FLORES, Guatemala -- Two Guatemalan bishops called for prayer and government action in the wake of the brutal slaying of 27 workers on a farm owned by an alleged drug kingpin in the country's northern Peten department.
"The Catholic Church cannot remain indifferent or silent in the face of the constant acts of violence that afflict our dear Peten, causing death and pain," Bishop Mario Fiandri of Peten wrote in a pastoral letter.
Most of the victims -- men, women and several minors -- were beheaded with machetes.
Bishop Fiandri's letter, dated May 18, called the massacre the "ultimate barbaric expression of a generalized situation of violence and insecurity." He said the church shared "the suffering and tears of the victims' relatives."
Guatemalan media reports suggested that the May 14 mass killing was part of a battle between rival drug gangs.
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Many of the victims were from the area around Los Amates in the neighboring Izabal department. They had traveled to Peten in search of work, said Izabal Bishop Gabriel Penate Rodriguez.
"The victims are poor farmers who went to Peten to try to earn a living on the large farms there. They went seeking life and found death -- a cruel death, committed with a brutality and barbarity that has no name," Bishop Penate wrote in a statement issued May 20.
"It is impossible to think that a human being would be capable of committing such an act," he wrote. "They are monsters who have degenerated their mentality so they can sow terror and achieve their macabre ends."
Bishop Penate called for "immediate intervention to protect us from these bands of criminal assassins who walk around with complete impunity and want to instill fear, so they can easily commit kidnappings and extortions."
Bishop Fiandri called for unity in the face of the violence and urged Catholics in Peten to wear white ribbons or display them on cars or in windows "as a sign of repudiation of evil and of hope in the triumph of good." He also announced a "campaign of prayer for peace in Peten" in May.
The bishop called for an "exhaustive investigation" to identify the killers and bring them to justice and asked officials to ensure that the state of emergency declared in the region after the killings "be implemented in accordance with the law."
In his statement, Bishop Fiandri warned that "such a complex problem, with so many actors and causes" could not be addressed with "short-sighted or populist solutions" such as militarization or the death penalty.
"Illegality and impunity, corruption and political maneuvering, organized crime and drug trafficking, the violence rooted in the history of our people are real problems that must be addressed with deep and lasting solutions, through constructive dialogue and civic participation," he wrote. "We would like to see these solutions reflected in the proposals and programs of the various political parties as we approach the next elections," scheduled for September.
Three alleged members of the Mexican-based drug gang, Los Zetas, were arrested May 21 in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, in connection with the killing of the farm laborers. Officials have speculated that the workers were killed because the assailants could not find the farm owner, Otto Salguero, who is allegedly linked to the rival Gulf Cartel.
The three gang members, all Guatemalan, were arrested while trying to hang a banner with a message explaining the massacre.
"The war is not with the civilian population or the government, much less the press," the message said. "The war is against those who work with the Gulf (cartel). Otto Salguero is one of the most important suppliers of cocaine to the Gulf, and those who paid with their lives are employees of his who maintain his organization."