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Guatemalans Arrested in Case of 5 Severed Heads

September 13, 2006|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Officials said Tuesday that they have arrested three Guatemalan nationals who were allegedly working as hit men for a drug cartel engaged in a gruesome turf war in the southern Mexican state of Michoacan.

Mexican officials said they were investigating whether the three arrested Monday were former members of the Guatemalan army's special forces unit, the Kaibiles.

They are suspected of involvement in an armed raid last week on a dance club in the city of Uruapan, in which the attackers tossed the severed heads of five suspected drug dealers onto a dance floor.

Earlier this year, Mexico's top organized crime investigator, Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, said he believed there were as many as 100 Kaibiles working for Mexico's drug cartels.

A battle between cartels over the production and distribution of drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine has killed 345 people this year in Michoacan, more than in any other state, according to a tally by the newspaper Reforma.

Nationwide, an estimated 1,300 to 1,400 people have been killed in the cartel wars this year, according to Reforma and another newspaper, El Universal. Federal officials do not keep such statistics.

Grenade attacks, ambushes with assault weapons and the assassination of police officials have become commonplace in the border city of Nuevo Laredo, the Pacific Coast resort of Acapulco and elsewhere.

The presence of former Guatemalan soldiers among the drug cartels has been rumored here for months.

The three Guatemalans were part of a group of five men detained by Mexican army troops in the town of Aguililla, in the mountains about 240 miles southwest of Mexico City.

Officials said the five men detained in Michoacan were traveling with an arsenal that included a dozen assault rifles, thousands of bullets, nine Kevlar helmets similar to those issued to the American military, replica police uniforms and three fragmentation grenades.

An arms race between competing cartels has led many of the criminal organizations to recruit former Mexican soldiers, known as the Zetas, who are valued for their military training.

In recent months, decapitated heads have become a signature in the drug war in the southern states of Michoacan and Guerrero -- some see in these crimes the hand of the Kaibiles, who are known for their brutal, scorched-earth counterinsurgency campaign in Guatemala in the 1980s and '90s.

The arrested Guatemalans were identified as residents of the Guatemalan provinces of Escuintla and San Marcos.

Officials told Mexican news media that the men were key suspects in a wave of killing that has claimed 12 lives since Sept. 3.

Armed men took over the Sun and Shadow nightclub in Uruapan last week. After ordering all the patrons to the ground, they tossed five severed heads onto the club's dance floor. According to Mexican press reports, the five men were killed in retaliation for the killing Sept. 3 of a pregnant woman linked to a rival drug band. That victim was found decapitated and with a finger missing.

"The family does not kill for money," said a sign left next to the decapitated heads. "It does not kill women, it does not kill innocents. Only those who should die, will die.... This is divine justice."

Six more bodies, with their heads still attached, were found tossed into a common grave two days later in a rural community outside Uruapan.

*

hector.tobar@latimes.com

Carlos Martinez of The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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