Gunmen stormed a Guatemalan prison and shot to death four jailed police officers in a hit aimed at stopping investigators from finding out who ordered the slayings of three politicians from neighboring El Salvador, Guatemala’s leader said Monday.
The four policemen killed Sunday included Luis Arturo Herrera, head of the Guatemalan National Police organized crime unit, and three of his officers. They were arrested Thursday in connection with the Feb. 19 killings of three Salvadoran representatives to the Central American Parliament, based in Guatemala City.
President Oscar Berger said “organized crime gangs” reached the officers’ cell after getting past eight locked doors at the prison, and were responsible for the “violent deaths of four important witnesses who could have helped the investigation.”
Berger said it wasn’t clear whether drug trafficking or other organized crime was involved, but said officials determined that inmates were not to blame. A major question is how the gunmen were able to get through the locked doors to reach the suspects, Berger said.
Sunday’s killings were the latest twist in the case, which has raised questions about corruption and drug ties in Central America. U.S. officials estimate 75 percent of the cocaine that reaches American soil passes through Guatemala.
Salvadoran President Tony Saca, who asked the FBI to help investigate the case, meets Tuesday with President Bush at the White House, and Bush travels to Guatemala next month to talk with Berger about the growing drug problem.
Photos showed a bloody tangle of bodies and overturned cots on the floor of the four police officers’ cell at the prison in Cuilapa, 40 miles east of Guatemala City.
They had been arrested in the killings of three Central American Parliament members, including Eduardo D’Aubuisson, son of El Salvador’s late right-wing leader Roberto D’Aubuisson, and their driver. The suspects were accused of setting fire to the lawmakers’ bodies and leaving the charred remains along a road outside Guatemala City.
The officers had been taken to the high-security prison at Cuilapa — occupied mostly by gang members — after their lawyer said their lives were in danger at a detention center in Guatemala City.
Slayings lead to prison riot
Sunday’s killings sparked a 12-hour prison riot. Inmates took five hostages, including the prison director, and released them unharmed early Monday after officials allowed them to tell a Guatemalan television crew they were not responsible for the officers’ slayings.
D’Aubuisson and the other politicians represented El Salvador at the Central American Parliament, which has 132 members from five Central American nations. They were also members of El Salvador’s ruling party, the Nationalist Republican Alliance.
D’Aubuisson’s late father allegedly founded death squads responsible for the kidnap, torture, and murder of tens of thousands of civilians during El Salvador’s 1980-1992 civil war.
Sunday’s killings raised more questions about who was behind the murders of the Salvadoran lawmakers. Salvadoran police told reporters the officers — who were linked to the murders through a satellite transponder in their car — had confessed. But Guatemalan prosecutors said they had refused to speak.
El Salvador’s police chief, Rodrigo Avila, said someone wanted to “shut these guys up so that they do not implicate” anyone else.
Killers dressed as guards
He said Guatemalan officials told him the men were able to get into the prison because they were dressed as guards.
Salvadoran Public Security Minister Rene Figueroa said the killings “demonstrated that organized crime has infiltrated the highest levels of the National Civil Police in Guatemala.”
A mother of an inmate told The Associated Press that her daughter-in-law was visiting the prison Sunday when guards forced her and other visitors out.
“They told them to get out because there was going to be a search, and they starting pushing everyone,” the woman said outside the prison, declining to give her name for fear of reprisal attacks. “Once (the visitors) were outside, they saw armed men enter the jail. Then, everyone outside heard gunshots.”