Reports of the shootout on Thursday led to wide speculation that the dead might include Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman, billionaire chieftain of the powerful Sinaloa cartel and the much-wanted mastermind of Mexico’s largest and oldest drug-trafficking organization.
Helicopters were searching the area from the air in hopes of finding bodies and pinning down what happened and who was killed, Guatemalan Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla said Friday.
He said residents in the hard-to-access, jungle region of the Peten, on Guatemala’s northern border with Mexico, reported seeing convoys of heavily armed men who engaged in a gun battle. They reported seeing two dead bodies, Lopez told a local radio station.
It is a common practice for drug cartels to take away the bodies of their fallen comrades. Last year, when the top leader of the vicious Zetas cartel, Heriberto Lazacano, was killed by the Mexican military, commandos broke into a funeral parlor and made away with the corpse. It has not been seen since.
Backing down from the previous day’s assertions, Lopez apologized for the frenzy of speculation that Guzman was killed in Thursday’s incident, saying it was based in part on mistaken information and an unconfirmed report of a physical resemblance between one body and the fugitive drug lord.
“It was chaotic information,” Lopez said, describing Thursday night’s sequence of events. He, Guatemalan President Otto Molina Perez and top military leaders met until the wee hours Friday to figure out what had happened, he said.
Lopez also denied early reports that the Guatemalan or Mexican military were involved in the gun battle.
The shooting, and Friday’s aerial search, took place in the vast Peten where Mexican traffickers from the Sinaloa cartel set up shop more than five years ago, taking advantage of the Wild West nature of the region. More recently, the Zetas, a rival paramilitary force, have been fighting Sinaloa operatives for control of the region made lucrative by its ease of transportation routes and fairly dysfunctional government.
Lopez said the Zetas have gained ground in the Peten, “co-opting criminal structures in the region” and spreading their domination south toward Guatemala’s borders with Honduras and El Salvador.
The Sinaloa cartel is named for the northern state that is the historic cradle of Mexico's drug production. It may well be the largest such operation in the world.
A fugitive since he escaped from a maximum-security prison in 2001, supposedly by hiding in a laundry cart, Guzman has routinely been listed by Forbes Magazine as one of the world’s richest people. His latest wife, whom he married when she was an 18-year-old beauty queen, recently gave birth to twin girls in the Los Angeles area.
U.S. and Mexican authorities have a $5-million-plus bounty on his head. The search for Guzman has reached near-mythic proportions, with reported sightings and Hollywood-style near-missed captures.
In Washington, officials of the Drug Enforcement Administration said they were working to confirm whether Guzman had been killed.
"We don’t have anything to report on it yet," said one official, citing information from DEA assets in Guatemala, who also were trying to confirm the story. "We don’t have any official formal confirmation on this yet."
The U.S. has a large operation in Guatemala and other parts of Central America as it attempts to train local fighters in the drug war and gain intelligence on trafficking operations that have expanded from Mexico and throughout the isthmus.
The capture or killing of Guzman has long been one of the great goals of the Mexican drug war, akin to eliminating an Al Capone or a John Dillinger. His demise could throw into disarray the Sinaloa cartel, which has hundreds of cells in California and other parts of the U.S., although it is also likely that the savvy businessman has established a clear line of succession.
It is unclear what Guzman would be doing in a convoy in the Peten and seems an unlikely, risky behavior for him.
Times staff writers Richard Fausset in Mexico City and Richard A. Serrano in Washington contributed to this report.