A day after Anais del Carmen Gamboa, a 29-year-old Venezuelan model, visited her drug trafficker husband in a Guatemalan prison, two gunmen on motorcycles cut off the car she was driving and opened fire, hitting her four times. Witnesses reported hearing her cry out for help before she died in the bullet-ridden vehicle.
A short time later, her husband, Carlos León, heir to Guatemala’s once-powerful criminal León clan, found out his wife had been murdered and apparently took revenge. A riot broke out at the prison and seven inmates were killed. Six of them were decapitated. The prison’s deputy director was taken hostage for several hours.
The National Director of the penitentiary system, Luis Escobar, told the local press that León was being extorted by gang members who threatened to kill his wife if he didn’t pay. Apparently, he refused.
The gruesome scenes that followed, experts say, were more than just an execution or revenge, but a show of force amid an interminable power struggle among rival factions in Guatemala’s prisons.
“It shows a lot of strength, reasserting the control of the prison, reasserting who’s in power and reasserting who’s more fierce,” said Tiziano Breda, a Central America analyst for the International Crisis Group.
The killings last month once again underscored the failure of Guatemala’s government to establish any authority over its overcrowded prisons, where there is a long history of brutal uprisings and executions.
The Cantel prison, a low-security facility in the western city of Quetzaltenango where León, 29, is serving a 105-year sentence for murder, is a stark example of the chaos across the Guatemalan prison system. Intended for non-violent offenders serving short sentences, the prison instead has a mixed population of inmates serving time for crimes that range from misdemeanors all the way to murder and drug trafficking.
The prison has become notorious. “It's a garrison for extortion activities, a stronghold for extortion groups,” Breda said.
Years ago, León would likely have been considered untouchable in the prison. His father, Juan José “Juancho” León, was a car thief and cattle rustler who became a major drug trafficker with a reputation for stealing other smugglers’ cocaine shipments – a practice known as “tumbes” - that made him many enemies.
But in 2008, the family’s power took a major blow when Juancho León was killed by Mexico’s violent Zetas Cartel in a shootout that left 11 dead.
In 2011, Juancho’s brother Haroldo, who had reportedly taken the reins of the clan, was also murdered. His death is believed to have been linked to the subsequent massacre of 29 people at a remote ranch in revenge – one the largest in the country since the end of its bloody civil war in 1996. Police said that as many as 200 gunmen arrived in buses and that the victims were all decapitated.
Four years later, Carlos León was captured and charged with killing three people whose farm he had attempted to take over by force. He was convicted in 2017.
The extortion rackets in Guatemala’s prisons follow basic rules and begin as soon as a prisoner arrives.
“There's something called ‘talacha’ which is basically an entry fee that every prisoner has to pay. It's basically just to rent the right to be there and to not be violated, assaulted, beaten or even killed,” said Breda.
The tax starts at around $400 and goes up from there depending upon the inmate’s profile. Prison administrators are believed to be complicit in exchange for a cut of the earnings. Prisoners must also pay the group that’s in control of the prison for everything from the right to a mattress to access to a cell phone.
The lucrative nature of the extortion business leads to power struggles between rival groups. Gamboa’s murder could have been either an attempt to challenge León’s power or extortion taken to the extreme by the group in control.
Whatever the case, the outbreak of violence over two days in late May was the latest example of the collapse of authority in Guatemala’s prisons. The problem is aggravated by overpopulation and a lack of urgency from the government, according to Corinne Dedik, a senior investigator at the local think tank CIEN and an expert on the penitentiary system.
The prison where León is held is operating at more than 300 percent above capacity. “This always favors prisoners’ control inside their prisons,” said Dedik, because the prison staff are overwhelmed in the face of the overcrowding.
After the riot, officials transferred 77 alleged extortionists to other prisons, but León remained. Even the officials, however, acknowledge that transfers are unlikely to have much effect while prisons remain overpopulated.
“It’s been complicated for us because we can take out a hundred people but then they send us another hundred,” said Escobar, in a statement to the local press when he arrived at the prison on the night of the uprising.
The low priority given to the prison system suggests that the cause of this latest spasm of violence may never be fully understood, said Dedik.
“Many times, when events like this occur the case remains under investigation for years, but it never ends up with the people knowing what really happened.”