SAN BENITO, Guatemala (AP) — One of Guatemala's worst massacres since the end of the country's decades-long civil war was the work of the brutal Mexican drug cartel the Zetas, Guatemalan officials said Monday.
The gang's violent signature could be seen in the manner and style in which the 29 bodies were found: bound, beheaded and strewn across a grassy field near their cut-off heads, said Guatemalan Interior Minister Carlos Menocal.
Two children and two women were among the dead, most of whom worked on the dairy ranch where the bodies were found, according to Luis Armando Garcia, 23, a survivor of the bloodbath, who talked to The Associated Press in the hospital in San Benito.
"I don't know how I survived," Armando Garcia said. He said he lay bound in the grass and pretended he was dead during the late Saturday attack until police arrived early the next morning.
A message written in blood on one of the ranch building's walls said the killers were looking for ranch owner Otto Salguero. Menocal said authorities were trying to find out more about Salguero, whose whereabouts were unknown.
Armando Garcia had worked only a month at the ranch in the rural northern province of Peten, a jungle region that has long been a popular transport route for drugs moving north from South America. Garcia said he didn't know Salguero, but said the ranch produced milk and cheese in the township of La Libertad near the Mexican border.
A large group of armed men showed up late Saturday and rounded up the workers, he said. He was bound like the others and suffered machete wounds.
The killers didn't identify themselves but said they would be back, Garcia said.
President Alvaro Colom arrived in Peten on Monday and planned to tour the massacre site, which is a collection of abandoned-looking buildings and corrals set in a green valley.
Last December, Colom launched a two-month-long military state of siege in neighboring Alta Verapaz province in an attempt to reclaim cities taken over by the Zetas. The gang was founded by ex-soldiers who worked as hit men for Mexico's Gulf drug cartel before breaking off on their own and becoming one of Mexico's most violent organized crime groups.
The Zetas are blamed for two recent mass killings in Mexico: 183 bodies found in mass graves last month and a massacre of 72 migrants last August, both in the state of Tamaulipas bordering Texas.
Police are investigating whether the attack on the ranch is related to the killing Saturday of Haroldo Leon, the brother of alleged Guatemalan drug boss Juan Jose "Juancho" Leon.
"Juancho" himself was killed in 2008 in an ambush that Guatemalan authorities also blame on the Zetas, who have thrived in the area because of weak law enforcement, rampant corruption and proximity to Mexico.
The Zetas began controlling cocaine trafficking in the Alta Verapaz region in 2008 after killing "Juancho" Leon.
According to the 2010 U.N. World Drug Report, the northern province of Peten has long been a strategic drug-trafficking zone with jungle landing strips used by several cartels. It has one of the highest murder rates in Guatemala, which is one of the most violent countries in the world. Both the Zetas and Mexico's Sinaloa cartel have interests in Peten and may be competing for territory, the report says.