GUATEMALA CITY Suspected gang members dumped four human heads in front of Guatemala's Congress and other spots in the capital along with messages warning the government to halt its crackdown on organized crime.
A head found outside Congress on Thursday had a handwritten note with it addressed to the interior minister and the head of the penitentiary system.
"Put the jails in order or these horrific acts will continue," it said.
Another of the severed heads was left on a pedestrian walkway at a shopping center, while a third was found in front of a fire station and a fourth in a plastic bag on a highway leading into Guatemala City. A headless body was found in a car parked near Congress.
Drug cartel members in Mexico commonly hack off victims' heads and leave gruesome notes to spread terror among rival gangs and the public, but the tactic is rarely seen in Central America. Guatemala has seen a few cases of beheadings in prison murders but not in public spaces.
Still scarred by its brutal 1960-96 civil war, Guatemala is one of the most violent countries in Latin America. Vicious street gangs known as "maras" run huge extortion rings and trigger-happy Mexican drug traffickers have moved in to run cocaine smuggling routes to the United States.
Imprisoned gang members often run criminal enterprises from their cells, using cell phones obtained with the help of corrupt jailers to order kidnappings and murders.
President Alvaro Colom launched a crackdown on jailhouse gang activity earlier this year, in which gang members are frequently transferred without warning to different prisons to prevent them forging strong ties with prison officials.
"The criminals are hurting because of the actions we've taken in the jails," police spokesman Donald Gonzalez said.
(Writing by Sean Mattson and Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Catherine Bremer and Peter Cooney)