A high-level member of Mexico’s Los Zetas drug cartel, which is suspected of being behind the massacre of 27 peasants over the weekend in northern Guatemala, has been arrested, President Alvaro Colom said Wednesday.
Hugo Álvaro Gómez Vásquez, a Guatemalan, was arrested Tuesday in Tactic, a city in the northern province of Alta Verapaz.
The massacre Sunday of the 27 farmworkers, of whom 26 were beheaded, occurred in the neighboring province of Petén, which is under a state of emergency.
Gómez Vásquez is “a high-ranking leader of Los Zetas and we believe he will be linked directly to the massacre in Petén,” Colom told reporters.
The suspected drug trafficker was transferred on Wednesday to a prison in Guatemala City, Interior Minister Carlos Menocal said.
Investigators suspect that the “Zeta 200” cell of Los Zetas, considered Mexico’s most violent drug cartel, killed the peasants, Menocal said.
Gómez Vásquez belonged to Zeta 200 and the cell’s other members are believed to still be in Guatemala, the interior minister said.
The information that led investigators to Gómez Vásquez was found Tuesday in a camp at the La Mula ranch, located about 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) from the Los Cocos ranch, where the massacre occurred.
Security forces members found 28 rifles, military uniforms, vests and vehicles at the ranch believed to have been used by Los Zetas to carry out the attack, Colom said.
Gómez Vásquez, known as “Comandante Bruja” (Commander Witch), has been linked to last Friday’s kidnapping-murders of Luis Carlos Bardales, his son, Luis Alberto, and daughter-in-law, Keiry Franco, who was the niece of Otto Salguero, the owner of the Los Cocos ranch.
Investigators suspect that Gómez Vásquez was extorting money and demanding drugs from Salguero, who is missing, leading to the massacre of the innocent farmworkers, Menocal said.
About 30 to 40 heavily armed men arrived in Los Cocos looking for Salguero and attacked the farmworkers when they learned he was not there, police said.
The security forces are conducting nine operations across Petén on Wednesday in an effort to track down the Zetas members who participated in the massacre, Colom said.
The operations “will be permanent until we manage to capture those responsible” for the massacre, the president said.
Colom, who visited the massacre site earlier this week, made the decision to declare the 30-day state of emergency in Petén, which borders Mexico and Belize, during the Council of Ministers meeting on Monday night.
Police killed two suspected Los Zetas drug cartel members and arrested a third in a shootout near the ranch on Monday.
Three eyewitnesses, including a wounded massacre survivor and a pregnant woman spared by the gunmen, have been placed in the witness protection program and are providing information to investigators.
Twenty-four of the victims were from Los Amates, a city in the Caribbean province of Izabal, and the other three were from Petén.
Los Cocos is located outside the city of La Libertad, about 630 kilometers (391 miles) north of Guatemala City.
Peten, a province covered by dense jungles, is used by international drug traffickers to smuggle narcotics from South America into Mexico.
Officials do not have detailed figures on the number of killings carried out by Los Zetas in Guatemala, but they say that the cartel has been behind at least a dozen massacres that claimed the lives of about 100 people since 2008.
Los Zetas has been blamed for several massacres in Mexico, including the killings last August of 72 migrants, the majority of them from Latin America, at a ranch outside San Fernando, a city in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas.
The cartel is also suspected of being behind the killings of 183 people whose remains were found in 40 mass graves in Tamaulipas in the past few weeks.
Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, known as “El Lazca,” deserted from the Mexican army in 1999 and formed Los Zetas with three other soldiers, all members of an elite special operations unit, becoming the armed wing of the Gulf drug cartel.
After about a decade on the payroll of the Gulf cartel, Los Zetas went into the drug business on their own account and now control several lucrative territories.
Los Zetas, in addition to trafficking drugs, is also involved in kidnappings, armed robberies and extortion rackets.