Guatemala: Brutality and Impunity: Over 28 Decapitated in Petén

This weekend in Guatemala was the bloodiest of 2011. Citizens in El Petén, the northernmost department (state) of Guatemala bordering Honduras, Belize, Nicaragua and Mexico, are in the middle of one of the worst armed encounters between the Army and one of the most dangerous drug cartels: the Zetas.

The conflict is out of the hands of the authorities. Not only were at least 28 peasants brutally killed, but also a school, a police station and other public places were bombed.

“Worst massacre in modern times”

Erwin C. in The Latin Americanist reports:

Guatemalan flag. Image by Flickr user olaf141 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Guatemalan flag. Image by Flickr user olaf141 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

In an incident described by a Guatemalan police spokesman as “the worst massacre we have seen in modern times,” at least twenty-seven people were killed on Saturday at a ranch in the northern part of the country. Forensic doctors identified fifteen of the victims and among those killed were three minors and two women. All of those killed in the gruesome incident were bound with rope before being decapitated by the cold-blooded assassins.

There is little content published on blogs, but witnesses – people based in Petén and journalists who fled there to cover the news – have shared information about the situation:

@Tekandi: Todas las habitaciones de la finca en #Peten estaban de cabeza, las puertas forzadas, zapatos tirados, ropa y mucha sangre. Horror total

@Tekandi: All the rooms of the finca [farm] in Peten were upside down, doors were forced, shoes dispersed on the floor, clothes and lots of blood. A total horror.

@Tekandi also links to pictures [WARNING: strong content] showing the brutality of the perpetrated crimes. @AnaLu185 also links to an image.

In the following tweets, Mauricio Vinicio Matta (@maurinho6), based in Petén, shares with a radio journalist [es] that there is a lot of activity: he can hear helicopters, patrols, and people are scared. He affirms that it is the first time something like this happens in Petén, that streets are deserted [es] and that they can hear gun shots from different points of the center of the city:

@maurinho6: @KarlaCalvillo hay mucha actividad de helicopteros y radio patrullas y todo el mundo asustado por que jamas habia sucedido esto en Peten

@maurinho6: @KarlaCalvillo Karlita soy de Peten y t comento que las calles estan solitarias y se oyen disparos en diferentes puntos del area central

Young and poor peasants

The victims were humble peasants, very young and poor, who were living as migrant workers after they left their homes in Izabal, a neighboring department. According to a tweet by the Ministry of Interior (@mingobguate), the victims were not involved with the Narco [people involved in organized crime relating to narcotics].

The Black Box, an economic and political blog from Central America, describes the complex ongoing armed conflict over there and provides context to better understand both the region and the violence taking place there:

El Departamento del Petén es el más extenso de la República de Guatemala, con casi 36 mil kilómetros cuadrados –su territorio es mayor que El Salvador y Belice, y solamente las Regiones Autónomas del Atlántico nicaragüense rivalizan en extensión como unidades sub-nacionales. Su población apenas supera los 600 mil habitantes, por lo que es la 9ª región menos densamente poblada de toda Centroamérica, incluyéndose los distritos de Belice, pues apenas llega a los 17 habitantes por kilómetro cuadrado. [1]

Con relación al resto de los departamentos guatemaltecos, la violencia homicida en Petén en el 2010 le situó en el puesto 7º de 22 (el más violento fue el departamento de Guatemala con 78 por 100 mil).

The Department of Petén is the biggest of the Guatemalan Republic, almost 36 thousand square kilometers. Its territory is bigger than El Salvador and Belize and only the Nicaraguan Atlantic Coast competes with its size. Its population is barely 600,000 inhabitants and it is only the ninth least populated region of all Central America, with only 17 inhabitants per square kilometer.

When compared to other Guatemalan departments, homicide violence in Petén rates in the 7th place out of 22. The most violent place is Guatemala City with a rate of 78 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.

The attack comes a week after former President Alfonso Portillo was found “not guilty” of corruption by a criminal court, leaving many members of the organization Civil Society and the Commission Against Impunity (CICIG) speechless. The former presidential candidate was also cleared of extrajudicial execution charges. Mike comments on the verdict in Central American Politics:

CICIG and the Mutual Support Group (GAM) expressed their dissatisfaction with the court's ruling and the prosecutor's office is appealing the case. “The Monday ruling “reflects the true state of justice in Guatemala,” said the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), an office created by the United Nations to clean up the country's legal system”.

Mike also added that the Alfonso Portillo and Alejandro Giammattei cases were supposed to bring an end to impunity in Guatemala. Convictions would have sent a former president and former presidential candidate to jail on corruption and murder charges.

In this context, the war against drugs is leaving a legacy of blood and it is clear that Guatemala is not winning it. As LuisFi [es] said:

Es un mito ese de que la guerra perdida contra las drogas acaba con la delincuencia y la violencia relacionadas con el narcotráfico.  Lo cierto, sin embargo, es que la guerra contra las drogas genera violencia y que los muertos, en esta guerra ajena, los ponemos nosotros.  Lo cierto es que Guatemala no tiene recursos para combatir la criminalidad, y que muchos de aquellos recursos escasos se van por el caño en esta guerra perdida.  Pero eso no es lo peor.  Lo peor es que como en toda guerra, las peores pérdidas se cuentan en términos de cádaveres.  Y en este caso, en términos de cadáveres decapitados.

Por las experiencias de Colombia y México -y por la de Petén- ya tenemos una idea de qué es lo que nos espera en esta guerra.  Y seguramente es tiempo de repensarla.

It is a myth that the failed war on drugs will end with narco-related crime and violence. However, it is true that drugs lead to violence and the dead, in this war, are ours. And it is also true that Guatemala lacks resources to combat criminality and many of the limited resources we have are wasted in this lost war. But that is not the worst part. The worst part is that, as in any war, the greatest losses are counted by counting the number of deceased persons. In this particular case, the people beheaded.

If we follow the experiences in Colombia, Mexico and Petén, we know what to expect in this war. Certainly, it is time to rethink this war.

Rampant impunity and a weak state have opened the doors to drug traffickers and other criminals. In the crossfire there is a terrified and shocked civil society who has stopped looking for solutions and is only praying to not get killed and return home safely, one day at a time.


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