HomeNewsThe Leones' Revenge - How an Extortion Attempt Went Badly Wrong in Guatemala

The Leones' Revenge - How an Extortion Attempt Went Badly Wrong in Guatemala


A settling of scores in Guatemala left at least eight people dead after the son of a long-dead druglord took revenge for the assassination of his wife, again proving how being locked up is no barrier.

On May 19, seven inmates were killed, most of them beheaded amid a riot at the Cantel prison in the western city of Quetzaltenango, the Attorney General’s Office announced on Twitter.

According to police sources cited by the Guatemalan press, the riot and the murders were organized by Carlos Roberto León Barillas, a former member of the Leones drug trafficking clan, in retaliation for his wife’s murder.

Earlier on May 19, Anais del Carmen Gamboa, a Venezuelan national and wife of León Barillas, was shot dead by two men on a motorcycle while driving her car in Guatemala City.

SEE ALSO: Who Killed Guatemala’s Prison ‘King’ Byron Lima? (Part I)

The murdered prisoners had reportedly tried to extort León Barillas, threatening to have his wife killed unless he paid them 20,000 quetzales (around $2,500). They appear to have followed through on their threat.

León Barillas has been jailed in Cantel since 2016 on charges of criminal association and drug trafficking.

He is the son of one of Guatemala’s most infamous criminal figures, Juan José León Ardón, alias “Juancho.” León Ardón formerly ran the Leones clan, which specialized in trafficking drugs along Guatemala’s border with Honduras and El Salvador, until he was murdered in 2008 by gunmen sent from Mexico’s Zetas.

InSight Crime Analysis

Four years after the most notorious extortionist in Guatemala’s prisons was killed, the practice of trying to bilk drug traffickers of their capital continues. 

In July 2016, Byron Lima, once Guatemala’s most famous prisoner, was gunned down in Pavón prison. A former intelligence officer and political operative, Lima rapidly became the most influential prisoner in Pavón. Part of his power came from collecting the so-called talacha, an extortion fee paid by new prisoners in Guatemala. Lima first used a carrot and stick approach toward the talacha, not collecting it from allies and punishing those who wouldn’t, or couldn’t, pay up.

But he quickly suspended the talacha altogether and booted out other extortionists, which helped him gain popularity among other inmates.

While there are competing theories as to who was behind the attack, Lima was shot dead on July 18, 2016, in a massacre that killed 13 others.

After the death of Lima, the next boss to emerge inside Pavón was Howard Wilfredo Barillas Morales, alias “Matazetas.” Similar to Lima, Barillas Morales counts on a squad of bodyguards and operatives inside the prison and levies a significant tax, believed to be 10 percent, on all items smuggled and sold in the jail.

The talacha practice has been revived strongly under Barillas Morales, with reports of new inmates being forced to pay with beatings.  

SEE ALSO: The Prison Kings of Guatemala

In the most recent incident at Cantel prison, it appears the would-be extortionists did not have anywhere near the same clout as the kings of Pavón. They were also taking on the last scion of one of Guatemala’s most powerful crime families.

The rise and fall of the León family shook Guatemala’s drug trafficking landscape. Originally a group of car thieves and cattle rustlers, they graduated to drug trafficking by stealing shipments of cocaine from other Guatemalan clans, including the Mendozas and the Lorenzanas.

The Leones, led by León Ardón, eventually reached a deal with Mexico’s Gulf Cartel to transport drugs through their region of Guatemala. This set them on a collision course with the Zetas, another powerful Mexican cartel with a strong presence in the country. In March 2008, the Zetas gunned down 11 people, including León Ardón, in Zacapa. In 2011, his brother, Haroldo, was also killed, again by the Zetas.

But while the group may be defunct, the León name still commands respect. Within hours of his wife’s death, it appears León Barillas organized a prison riot, took the director hostage, found those responsible and had them killed.

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