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Organized crime and local power struggles blamed in murder of three Guatemalan journalists

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala — Deadly attacks against three journalists in southern Guatemala last week could be revenge for their work exposing corruption and organized crime, government officials, analysts and journalists say.

Meanwhile, the Guatemalan prosecutor’s office said Tuesday that personnel investigating the murders had received anonymous threats.

Two journalists were murdered in the city of Mazatenango on March 10 and a third on March 13 in the nearby town of Chicacao.

Guatemalan Interior Minister Mauricio López said Monday that the recent crimes could be related to a drug trafficking ring that operates in the area.

“Through our investigations, we’ve discovered a criminal group that operates in Suchitepéquez (the department that encompasses Mazatenango and Chicacao) and that’s our point of departure,” López told reporters.

He said a nearby village on the Pacific coast received large shipments of illegal drugs, “and that’s where some local families engage in illicit activities.”

To date, authorities have captured five suspects related to the murder cases, among them a minor.

More powerful than the government

Interior Minister López said the drug trafficking organization that operates in Suchitepéquez has ties to Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, led by the now-detained Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán.

Guatemala is a major transshipment point for drugs leaving South America for the United States.

“There are local powers that have established structures and organizations beyond the government’s jurisdiction and its capacity,” López admitted.

Ileana Alamilla, a Guatemalan journalist who monitors press freedom, said reporters working outside of the country’s capital faced great risk.

“Organized crime and drug trafficking organizations have imposed censorship and self-censorship in the departments (provinces), where it’s impossible to safely report on these criminal groups,” Alamilla said.

She said the “logistical power and economic capacity (of criminal groups) surpassed the government.”

Guatemalan journalist Miguel González told the AFP that attacks against the press are common during election season. Guatemala will hold general elections in September.

During the last three years of Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina’s administration, there have been more than 200 attacks against journalists, González said.

Guatemalan political analyst Carmen Aída Ibarra, from the organization Pro Justicia, said intolerance of media coverage was common outside of the capital.

She said local power struggles were the root cause of violence against regional reporters.

Ibarra said corrupt local leaders “think they’re untouchable.”

A spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office, Julia Barrera, told AFP that it had bolstered security at its regional office in Suchitepéquez after employees investigating the murders received threats. 

According to the Guatemalan news service CERIGUA, 26 journalists have been killed in the country since 2000.

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