Residents of Guatemala’s northern Peten region hunkered down under a state of siege on Tuesday after the worst massacre since the Central American nation’s civil war ended in 1996.
Police and soldiers combed the jungle region along the border of Guatemala and Mexico, seeking members of Mexico’s vicious Zetas drug gang, which authorities have blamed for the beheadings of 27 farm workers.
“Guatemala must confront this aggression, which is not only toward the country, but also the entire region,” Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom said in a televised address late on Monday after declaring the state of siege.
The state of emergency allows authorities to restrict demonstrations and police to carry out night raids, as well as giving overall control to the army.
Colom said the order would last 30 days in Peten, after police captured one suspect and killed two others in a shootout in which two officers were wounded.
Police were on “maximum alert” after anonymous callers threatened to attack security forces hunting for suspects in north and west Guatemala, Guatemalan Interior Minister Carlos Menocal said.
“It aims to increase the terror in Peten. Security forces are taking precautions,” Menocal told Emisoras Unidas radio.
Guatemalan authorities have identified 15 of 27 migrant farm workers beheaded in the weekend killings at the Los Cocos farm in La Libertad, about 600km north of the capital Guatemala City.
Three minors, the youngest 13 years old, and two women were among the victims, authorities said.
Eighteen victims were buried without being identified on Tuesday since their bodies were mutilated and decomposing rapidly in the hot jungle region where the local morgue lacked refrigeration, said an official from the National Institute of Forensic Sciences, requesting anonymity.
Nine bodies had been returned to their families, he added.
“I’m alive thanks to God,” one of only three survivors said on Monday, describing a horrific crime scene at the farm. “I played dead when they stabbed me in the stomach, then I hid and left at about 5am [on Sunday] and I came across a pile of human heads.”
The killers appeared to have been seeking to murder the farm’s owner in a region where the Zetas are blamed for rising violence.
The Zetas — a gang set up by elite army deserters notorious for brutal slayings in Mexico — have recently made inroads in Guatemala, prompting the government in December to declare a one-month “state of siege” in another northern region, Alta Verapaz.
Although Guatemala has one of Latin America’s highest murder rates, the Central American nation is unaccustomed to the brutal, large-scale killings that have rocked parts of Mexico in recent months.