GUATEMALA CITY — Jimmy Gonzalez was out of tears by the time he arrived at the state morgue to claim his father's corpse.
"There's nothing more to say; my mother and I know that nobody will remember the death of an innocent man. He'll remain forgotten in a cloud of oblivion," Jimmy told the local press.
Jimmy's father, Modesto, died March 18, eight days after getting caught in a grenade attack launched by Guatemala's most savage gang, Barrio 18, or "M-18." He had been waiting outside the San Juan del Díos Hospital when the gangbangers rolled up at 8:45 a.m., guns blazing. Their primary "target" was a prison truck transporting an incarcerated M-18 gang leader to the hospital. But the gangsters made little effort to control collateral damage.
"At first we heard about 30 rounds of gunfire — it sounded like .9 millimeters. Then it was BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! as they started throwing grenades," recalls Samuel, a parking lot attendant who witnessed the March 10 attack.
Prison guards returned fire, forcing the assailants to flee on foot into the surrounding neighborhoods. All told, the attack killed three bystanders and injured 25 more.
Whether the M-18 mareros were trying to free or kill the incarcerated gang boss is unknown, but they failed to accomplish either task. More likely the grenade attack was part of the gang's business-development plan.
"They want to sow terror and show that they are willing to attack authorities," Guatemalan Security Minister Mauricio López Bonilla told Fusion. "Their message is: 'I'm not a common thug, so when I talk, when I demand extortion or threaten you, you better take me very seriously'."
For a gang whose livelihood depends on extorting small businesses and bus companies, launching crazy attacks with no regard for human life is — in a perverse and horrible way— about creating a favorable work environment.
"On many occasions, this is their business plan," the minister said.
The gang is responsible for a half-dozen attacks with grenades and remote-detonated explosives over the past five years, including two grenade attacks in the past two weeks. (The most recent attack was on March 16, when members of the M-18 hurled a grenade at a motorcycle taxi stand in the southern department of Santa Rosa, injuring five.)
According to government-provided numbers, 17 Guatemalans have been killed and 50 more injured in grenade and bomb attacks over the past five years, some two decades after the peace accords ended the country's civil war. An additional 37 grenades have been confiscated by police during raids on M-18 safehouses, and several more attacks were thwarted when the grenades failed to explode, according to authorities.
[This security camera video captured a grenade attack on a water truck last July.]
Gang prosecutor Ricardo Guzman says it might be a little early to conclude that grenade attacks have become the M-18's new modus operandi, but says he certainly hopes that's not the case.
"I hope this isn't becoming a new way of operating, because the damage it causes is enormous," Guzman told Fusion.
Guzman thinks dramatic improvements in Guatemala's ability to investigate and prosecute gang crimes is another reason the M-18 has started using grenades. It's an effort, he says, to "cover up their fingerprints."
Guatemala's ballistic analysis and crime database has become so sophisticated in recent years that state investigators have been able to trace intricate webs of gang membership, black-market weapons sales, and responsibility for violent crimes — all by collecting shell casings at crime scenes. The government's database can quickly reveal which guns were involved in what crimes and, by association, which gangs are responsible for what murders (it's very rare that either the Salvatrucha or M-18 claim responsibility for crimes).
The result is that armed gangbangers, once collared by cops, can be linked to other crime scenes where identical casings were found. That allows prosecutors to pile on multiple murder charges once they get gangsters in front of a judge. It's not strange to find mareros serving 600- or even 1,000-year jail sentences in Guatemala.
Loath to do that kind of time in the clink, gangsters appear to be trying to cover their tracks at the crime scene — or, more accurately, blow them to smithereens.
"Through our prosecution of other cases, they've become aware of our database; so they're trying to change the way they operate," Guzman said.
Grenades have registration numbers, but once they detonate there's nothing left but the pin, which offers few clues.
Where are the grenades coming from?
Guatemalan authorities say they are investigating where the grenades are coming from. In a region rattled by revolutionary and counterrevolutionary wars in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, there are still plenty of old weapons floating around Central America.
"There is a high level of availability of these types of weapons in the region," said López Bonilla. And with the gang's expanding extortion business, the M-18 has "improved their purchasing capabilities" in recent years, he added.
But that doesn't explain the whole story. While some of the grenades are leftovers from the guerrilla movements of the past, López Bonilla says some of weapons they've confiscated are newer models — perhaps trafficked from other countries where the M-18 has strong affiliate ties.
Guzman, however, says the grenades are most likely coming from somewhere within Guatemala.
"They buy them here. Where they come from we're still investigating," he said.
Is the M-18 Guatemala's most dangerous gang?
The M-18, a gang that got its start on the streets of Los Angeles in the 1960s, is a transnational criminal organization that operates from California to Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
It's by far the smaller of the two major gangs operating in Guatemala, the largest being the dreaded Salvatrucha, or MS-13.
Together, the two rival gangs account for more than 40 percent of the 5,200 homicides reported in Guatemala last year, according to the government. Gang experts say the Salvatrucha notch approximately twice as many kills as the M-18 each year.
The top leaders of the two gangs—"ranfleros" as they're known— are in jail, and reportedly still call the shots from behind bars. But the new generation of street leaders that has risen within the various cliques of the M-18 have a reputation of being much more thuggish and far less intelligent than their Salvatrucha counterparts.
"The two gangs are very distinct. The Salvatrucha is very strategic, they have more resources, and they are specific in their operations and in picking their targets. They are very accurate. Missions are well planned and executed with precision. And they try to minimize collateral damage," said López Bonilla, a retired Lt. Colonel in Guatemala's Army and member of the elite Kaibil special forces unit.
"The M-18 is less intelligent," he added. "They operate on the criminal concept that it doesn’t matter if 10 people have to die to kill one. They are crude and unintelligent. In fact, I think one of their leaders barely has the minimum I.Q. required to even be a criminal."
That level of thuggish stupidity —the willingness to hurl grenades into a crowd of bystanders just to terrorize the working-class poor into parting with more of their earnings — is what makes the M-18 the most dangerous gang in Guatemala, the minister said.
"The Salvatrucha goes into an area and says, 'We’re here, and now you’re going to pay us extortion.' And people know that if they don’t pay they’ll be attacked," the minister said. "But the Barrio 18 goes to a place and the first thing they do is attack so people can see what they are capable of doing. And that’s the big difference between the two gangs."