Attacks leave authorities scratching their heads
When a small explosive device was detonated remotely in a bus in Guatemala this past March, authorities were alarmed. Then gang leaders apologized and purged the perpetrators, leaving authorities confused.
The case left five people dead — two passengers in the inter-municipal bus that was traveling in the San José Pinula municipality on the outskirts of Guatemala City where the bomb exploded, the incarcerated gang leader who ordered the attack, the gang member who placed the bomb and the person who made it.
Attack buses in Guatemala are commonplace. Gangs such as the Barrio 18 and their rivals in the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) systematically extort buses. It is one of their few regular sources of income, and when payment does not arrive on time, there are repercussions, normally in the form of a dead bus driver.
However, this bus bomb’s characteristics set off alarm bells because authorities said it was detonated remotely via a cellular phone, a seldom used tactic that illustrates a growing sophistication of the gangs.
They did not give any more details, but it was not the first time the Barrio 18, thought to be the least sophisticated of the two major gangs, had used this tactic, police and Interior Ministry officials told InSight Crime.
In 2010, Guatemalan police recovered the remnants of another explosive device they said that the gang had used to try to remotely blow up a car at the central administrative building of the prison system.
The target in that case, U.S. authorities consulted for this story said, was a prison official. It did not go off, one former U.S. investigator and a police investigator, both of whom requested anonymity, told InSight Crime. “The science is easy,” the former U.S. investigator said. “The execution is the hard part.”
In a report obtained by InSight Crime, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms described the 2010 bomb as a “vehicle borne improvised explosive device (VBIED),” as it was found in the trunk of a car.
The ATF sent the “flash powder” and the “suspected accelerant” to the United States for review. The rest of the materials, including the cellular phone and other components that the gang had used to try to detonate the bomb, remained in Guatemala.
The former U.S. investigator suspected the gangs had someone who was former military — or had trained in the United States — try to put the 2010 device together. “They were in over their heads,” he said.
This was not the case, however, in 2011, when a bomb was allegedly detonated remotely in a bus, killing nine people and injuring another 14. Nor was it the case in the 2016 explosion. In addition to the two dead, another 15 were injured in the March 6 attack in San José Pinula, a municipality that sits adjacent to the country’s capital, Guatemala City.
As opposed to earlier cases, the Barrio 18 reacted immediately. In the days following the attack, they strangled the ringleader, Armando Lorenzana Gómez, alias “el Arjona,” who had been sentenced in 2009 to 40 years in prison for murder — and they said they killed two others who had participated in the bombing, including the person who had made the device.
“This guy is responsible for the attack in San Jose Pinula,” one of the four gang leaders explained to the press, as the body of el Arjona sat beneath a white sheet just a few feet from where he spoke and prison guards flanked him. [See video below.]
“Various of his cohorts are now just like him,” he added.
InSight Crime analysis
The use of a remote detonator is troubling as it points to the ease with which basic technology and sophisticated tactics can be combined to devastating effect by even the most rudimentary of street gangs.
Whether this is the beginning of a trend is hard to say. As noted, the gang has used this tactic sporadically since 2010, with limited success.
The gang’s public reaction to this bombing is also strange. The attack was used by the gang leadership to purge some its members, and statements by them would appear to illustrate a concerted effort to win social capital.
As in El Salvador and Honduras, the Barrio 18 in Guatemala is seen as the more crude and heartless of the two main gangs. Their rivals in the MS13 use their own political cache that comes from this perception to build support in the communities where they operate.
But the Barrio 18 may be starting down a more politically savvy path as well, and this bombing could represent that shift, at least as it relates to the Barrio 18 in Guatemala.
However, a Guatemalan police intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told InSight Crime that the public statement was an effort to keep the authorities from dispatching more resources to the area and dismantle the network.
“He did not consult the Wheel,” the investigator said, using the name of the Barrio 18 board of directors and talking about the murder of el Arjona. “And for that, he paid the price.”
The concern of the Wheel, he added, was that the action would unnecessarily “heat up” the area. These police actions can have an impact — he said it can take between three and six months for the gang to reset its leadership and criminal activities after heavy police intervention.
The case also may have more to it, as it relates to criminal migration.
In April, Guatemalan authorities captured two more suspects, one of them a Salvadoran national. And a representative of the Interior Ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity, said el Arjona had upped the ante in recent months, in part due to the arrival of Salvadoran members of the Barrio 18 who are fleeing that country’s bloody fighting.
El Salvador’s gangs have been implicated in use of improvised explosive devices in recent months. But, as noted by InSight Crime, there has been migration of gang members between these countries for years, and the connections between the IEDs and the gangs are tenuous at best.