Murders Foster El Salvador-Guatemala Tension Late last month three Salvadoran legislators were killed while on official business in Guatemala. The four Guatemalan men who were arrested and charged with the murders were killed while in custody. It turned out that the men killed in jail were Guatemalan police.
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Murders Foster El Salvador-Guatemala Tension

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Murders Foster El Salvador-Guatemala Tension

Murders Foster El Salvador-Guatemala Tension

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It's a true story that reads like a screenplay. Three Salvadoran government officials and their driver are murdered while visiting Guatemala on official business. Their bodies are found in a burned-out car in a rural area not far from Guatemala City. One of the dead men is the son of a well-known right-wing Salvadoran leader, the late Roberto D'Aubuisson. Four Guatemalan policemen are arrested for the murders and sent to a high security prison. Three days later, gunmen storm the prison and make their way past eight locked doors to kill the four policemen. Rumors of drug trafficking and mafia involvement swirl around the murders. To find out more about what's behind these killings, we're joined now by the Los Angeles Times bureau chief for Mexico and Central America, Hector Tobar. Thanks so much for being with us, Hector.

Mr. HECTOR TOBAR (Los Angeles Times): Thank you for having me.

NEARY: What is known so far about the murder of the four Salvadoran men?

Mr. TOBAR: Well, what's known is that the people responsible for the killing of the three legislators and their driver were likely linked to the organized crime organizations that operate in both Guatemala and El Salvador. The four men who were originally charged were four Guatemalan national policemen and members of the country's elite anti-organized crime unit, including the director of the anti-organized crime unit. They were discovered because they had used GPS in their car and had forgotten to turn it off when they were going to kidnap and kill these men. And so that's how they were tracked down and caught.

NEARY: These three men were representing El Salvador at the Central American Parliament. Now, are there any indications that they were there for any unofficial reasons as well?

Mr. TOBAR: Well, that's one of the many unknowns in this story so far. They were headed to the Central American Parliament as official representatives. They had driven from San Salvador to Guatemala City. It's a drive of several hours. They had an escort of Guatemalan policeman once they crossed the El Salvador/Guatemala border. When they reached Guatemala City, however, they broke off from the caravan and said that they had a meeting to go to, and they were never seen alive again. So it's not really known if they were meeting with drug dealers on purpose or if they were simply mistaken for Columbian drug dealers - that's a version of the story the Salvadoran government is circulating - or if they were killed on contract by a Guatemalan organized crime group acting on behalf of Salvadoran drug traffickers.

Sources originally told us that this was a drug deal gone bad, that the men who were killed had reneged on some payment or failed to deliver something and were therefore killed.

NEARY: Let me ask you a little more about the police killings now. How could anyone have gotten into and out of that prison without some inside help?

Mr. TOBAR: Well, this was in fact a maximum security prison in Guatemala; however my experience as a correspondent in Latin America is that maximum security means one thing in the United States and it means another thing in Latin America. All kinds of very odd things happen in Latin American prisons. There are many drug mafias in Mexico and other parts of Latin America, in Brazil for example, where the main leaders of the organization are actually behind bars and do all their work by cell phone. So it didn't really surprise many people that such a thing could happen. But at the same time, it was a very professionally done operation.

NEARY: So what is this doing to relations between Guatemala and El Salvador now?

Mr. TOBAR: I think there's a sense in both countries that they want to get to the bottom of it. But the background to all of this is that both Guatemala and El Salvador are pit stops in the regional drug trade between Columbia and Mexico. And that's something that is well known throughout the region. It's known in official U.S. circles. Ninety percent of the drugs that are shipped from Columbia to the United States pass along or through the isthmuses of Central America.

NEARY: Why are they using that route to get drugs into the United States?

MR. TOBAR: The original route to get Columbian cocaine to the United States as we all know from our days of watching "Miami Vice" was through the Caribbean into South Florida and across the Gulf of Mexico. However, the United States Southern Command has a very strong presence in that area now and is able to interdict in a much more easy fashion all the planes and boats that would be used to smuggle drugs through that corridor.

What makes Central America an attractive route for drug traffickers is that it's much easier to corrupt local officials. And also the local officials have fewer resources to fight drug trafficking. Nicaragua, for example, is able only to patrol its coastline 12 days out of every 30 of each month. The other 18 days, they have no patrol boats to go up and down the coast to see if people are dropping off drugs. So the most natural route between the border in Mexico and Columbia passes through Central America.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much, Hector.

Mr. TOBAR: Thank you so much for having me.

NEARY: Hector Tobar is the Los Angeles Times bureau chief for Mexico and Central America.

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