MEXICO CITY — In the worst drug-related violence in modern times in Guatemala, assailants stormed a remote jungle ranch and killed 27 people, beheading 25 of them, an army spokesman said Sunday.
As spotter planes flew overhead, Guatemalan soldiers raced along jungle tracks to cut off a nearby border crossing into Mexico to prevent the assailants from fleeing, army Col. Rony Urizar said.
News reports in Guatemala said the Los Cocos ranch in a lawless part of the Peten region belonged to the brother of one of the nation's most widely known drug bosses.
The assailants, moving in several vehicles, entered the ranch sometime late Saturday, and concluded the slaughter early Sunday, Urizar said. Two of the victims were women.
The Los Cocos ranch lies west of Flores, the gateway in Peten — the jungle region to the ancient Mayan Tikal ruins and a principal tourist attraction. The ranch is near a road that leads to the little transited Echeverria border crossing into Mexico's Chiapas state.
A national civil police spokesman in nearby Santa Elena, Moises Ical, said the killings were related to drug trafficking, and possibly carried out by Los Zetas, a brutal drug gang comprising former enforcers for Mexico's Gulf Cartel. Los Zetas are known to operate freely in much of the Peten region, often in large convoys equipped with heavy weaponry.
"We have neither the personnel nor the means to fight these drug traffickers," Ical said in a telephone interview.
Urizar said the army had mobilized soldiers of the 1st infantry brigade and a special border task force to hunt the vehicles of the assailants, presumably moving in convoy toward the border with Mexico. He said Mexican authorities had been notified to close the border.
The jungle region, however, has dozens of illegal border crossings that drug smugglers use, hauling their loads on four-wheeled all-terrain vehicles.
Hours before the massacre, gunmen killed the presumed owner of the ranch, Harold Leon Lara, and three of his bodyguards in another area of the Peten.
Leon Lara, 40, is the brother of Juan Jose "Juancho" Leon, a drug boss assassinated by Los Zetas in March 2008 in an attack that left 10 other people dead as well. According to the website of elPeriodico, a Guatemala City tabloid, "Haroldo took over his brother's business" after the 2008 assassination.
The brutality of the killings and beheadings is a trademark of Los Zetas, which is engaged in a turf war in northeast Mexico with the Gulf Cartel. Even as Los Zetas have appeared on the ropes in Tamaulipas state in Mexico, they have moved heavily into Guatemala and Honduras, diplomats and law enforcement officials say.
Last December, Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom declared a state of siege in Alta Verapaz province, immediately to the south of the Peten, and sent troops in to battle Los Zetas there. The siege was lifted in February after the arrest of 20 presumed Zetas.
In the last major drug-related killing in Guatemala, gunmen in November 2008 killed 15 Nicaraguans and a Dutchman on a bus in the department of Zacapa, believing the bus was bearing a load of cocaine. The bus was later found burned.
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