When masked men burst into the tiny hamlet of San José Nacahuil on a peaceful Sunday evening last month, what followed was all too familiar to Guatemalans.
Eleven people were killed and numerous injured as armed assailants moved from house to house. Children safe in their beds were awoken by shots fired into their bedrooms. They tumbled out of bed terrified and in pain, checking to see if their relatives were alive or dead, then, confused and crying, waited for help.
Over 50 firefighters and 20 ambulances arrived at the scene according to Sergio Vásquez, the Bomberos Voluntarios (Volunteer Firefighters) spokesman. “We got a call and a calm voice said several people had been injured. We found victims in hiding places, in the bathrooms of bars and in the streets surrounding the scene,” Vásquez said.
A burnt-out car stolen from the streets of San José Nacahuil was all that remained of the attackers, who fled quickly into the dusk, leaving behind another broken neighborhood.
Guatemalan Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla arrived quickly on the scene, and presented three possible theories to the press corps: the attackers were either extortionists, one of three maras clicas (organized crime groups) in the area, or bandits that had been refused liquor and returned to seek revenge.
Quietly, locals pointed to a fourth theory—that members of the government’s Policía Nacional Civil (National Civil Police—PNC) had perpetrated the crime. It turns out that San José Nacahuil has had a difficult relationship with the police. In 2005, residents burned down the PNC substation and two motorbikes to protest alleged corruption, lack of public services and rising inter-city bus charges. There had been no police presence in the area since then.A relative of a bar owner killed in the attack—who wished to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions—said that her relative had previously been blackmailed by police. “He came home and said [the PNC] had turned up asking for papers and 500 quetzals ($62.50). Otherwise, they would have closed down our business for selling alcohol to minors,” she said. “He spent 15 minutes here before leaving and then the attackers came. We heard shots and it seems like he went into the bathroom and then they killed him.”
Rumors of PNC involvement were rampant after reported sightings of a motorized patrol car in and around San José Nacahuil before and just after the attack. López Bonilla dismissed the allegations, claiming that the patrol had heard reports of criminal activity in the area and had arrived to warn the residents to be careful. Within minutes of the attack, a PNC pickup truck was seen in the town’s central plaza, only adding fuel to the rumors.
“The police had information that something was up, so they arrived to check on the area. The officers spoke with the owner of one of the shops and left after confirming that all was in order. They had an hour to close up before the incident occurred,” said López Bonilla.
Yet, according to the police inspector general, GPS records show that a patrol car that was reportedly sighted by local residents was not in San José Nacahuil at the time of the attack—adding further confusion to the official version of events.
When asked if the PNC was going to return to the village, López Bonilla said they would not. The local population pleaded with the minister for an army patrol on their streets, so special police forces and the army remained. López Bonilla said that President Otto Pérez Molina would send a permanent military detachment for local policing, and the current detachment has not yet left.
In early October, some of the local rumors were put to rest when eight members of the “Crazy Rich” gang were arrested for the attacks, along with others from the nearby city of Chinautla and Guatemala City. Authorities have reverted to the clica theory, claiming that the mareros (gang members) wanted to extort the local businesses and that the attack was designed to frighten them. How the gang members managed to go door-to-door in a shooting spree and then escape—and why the PNC visited a place with such a strong anti-police history and yet apparently did not predict an attack—are all questions that remain to be answered.
Meanwhile, the citizens of San José Nacahuil are unsure how they will recover. “This has never happened before. It’s a tragedy for the people. We have never seen a slaughter like this,” said Victor Tepen, a local resident whose uncle died in the attack.