Guatemalan authorities on Monday identified 15 of 27 migrant farm workers beheaded near the Mexican border in a weekend massacre they blamed on Mexico's brutal Zetas drug gang.
The killings at "Los Cocos" farm in La Libertad, in the Peten region some 600 kilometers (373 miles) north of the capital Guatemala City, were the worst in the violent Central American nation's recent history.
Three minors and two women were among the victims, authorities said. Among those identified, the youngest victim was 13 years old.
Interior Minister Carlos Menocal said Monday that the killers had been seeking to murder the farm's owner in a region where the Zetas are blamed for rising violence.
"We believe that the Zetas were seeking Otto Salguero (the owner), because the weekend massacre raised suspicions he was implicated in drug trafficking," Menocal told Emisoras Unidas radio.
"We don't yet have conclusive proof that he was involved in drug trafficking," he added.
Thirty to 40 men armed with assault rifles stormed the farm, asking the workers for the owner's whereabouts, Menocal said.
One of three survivors told AFP that the hitmen said they were looking for Salguero.
"I was washing when they told us not to move and started to shoot. They started killing at around 7 pm Saturday and finished at around 3 am Sunday," he added, declining to reveal his name.
"I'm alive thanks to God. I played dead when they stabbed me in the stomach, then I hid and left at around 5 am and I came across a pile of human heads," said the pale-faced 23-year-old in a Guatemala hospital bed.
Earlier reports put the death toll slightly higher.
Menocal blamed the killings, as well as a string of recent murders in the area, on the Zetas -- a Mexican drug gang with tentacles stretching from the southwestern United States into Central America.
Police chief Jaime Otzin said investigators were probing possible links to the murder on Saturday of Haroldo Lara Leon, a farmer and brother of the late drug trafficker Juan Jose Leon, who was killed by the Zetas gang in 2008.
Four teams of investigators and a police special forces unit were sent to search for clues in an area where the Zetas have been known to operate.
The Zetas have already spread fear across Mexico for their alleged involvement in a string of massacres, kidnappings and beheadings.
They were formed in the 1990s by former elite Mexican military personnel who became enforcers for the Gulf cartel. The groups are now engaged in a brutal turf war in parts of Mexico.
The Zetas are also reportedly seeking to control the lucrative trafficking corridor through northern Guatemala from local groups, seizing rural farms to use as depots for drugs and weapons.
A spike in violence prompted the Guatemalan government last December to declare a month-long "state of siege" in the northern department of Alta Verapaz.
Guatemala already has one of the highest murder rates in Latin America, an average of 18 per day.
The high numbers of homicides and systemic failure of the judicial system in a country where 98 percent of crimes go unpunished led the United Nations to create the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which began operations in late 2007.
Guatemala's violence still pales, however, in comparison with brutal massacres seen in Mexico's drug war, blamed for some 37,000 deaths since December 2006, when authorities launched a military crackdown on the illegal drug gangs.
Source: AFP Global Edition