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Guatemalan police search for 'massacre' suspects

By the CNN Wire Staff
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Authorities believe the Zetas drug cartel could be behind the slayings
  • Forensic investigators are working to identify 29 victims
  • A survivor tells a CNN affiliate he played dead after he was stabbed in the stomach
  • Report: Police and military clash with suspected drug gang members

Guatemala City (CNN) -- Guatemalan authorities were searching for suspects Monday, a day after security forces found 29 workers slain on a farm in a northern border province.

Police and military combing the area spotted two abandoned Hummers and clashed with suspected drug gang members in several locations, while forensic investigators in Peten province worked to identify the victims, CNN affiliate Noti7 reported.

Authorities said they believe the Zetas drug cartel could be responsible for Sunday's killings, state media reported, citing national police director Jaime Otzin.

At least three teenagers were among the victims, according to the state-run Guatemalan News Agency, which described the killings as a "massacre."

A man who said he survived the attack told Noti7 he played dead after he was stabbed in the stomach.

The state news agency said investigators were also weighing whether the attack could be connected to the Saturday slaying in Peten of Haroldo Waldemar Leon, the brother of alleged drug trafficker Juancho Leon, who was killed in 2008.

Peten Gov. Rudel Alvarez has said drug traffickers control large swaths of government land preserves in the province, Noti7 reported.

In February, Alvarez said federal authorities should declare a state of siege in Peten, which borders Mexico.

President Alvaro Colom took that approach in the neighboring province of Alta Verapaz in December, implementing an emergency rule that allowed the military to order anyone suspected of conspiring against the government to be arrested and imprisoned without a warrant.

"Peten is like the 'Wild West' for Guatemala. There's very little state presence," said Samuel Logan, founding director of Southern Pulse, an online information network focused on Latin America.

That has made the area fertile ground for the Zetas and other drug gangs, he said.

In an interview with CNN en Espa˝ol last year, Guatemalan Interior Minister Carlos Menocal said his country needed more help from the United States to combat cartels that are increasingly carving out new drug transport paths. He noted that clashes between authorities and the Zetas had significantly increased.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration describes the Zetas as "a group of Mexican military deserters ... who have kidnapped, tortured and murdered -- including beheadings -- of law enforcement officials, innocent citizens, informants and rival drug gangs."

Corruption and violence are high in Guatemala, according to the United Nations, which created a committee in 2006 to investigate those issues there.

More than 200,000 people have been killed in the nation since 1970, mostly as a result of organized crime, drug-trade violence and a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996.

That, in addition to its strategic location on the drug transit corridor between Mexico and South America, makes Guatemala the perfect place for cartels to operate, Logan said.

"You have the window dressings of a democracy, yet it's a hollow state where basically anything goes," he said.

CNN's Catherine E. Shoichet and journalist Patzy Vasquez contributed to this report.