HomeNewsAnalysisA Bomb Explodes, a Gang Purges Its Own, Guatemala Scratches Its Head
ANALYSIS

A Bomb Explodes, a Gang Purges Its Own, Guatemala Scratches Its Head

BARRIO 18 / 19 AUG 2016 BY STEVEN DUDLEY EN

When a small explosive device was detonated remotely in a bus in Guatemala this past March, authorities were alarmed. Then gang leaders apologized and purged the perpetrators, leaving authorities confused.

The case left five people dead: two passengers in the inter-municipal bus that was traveling in the San José Pinula municipality on the outskirts of Guatemala City where the bomb exploded; the incarcerated gang leader who ordered the attack; the gang member who placed the bomb and the person who made it.

An attack on a bus in Guatemala is commonplace. Gangs like the Barrio 18 and their rivals in the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) systematically extort buses. It is one of their few regular sources of income, and when payment does not arrive on time, there are repercussions, normally in the form of a dead bus driver

However, this bus bomb’s characteristics set off alarm bells because authorities said it was detonated remotely via a cellular phone, a seldom used tactic that illustrates a growing sophistication of the gangs.

They did not give any more details, but it was not the first time the Barrio 18, thought to be the least sophisticated of the two major gangs, had used this tactic, police and Interior Ministry officials told InSight Crime.

In 2010, Guatemalan police recovered the remnants of another explosive device they said that the gang had used to try to remotely blow up a car at the central administrative building of the prison system.

The target in that case, US authorities consulted for this story said, was a prison official. It did not go off, one former US investigator and a police investigator, both of whom requested anonymity, told InSight Crime.

“The science is easy,” the former US investigator said. “The execution is the hard part.”

In a report obtained by InSight Crime, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) described the 2010 bomb as a “vehicle borne improvised explosive device (VBIED),” as it was found in the trunk of a car.

The ATF sent the “flash powder” and the “suspected accelerant” to the United States for review. The rest of the materials, including the cellular phone and other components that the gang had used to try to detonate the bomb, remained in Guatemala. (See photo below)

16-08-18-guatemala-remote-detonator

The former US investigator suspected the gangs had someone who was former military or had trained in the US try to put the 2010 device together.

“They were in over their heads,” he said.

This was not the case, however, in 2011, when a bomb was allegedly detonated remotely in a bus, killing nine people and injuring another 14.

Nor was it the case in the 2016 explosion. In addition to the two dead, another 15 were injured in the March 6 attack in San José Pinula, a municipality that sits adjacent to the country’s capital, Guatemala City.

As opposed to earlier cases, the Barrio 18 reacted immediately. In the days following the attack, they strangled the ring-leader, Armando Lorenzana Gómez, alias “el Arjona,” who had been sentenced in 2009 to 40 years in prison for murder; and they said they killed two others who had participated in the bombing, including the person who had made the device.

“This guy is responsible for the attack in San Jose Pinula,” one of the four gang leaders explained to the press, as the body of el Arjona sat beneath a white sheet just a few feet from where he spoke and prison guards flanked him. (See video below)

“Various of his cohorts are now just like him,” he added.

InSight Crime Analysis

The use of a remote detonator is troubling as it points to the ease with which basic technology and sophisticated tactics can be combined to devastating effect by even the most rudimentary of street gangs. Whether this is the beginning of a trend is hard to say. As noted, the gang has used this tactic sporadically since 2010, with limited success.

The gang's public reaction to this bombing is also strange. The attack was used by the gang leadership to purge some its members, and statements by them would appear to illustrate a concerted effort to win social capital. As in El Salvador and Honduras, the Barrio 18 in Guatemala is seen as the more crude and heartless of the two main gangs. Their rivals in the MS13 use their own political cache that comes from this perception to build support in the communities where they operate. But the Barrio 18 may be starting down a more politically savvy path as well, and this bombing could represent that shift, at least as it relates to the Barrio 18 in Guatemala.

However, a Guatemalan police intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told InSight Crime that the public statement was an effort to keep the authorities from dispatching more resources to the area and dismantle the network.

“He did not consult the Wheel,” the investigator said, using the name of the Barrio 18 board of directors and talking about the murder of el Arjona. “And for that, he paid the price.”

The concern of the Wheel, he added, was that the action would unnecessarily “heat up” the area. These police actions can have an impact: he said it can take between three and six months for the gang to reset its leadership and criminal activities after heavy police intervention.   

The case also may have more to it, as it relates to criminal migration. In April, Guatemalan authorities captured two more suspects, one of them a Salvadoran national. And a representative of the Interior Ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity, said el Arjona had upped the ante in recent months, in part due to the arrival of Salvadoran members of the Barrio 18 who are fleeing that country’s bloody fighting.

El Salvador’s gangs have been implicated in use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in recent months. But, as noted by InSight Crime, there has been migration of gang members between these countries for years, and the connections between the IEDs and the gangs is tenuous at best. 

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

Related Content

ELITES AND CRIME / 1 DEC 2021

Ground to a halt in Guatemala City’s unrelenting morning traffic, a small team of government investigators began to worry they…

BARRIO 18 / 28 MAR 2022

A killing spree unlike anything seen since El Salvador’s civil war has delivered a macabre message from the country’s street…

COCAINE / 29 JAN 2021

The mayor of Moyuta, Guatemala, knows how to do politics and business along the rough and tumble Guatemalan-Salvadoran border.

About InSight Crime

THE ORGANIZATION

‘Ndrangheta Investigation, Exclusive Interview With Suriname President Make Waves

2 DEC 2022

Two weeks ago, InSight Crime published an investigation into how Italian mafia clan the ‘Ndrangheta built a cocaine trafficking network from South America to ‘Ndrangheta-controlled Italian ports. The investigation generated…

WORK WITH US

Open Position: Full Stack WordPress Developer

28 NOV 2022

As Full Stack WordPress Developer You Will: Work collaboratively with other developers and designers to maintain and improve organizational standards.Demonstrate a high level of attention to detail, and implement best…

THE ORGANIZATION

Join Us This #GivingTuesday in Exposing Organized Crime

24 NOV 2022

For over twelve years, InSight Crime has contributed to the global dialogue on organized crime and corruption. Our work has provided policymakers, analysts, academics, journalists, and the general public with…

THE ORGANIZATION

Like Crime, Our Coverage Knows No Borders

18 NOV 2022

The nature of global organized crime means that while InSight Crime focuses on Latin America, we also follow criminal dynamics worldwide. InSight Crime investigator Alessandro Ford covers the connections between Latin American and European…

THE ORGANIZATION

Using Data to Expose Crime

11 NOV 2022

Co-director Jeremy McDermott made a virtual presentation at a conference hosted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The ‘Sixth International Conference on Governance, Crime, and Justice…