Enrique Lemus, head of the town's police, said her arm was cut off, her eyes gouged out and her body carved up and the skin on her chest removed in what looked like an attempt to steal her heart and kidneys.

An angry mob went house to house looking for three women they thought committed the murder.

Rural fears

"Some neighbours said they saw one woman kidnap the little girl. That's how they figured these women were responsible," Lemus said.

 

"Then at least 2,000 people went out looking for them. It was the entire town."

Recinos was subsequently beaten to death in the town square but police rescued the other two women but only after one woman was doused with petrol and set on fire.

She is now recovering in hospital and the third woman is being held in prison.

There is a deep fear in rural Guatemala of children being stolen to sell them or their organs for transplants, although this is often based on rumor and unfounded stories.

Lynch mobs have killed hundreds of people in the poor Central American country since 1996, when it signed peace accords to end a 36-year civil war that left a quarter of a million people dead or missing.

Many experts blame the vigilante justice on exposure to violence during the war, combined with a lack of faith in the criminal justice system.