A Christmas massacre in Huehuetenango, a Guatemalan province on the Mexican border, provides clues about the extent to which the country’s elite is interlinked with organized crime.

The dead included Luis Antonio Palacios, a local hotel owner and businessman; an official from the province’s Attorney General’s Office; a high level officer at the first lady’s public works project; along with four others.

The group was intercepted by an armed caravan of vehicles on December 23, as they traveled with Palacios’ bodyguards along one of the province’s mountainous roads. The murder scene was dramatic: authorities found the bodies of the victims in two cars, which had been burned, with multiple bullet wounds, and 200 bullet casings in the vicinity.

Palacios has two partners in the hotel, one of whom also worked with him in a coffee export business, according to elPeriodico. The hotel, La Ceiba, has two pools, a nightclub and a jacuzzi.

The December 23 attack did not slow down business. The hotel’s Facebook page has flyers advertising a New Year’s day celebration and other activities through Valentine’s Day.

According to elPeriodico, authorities have linked Palacios to drug trafficking groups in the area, and said that one of the torched vehicles had a hidden compartment.

However, no drugs or money were found in the car. What’s more, there is no formal investigation open into Palacios’ activities.

InSight Crime Analysis

In many ways, the massacre is a classic story in Guatemala, where business and political elites regularly intersect with organized crime. But the exact nature of these links, which is a critical part of the puzzle, remains unknown.

Guatemalan sources, for instance, told InSight Crime that Palacios was laundering money for Aler Samayoa, alias “Chicharra,” the local underworld power broker in Huehuetenango. Samayoa is part of a triumvirate of crime families that included Walter Montejo, until Montejo’s capture in June 2012

The group allegedly works closely with the Sinaloa Cartel. Its areas of influence stretch from Nenton to La Democracia, and towards Santa Ana Huista and Jacaltenango (see map, below). But their names appear rarely in press accounts or official reports. (See elPeriodico report for the most complete account of criminal activities in the area.)

This alliance has withstood pressure from others in the zone who work closely with the Zetas, the region’s most violent criminal group. In November 2008, Chicharra’s men ambushed some alleged Zetas who were trying to ambush his party. They reportedly executed dozens, although the official body count was 17.

The death of Palacios, however, appears to be connected to an internal squabble, according to local sources consulted by InSight Crime. The hotel, and other businesses, are apparently fronts for money laundering, according to sources who did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation. It’s not clear whether the officials traveling with Palacios had any connection to organized crime, or were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Huehuetenango’s traditional elite is suffering, and many seem to be fleeing or changing businesses. Coffee producers, for instance, have struggled in recent years and many have reportedly sold their land to traffickers, who now use the land as weigh stations and passage points.

Still, this is difficult terrain to investigate, and there is no reliable information on any of these matters. Indeed, Huehuetenango and its surroundings are largely a black hole when it comes to news and official information.

The area has grown in importance as Guatemala has become the choke point for cocaine moving north to Mexico. The US Department of State estimates that as much as 300 tons of cocaine move through the country each year on its way to the United States. Numerous local “transportista” groups have emerged to fill a demand for transport services for these drugs. Poppy production and human smuggling are also important underworld activities in the area.

Some of these transportistas have become incredibly powerful along the way, entering into legitimate business to camouflage their activities and developing strong ties with the authorities to keep them out of jail.

One of the more common means criminal groups use to form liaisons with the government is public works contracts, making the presence of a presidential-level public works official in the list of dead all the more suspicious. Criminal groups obtain contracts to carry out the public works, or subcontracts to provide for the public works. This allows them to obtain funds, and launder their illegal proceeds at the same time.

For its part, Huehuetenango is part of a long-standing contraband and human smuggling route. It is growing in importance with the development project known as the Franja Transversal del Norte, which will connect the country from east to west with modern infrastructure, passing through the province. 

Sinaloa operatives have been in Huehuetenango for at least a decade, intermarrying and establishing community ties by paying for festivals and other “public services.” The group has also established strong ties in government, judicial and military circles, local sources tell InSight Crime.

The Zetas, on the other hand, have employed a different, more brusque style, attempting to push their way into the area rather than working with locals. The Zetas model depends more on controlling this territory. They do not appear to have as many international contacts to purchase cocaine, and have to rely on Guatemalan partners or their ability to steal it as it moves along main corridors such as the Franja Transversal del Norte.

View Huehuetenango – Criminal Activity in a larger map

The research presented in this article is, in part, the result of a project funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Its content is not necessarily a reflection of the positions of the IDRC. The ideas, thoughts and opinions contained in this document are those of the author or authors.

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Steven Dudley is the co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime and a senior research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in Washington, DC. In 2020, Dudley...