrosio, both installed in July, do not have much time to learn their new roles.
However, Guatemalan authorities recently got a break in the Salcajá police massacre case after Villatoro Cano’s companion, María Isabel Sales López, told judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez that Cano had asked her “to gather all the weapons into a bag and throw them in the Valparaíso river in Huehuetenango.”
However, threats against Pérez Molina, Bonilla, members of Bonilla’s family and the PNC through anonymous calls to the national police number mean this is far from over.
Until cartel leader Villatoro Cano is caught, the threats will remain—and like a hydra, even if the authorities do triumph, another head will rise up in its place.