ZACAPA, Guatemala – Jose Miguel Ramirez went hunting for iguanas on a melon farm, and paid for it with his life. The 19-year-old's body was dumped by a stream near the property line, a bullet hole above his left eye.
What happened to Ramirez remains in dispute, though no one is pushing for answers any longer. The private security guards alleged to have killed him were never prosecuted. A witness who said he saw the shooting recanted. In a country that averages some 100 homicides a week, the killing barely drew headlines and public attention moved on.
The case of Ramirez, whose body was found outside the ZacapaEx plantation in March 2013, reveals just how convoluted security and justice have become in Guatemala, where private guards outnumber police 5-to-1, and the soaring crime rate is married with shocking levels of impunity. Those with means buy protection the state cannot provide, those without take matters into their own hands.
"You don't call the police. You don't call 911. You deal with it yourself," said Frank Moseley, a private security analyst based in Guatemala.
Ramirez, a young corn farmer with a pregnant girlfriend and toddler son had set off with his two brothers-in-law that Sunday, a slingshot in his pocket for hunting. They left the trash-strewn arroyo where the family lives to search for food — fat, green iguanas.
ZacapaEx is one of the large farms producing melons that locals proudly tout as the sweetest in all of Central America. The company is a significant source of jobs in the Guatemalan highlands where opportunities are scarce. Residents get seasonal work in the fields and packing plants, or are hired as guards to patrol the farms against thieves, who take everything from fruit to tires and equipment.
Ramirez had just crossed the fence onto the farm when the shots rang out and he was hit, his brothers-in-law said. They hid as they watched three men dressed in street clothes and a fourth wearing a security guard's uniform drag the body and dump it off beyond the property line. They summoned police, who found Ramirez with his Daytona 500 baseball cap resting neatly on his stomach, saliva foaming at his mouth and a trail of blood that suggested he had been dragged.
Days later, police arrested three men identified by one of Ramirez's brothers-in-law. One of them was Angel Aldana Cruz, a 26-year-old who was alleged to have fired the fatal shot. Authorities described the suspects as private security guards who worked on the farm, although the men claimed they were only hired to do odd jobs. Later, authorities arrested a fourth man, a guard hired from a private security firm, Gevas, to patrol the melon farm.
Over the following weeks, all four men were freed, and ZacapaEx was cleared of any responsibility.
After Ramirez's death, the family was visited by Osmany Giron, the melon company's director of operations, who offered his condolences. Giron knew the family, he told The Associated Press, because two of Ramirez's sisters had worked for him during harvest time. He was saddened to learn that Ramirez left behind a 14-month-old son. He brought tamales, bread and a "small" amount of money for the family.
Ramirez's mother, Odilia del Carmen Sintuj, told AP she was too distraught to pay much attention to the visits by Giron. She recalled that he promised to care for her. The company, she said, helped her go to a hospital for treatment of her diabetes and bought her medicine.
Weeks later, she said, Giron asked her and her husband, Esteban Ramirez, to go with him to an office. He wanted them to sign a document, even though neither of them could read or write. She said the company paid her $4,500.
A local prosecutor who was there, she said, encouraged them to sign, saying it was the best resolution they could expect.
The prosecutor, she said, told them the case wasn't worth pursuing and encouraged them to accept whatever the melon farm offered. "There's nothing here," she recalled the prosecutor saying about the case. "If they want to help, you should take advantage of it."
The couple signed the document with their thumb prints, but say they never understood what it was. By doing so, according to the document filed in court on April 12, 2013, the couple absolved ZacapaEx and the three suspects of any charges and agreed to drop their court action. The prosecutor assigned to the case, Olga Hernandez, declined to meet with AP and did not return telephone calls.
Giron denies Sintuj's version of events, and says he knows nothing of a court paper or indemnification. As for the killing, he says ZacapaEx had nothing to do with it, that the three workers in plain clothes were not guards, and none would have been armed while on duty.
Investigators initially did seize weapons from three of the suspects, but not from Aldana Cruz, the alleged gunman. Ballistics testing on the seized weapons came out clean.
The sworn statement given by Mario Ramos, the brother-in-law who identified the three suspects that day to the police, also was withdrawn and his testimony recanted.
Ramos told AP that a stranger approached him and warned: "You're not going to say anything because if you do, we'll kill you." Soon after, Ramos signed a court document saying he couldn't be sure of the suspects' identities because he hadn't seen their faces. It was, he said, his only option.
"It really hurts me, what they did to my brother-in-law," he said. "But what would you do if someone killed a relative and you saw who it was, and (they) threatened you and said, 'Look, you're not going to say anything because if you do, we'll kill you too?'"
Aldana Cruz and the two other men were freed from custody and their bail money returned, and Mario Antonio Santiago Carranza, the guard charged with being an accessory, was absolved.
It didn't end there.
A week after charges were dropped, Carranza was patrolling the perimeter of the melon farm when he was shot to death by a man passing by on a motorcycle.
Like Ramirez's death, his killing remains unsolved although a representative of the Gevas security company suggested responsibility lies with friends of Ramirez and his brothers-in-law, whom she described as "criminals."
"An innocent had to pay for something he didn't do," said Alba Rosa Asturias, Gevas' legal representative.
The family denies any role in Carranza's death, though in their minds it was a just ending.
"He who kills by the sword, dies by the sword," Ramos said.