CIUDAD PEDRO DE ALVARADO, Guatemala — With local elections just months away, Mayra Lemus sat down for lunch at the Los Cuernos hotel in Ciudad Pedro de Alvarado, a border town in Guatemala. It was February 18, 2011, and she was running for mayor of the local municipality, which borders El Salvador to the south. She had brought together prominent members of the community as part of her campaigning efforts.
But the attendees had barely finished their entrées when two pickup trucks pulled up filled with heavily armed men, who spilled out of the vehicles brandishing AK-47 rifles and shotguns, according to witnesses. They opened fire before their victims had a chance to move, gunning down eight people—including Mayra and at least one of her bodyguards —where they sat.
Marixa, her younger sister, heard the gunfire from down the road. She jumped into her armored truck and raced toward the fray. Her bodyguards leapt into another truck to follow her, honking the horn, trying to warn her to stop or she would be killed too.
The gunmen at the hotel saw her coming and started spraying bullets at her truck as she got closer; Marixa could feel and hear them pinging off her windscreen. She flung the truck into reverse, changing direction to drive to the local police station for help. But the officers had heard the shooting too and refused to get involved, she said.
By the time Marixa returned to Los Cuernos, alone, the gunfire had stopped and the trucks were gone. The restaurant, a large space under an awning surrounded by a low wall, had been devastated by the shooting. She found her sister’s body in a back office a few meters away from where she had been having lunch. Mayra had crawled there to hide, but her aggressors had fired through the door. “Her face was destroyed and she was lying in a pool of her own blood,” Marixa remembered in a conversation with VICE World News.
The savage killing has become known locally as “the massacre at Los Cuernos.” But unlike the death of the other diners that day in 2011, Mayra’s violent end wasn’t entirely unexpected.
“She was famous for being a killer. The whole town was scared of her because she was a killer. It’s that simple. She decided who lived and who died,” a local business owner told me as we spoke in the shade of the Los Cuernos restaurant, where she was killed just a few feet from our table. Legend has it that Mayra, who in photos had shoulder-length red hair and a stocky build, killed her own husband in their house and then dumped his body in another part of town. VICE World News could not independently verify the crime, and she was never charged or convicted. But her violent past, and that of her family, is entangled with those of other power brokers here, for in Jutiapa, southeast Guatemala, there is much to fight over.
Central America’s cocaine highway
Central America is Latin America’s cocaine highway, and home to crucial land, air, and maritime routes for the drug moving up from the South American nations that produce it—mainly Colombia. That was in plain sight to a trained eye as I arrived in Ciudad Pedro de Alvarado for interviews in March 2021. We drove past dozens of huge container trucks lined up, waiting to cross the border south into El Salvador. Other trucks drove from El Salvador into Guatemala.
The constant movement of legal goods on borders like these throughout the region provides the necessary cover for drug trafficking. Cocaine transported by other protagonists in this series—Digna Valle, Marllory Chacon, and Sebastiana Cottón further south in Central America, and Guadalupe Fernández Valencia and Luz Fajardo to the north in Mexico—would have passed through this crucial gateway, hidden in compartments or packed between products. There are simply too many trucks to check and search, locals and the anti-narcotics prosecutors in Guatemala City said. The cocaine is brought north and the profits from drug sales—cash—is hidden in the trucks moving south.
The control of trafficking hubs like these is extremely lucrative for the relatively small clans that live in towns along the route and get involved. Alliances between local officials and drug traffickers vary: Sometimes the local authorities tax crime groups to move through the border unchecked, but in other instances the line between the two different groups can blur, or disappear completely. Political and criminal power are often one and the same way, and the geographic location of Ciudad Pedro de Alvarado means criminal organizations from the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico through to smaller transport groups in Honduras and producers in Colombia all have their eyes on, and a hand in, what happens here.
“Basically, being a killer pays. Here, respect is won based on killing people. That determines how much power you have. Just like that. Here it’s not about how educated you are; it’s about how many people you kill,” said the local business owner.
As a result, local politics in Central American border enclaves like Ciudad Pedro de Alvarado and nearby Moyuta is something of a combat sport. By the time Mayra was killed, the Lemus family was one of the only two contenders for the winning prize of mayor. Mayra and Marixa’s brother Magno was local mayor until he died in 2009 of a heart attack, and she was finishing his term when she was murdered.
The day Mayra died was not the first time someone had tried to kill her. In June 2006, gunmen opened fire on a vehicle carrying a group of people from the Lemus family, including Mayra and Magno. Both survived, but their niece—Marixa’s 17-year-old daughter, Jennifer—was killed, as were other members of the family.
The attack took place on a highway near Moyuta, and today the memorial that the Lemus family erected in honor of the victims remains, with crosses that have been embedded in the ground, underneath a curved, concrete arc to protect them from the weather. There is no cross bearing Jennifer’s name—on the ground in front of the three crosses is what looks like what’s left of the base of a fourth that had been ripped out. The Lemus family were campaigning for Magno’s mayoral bid when the 2006 attack happened. He went on to win.
But Marixa took the loss of Jennifer hard. “I can’t tell you how many holes she had in her body that day—I saw her back, I knew she was dead,” she said. The images of the bodies of both Jennifer and Mayra are seared into Marixa’s memory. The author of the highway attack remains opaque, but she blames one man for the massacre at the restaurant that killed Mayra: Roberto Marroquín Fuentes, the Lemus’ political nemesis.
He was Mayra’s political rival in the race for mayor of Moyuta, Jutiapa, in 2011 and one of the main suspects in the investigation into her killing that happened months before the vote, according to reports based on documents from Guatemala’s prosecutor’s office.
Marroquín, who remains Moyuta’s mayor today, told me he had nothing to do with Mayra’s murder and that he’d cooperated with the subsequent investigation. He said that he has only ever acted to defend himself, and that the Lemus family resented him for his local popularity. Marroquín was never arrested or charged for Mayra’s murder. “One creates their own way in life. This happened for not knowing how to handle [herself] or for being too ambitious,” he told a local television station following her death.
Marixa stepped in to replace Mayra in the mayoral race when she was killed, and in an attempt to improve her chances of winning, she joined forces with another political (and criminal) rival of Marroquín’s, a man named Rony Rodriguez. With Mayra gone, Rodriguez was the local player most capable of beating Marroquín in the runoff for mayor. And it wasn’t the only mantel Rodriguez had taken on from the Lemus family—witnesses reportedly said that he had also taken on the control of the town’s local drug trafficking routes following the death of their previous master in 2009: Magno Lemus.
But Rodriguez’s political bid wasn’t to be. Just months after Mayra was gunned down, so was he, in Moyuta in June 2011. Marroquín went on to win the mayoral race, with more than twice as many votes as Marixa, all of which further embittered her against him. So much so that, according to Marroquín, she tried to kill him. Three times.
His car was attacked by gunmen in the local area in November 2013, and less than a month later bombs were planted on a bridge that Marroquín was supposed to cross on his drive home, according to local media reports. But the bomb never went off, and local police who were allegedly in on the murder plot ran off, leaving their AK-47s and at least one grenade on the scene to be found later by investigators. Marroquín emerged unscathed from both attacks.
By the time the third attempt to kill him took place, Marixa was already behind bars—arrested in April 2014 on kidnapping and murder charges that also included killing her own husband (which she denies).
Armed assailants injured Marroquín during that third and final attack in November 2014, and his wife and bodyguard were also harmed when his group—which included a security team—was ambushed. Even with Marixa in prison, Marroquín blamed her.
Today, years later, the battle for Moyuta still isn’t over. Marroquín’s brother, Jorge Mario Marroquín Fuentes, made history in El Salvador when he was caught in May 2017 with nearly a ton of cocaine, which he was transporting via fishing boat in Acajutla, Sonsonate, a coastal city two hours’ drive south across the border from Moyuta. El Salvador’s naval chief said at the time that it was the biggest cocaine seizure in the country, bar none.
“Before, it wasn’t the narco who would run for mayor; the narcos would finance campaigns and pick the candidate. Now, mayors are running the drug trade directly,” said Gerson Alegría, Guatemala’s chief anti–drug trafficking prosecutor. He has seen arrests and evidence against locally elected officials mount as organized crime works with, not against, local powers. And when I asked him about the violence between the Lemus and Marroquín clans, and about Marroquín’s role directly, he told me: “We have the same info: that it is a battle over territorial control.”
But neither Alegría’s team nor any other part of the Guatemalan justice machinery has charged Marroquín with any crime, despite what they say. Alegría told me that to a certain extent, Marroquín is protected because he’s still in office. For his part, Marroquín said he is a victim of the political establishment, who want rid of him because of his popularity and good deeds. “If I was a narco, I wouldn't be a politician, I’d be in hiding,” he told me from behind his desk in Moyuta, dressed in a dark blue shirt and gesticulating wildly.
Marixa hates being behind bars. And she does her best to get out as often as possible: Because of her great escapes, she has earned the moniker of Guatemala’s female Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
“There are so few people who have even escaped once, and she has done it twice. And the second time was a military prison. How did she do it?” said my Guatemala City taxi driver as he drove me to the prison where Marixa is now being held.
The first time Marixa escaped was in May 2016, after fellow prisoners reportedly helped her vault over a wall. She was caught within hours, but that didn’t stop her from trying again. The second time, in May 2017, she broke out of the Mariscal Zavala military prison. Better prepared this time, she snuck out wearing a guard’s uniform and got picked up by a waiting car. When the authorities finally caught up with her in El Salvador two weeks later, she had dyed her hair a dark red, like that of her sister Mayra. Her capture was a media sensation: Even the president at the time, Jimmy Morales, tweeted about it.
Both times that she got out, Marroquín was watching, said a source in Ciudad Pedro de Alvarado. “He shakes in his pants when he sees Marixa. He behaves like the big man when he moves around with his bodyguards, but he is very afraid of her. When she got out for the second time, he didn’t leave his house until she was caught—didn’t do a single public act.”
When I told Marixa during a conversation at the Santa Teresa women’s prison this past March, she didn’t even try to hide her delight. A slow smile stretched across her lips.
“I know [Marroquín] is terrified of me because I’m a woman who took the reins and I’m going to avenge myself and all of the family that he took away from me,” she said.
Marixa, now in her late 40s, wore a white Nike cap over her thick, long black hair that was pulled back into a ponytail. Her skin was pale and clear, with a hint of freckles, her brows thick and dark. She had a black Adidas T-shirt over a white, long-sleeved top, and when she emerged from her solitary cell into the bright atrium of the prison to meet me, she blinked in the light.
During the conversation, she oscillated between tears and steely determination. She wept when she talked about her time in solitary confinement, a consequence of her bids for freedom. “Something inside me is drying up in here,” she said. And tears came as she remembered the state of her daughter Jennifer’s body when she was killed in 2006.
“Roberto [Marroquin] was a nobody. He was a simple fisherman. We were a family with a name. The town knew us and respected us,” she said.
Still, Marixa said that she’d never tried to kill Marroquín, as he claims. “They were auto-atentados,” she said, suggesting that he’d staged the attempts on his own life. Another source in Ciudad Pedro Alvarado said the same, and when I repeated that to Alan Ajiatas, Alegría’s deputy at the anti-narcotics prosecutor's office, he replied: “Well, as a result of the attempts on his life, [Marroquín] did justify buying bulletproof cars, so it’s probable.”
In response, Marroquín laughed at the suggestion that he had faked the attempts on his life.
“When I got out of Mariscal, he said that I was a dangerous woman and that he had to double his security. He came out talking and staining my family’s name when he is himself involved [in these bad things],” said Marixa.
As we talked, she clutched some cardboard folders stuffed with paperwork that she said she was preparing for her lawyer. She told me she was still trying to win her freedom: “I want to reopen my case.”
Julie Lopez contributed reporting to this story.
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation.