LUSIGNAN, Guyana – Gunmen stormed into a coastal village and killed 11 people, including five children, in violence blamed on a gang leader who has threatened widespread attacks. The assault sparked angry protests over rising crime in this impoverished country.
The killings in Lusignan came hours after gunmen attacked police headquarters in the capital, firing indiscriminately and wounding two guards.
Guyana, an English-speaking South American country, has struggled with violent crime fueled by drugs and gun trafficking, and is known as the site of the 1978 Jonestown mass-suicide and killings led by the American cult leader Jim Jones.
Police and government officials say they suspect a criminal gang led by Rondell Rawlins is behind the violence. Rawlins accused security forces of kidnapping his pregnant 18-year-old girlfriend earlier this week and authorities said he threatened to carry out attacks until she is found.
It was unclear why the gunmen chose Lusignan, a town 7 miles east of the capital where many of the men are usually away working to support their families.
Raj Harrylall, whose two sons and wife were among the dead, sat in stunned silence in his bloodstained living room. He had returned to his village from working in Trinidad only hours after the assault on the town.
"I don't know how he's going to make out," said Rickey Gurudat, his brother-in-law. "There's no one left in the house. Everyone got killed."
Elsewhere in Lusignan, a town of whitewashed wooden homes, people gathered quietly in small groups, surveying bullet-scarred walls and kicked-in doors. Some erected tents for wakes.
In the neighboring town of Mon Repos, the slayings prompted angry protests over the government's seeming inability to suppress gang violence in the country. At least 300 people flooded into the streets, burning tires, refrigerators and other debris and blocking the main roads.
Some of the protesters vowed to form vigilante groups and avenge the killings. "We want justice!" they cried. "Government can't protect us! We want more police!"
Mon Repos is usually a bustling marketplace on Saturdays, but everything was closed as irate villagers yelled at soldiers that began to arrive.
"It is unthinkable that gunmen will break into your house with your family, put everyone to sit in a chair and kill them," said 50-year-old Karamchand Sukhu.
On Wednesday night, suspected members of Rawlins' gang killed a Guyanese soldier during a gunbattle in Buxton, a village 2 miles from Lusignan.
Authorities say Rawlins has been the leader of a gang associated with armed robberies since 2002. He is suspected of involvement in the April 2006 slaying of Agriculture Minister Satyadeo Sawh — a murder that authorities said was aimed at destabilizing this former Dutch and British colony.
There were no reports of arrests for the Lusignan killings, and President Bharrat Jagdeo urged neighborhood watch groups to report any leads to police.
"(This) could not have been done by human beings but rather by animals," Jagdeo said ahead of meetings with security officials and the military.
There were just over 100 people killed last year in the nation of about 770,000.
Authorities blame much of the crime on the growing drug trade and gun smuggling. Drug trafficking accounts for an estimated 20 percent of Guyana's gross domestic product, according to the U.S. State Department.
Guyana, on the northern coast of South America, is known to many abroad as the site of Jonestown, where American cult leader Jim Jones exhorted his followers to drink cyanide-laced grape punch in 1978. Babies were killed by squirting it into their mouths with syringes. Most adults were poisoned, some forcibly. Some were shot by cult security guards. Hours later, Jones and 912 of his followers were dead.