50 kilos of Coke Decommissioned in Honduras

In recent years, El Faro has posted numerous articles and reports that document organized criminal activities, including drug trafficking, in El Salvador. A few days ago they published a detailed account of Istvan Zachary Sánchez and his August 2012 arrest in Honduras for transporting 50 kilograms of cocaine. The story indicates that Istvan is part of the Texis Cartel that operates out of Metapan and controls a trafficking route from Honduras, through El Salvador, and on to Guatemala.

While there are many unknowns about this case, it offers some details about how traffickers operate and how the authorities respond or fail to respond.

Instead of translating the whole El Faro article from Spanish – it’s pretty long – we thought it better to retell an abbreviated version. If you read Spanish and have the time, the original article is worth reading – here’s a link.

Police stopped Istvan while he was driving down a dirt road in rural Choluteca, Honduras, a province nestled between El Salvador to the west, Nicaragua to the east, and the Gulf of Fonseco to the south. When the police pulled him over they asked what he was doing so far off the main highway. He responded that he had been to the city of Choluteca to visit a girlfriend and was headed back to El Salvador. The police didn’t buy it because the Pan-American Highway would have been his most direct route.

They asked Istvan to step out of the 2005 Hyundai Terracan he was driving so they could search him and the car. At that point he handed the police officer an envelope with $600 (the equivalent to 1 ½ months salary for a Honduran police officer) and asked him to just let him get on his way. El Faro points out that there is a lot of corruption within the Honduran police department, but Istvan had the bad luck of getting pulled over by an officer who was not for sale.

They searched the Hyundai and found 50 kilos of cocaine wrapped in clear plastic and brown tape, and tucked into a hole between the trunk and chassis. The load was valued at $600,000 and $1.2 million. The police charged Istvan with trafficking and put him in the Choluteca jail. He has hired a private attorney and is supposed to have his first hearing before the end of October.

Salvadoran security officials had the Hyundai and license plate (P111-483) on their radar for a while. In April 2012 the Salvadoran Center for Police Intelligence drafted a three-page report in which both the car and the license plate were mentioned in relation to drug trafficking and money laundering, and members of the Texis Cartel, an organized crime network based out of Metapan and Texistepeque, Santa Ana. The report was part of a larger file that had been shared with the top levels of government including the Minister of Security and Justice. It discussed Roberto “El Burro” Herrera, José Adán Salazar (aka Chepe Diablo), and a series of vehicles and people used to transport money and drugs. In May 2011, El Faro published a series of reports/articles on the Texis Cartel – definitely worth a read if you haven’t seen them yet (here’s a link).

The April report says, “also, the vehicle license plate P111-483 has been observed in some transactions; the [Hyundai] was observed in agricultural fairs in which the subjects Burro Herrera and Chepe Diablo participated. The same plate was seen with other vehicles crossing the border at Poy [a border crossing near Metapan where the Texis Cartel is allegedly based].” This seems to directly tie the Hyundai that Istvan was driving and the 50 kilos back to the Texis Cartel in Santa Ana.

After the police arrested Istvan, Choluteca prosecutor Manuel Eduardo Díaz sent the case to the Honduran Office Against Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking, which is supposed to investigate drug trafficking. It’s not clear why, but the investigators sent the case back. Manuel Eduardo Díaz, however, decided to prosecute the case on his own. The situation got a little more complicated, and tragic, when last month assassins shot and killed him in downtown Choluteca. Police made arrests but deny any link between the murder and Istvan or the 50 kilos of cocaine.

Police on both sides of the El Salvador/Honduran border claim they are trying to figure out where the drugs were going, where they had come from, who Istvan was working with, and other questions. But so far the Salvadoran and Honduran authorities have yet to get too far or even discuss the case.

After the arrest, Salvadoran Police visited Istvan’s parents who live near the Cuscatlán stadium in San Salvador – he had listed their home as his permanent address. His family didn’t have any information, just a suitcase with some of his personal papers, which revealed that left for the US when he was 14. They also found that the US Drug Enforcement Agency had a file on him related to drug trafficking. Other documents indicated that Istvan had been incarcerated in the US but released in May 2009.

At the same time police were visiting with Istvan’s family in San Salvador they raided the home of Mario David Rodríguez Linares in San Miguel. In October 0211 he bought the 2005 Hyundai that Istvan had used. He sold it in May 2012 but didn’t register the sale with the Vehicle Registration Office so records indicate that he is still the owner. The search turned up a lot of sales records that have opened up the pool of suspects, but when investigators called Linares to come in to make a statement he never came. It still remains unclear how Istvan had possession of the car.

The April 2012 report ties the license plate on the Hyundai (no P111-483) to a business that helps traffick drugs north and money (from drug sales) south. The police have been watching a car lot in Santa Ana owned by Roberto Antonio Escobar Martínez. He allegedly hides money (millions of dollars) in shipments of cars that are headed for Costa Rica. The car lot is on the same block where earlier this year police arrested Jesús Sanabria (former councilman of Metapan) for trying to sell five kilos of cocaine. The report also says, “Roberto Antonio Escobar Martínez is linked criminally with Roberto Antonio Herrera Hernández, alias El Burro.”

Salvadoran prosecutors say they trying to connect all the pieces and identify how Istvan and his 50 kilos of cocaine fit into the drug trafficking/money laundering networks. Prosecutors investigating the case in El Salvador say they have solicited information from their counterparts in Honduras, but officials in Choluteca say that during the months that they’ve had Istvan no Salvadoran has reached out to them.

El Faro’s article is interesting because it provides a glimpse into the world of trafficking in El Salvador. We hear and read that drug trafficking and money laundering are big problems, but this story provides some insight into what this looks like. It demonstrates that trafficking can be as nondescript as a grey Hyundai driving down a back road.

The article also illustrates how hard it is to stop trafficking. Top ranking security officials in El Salvador have reports that detail who is trafficking, who is laundering money, and when and where shipments are arriving. They have details about the cars they use and the police even caught a guy with a 50-kilo shipment. But not much happens. Istvan got unlucky and got pulled over by a cop who wouldn’t take a bribe. But the Honduran agency that is supposed to take drug trafficking cases refused to investigate and the local prosecutor who was investigating was assassinated. The Salvadoran officials who are “investigating” on one side of the border haven’t even gone to interview Istvan or called to get information about his case.

El Faro Exposes Huge Drug Trafficking Network

Last Monday, May 16, El Faro published a bombshell of a report detailing the activities and connections of the Texis Cartel, an organized crime network that has operated in Santa Ana and Chalatenango since at least 2000. The report exposes what appears to be the largest drug-trafficking network operating in El Salvador, and the involvement of officials from all levels of government.

The El Faro alleges that Salvadoran businessman José Adán Salazar Unaña, also known as “Chepe Diablo,” leads the Texis Cartel (Texis is an abbreviation for the city of Texistepeque located in Santa Ana) along with several local politicians. The Cartel controls the Northern Cocaine Route, also called El Camino or El Caminito. Unlike other organizations that work for one of the large, international cartels, the Texis Cartel operates more like a free agent. They contract with the Sinaloa or Golf Cartels, the Zetas, or anyone else willing to pay them to transport contraband. Shipments of cocaine often arrive by air to the Honduran border where they taken across the Salvadoran border into San Francisco, Chalatenango. The Texis Cartel then moves the shipment through Chalatenango to Metapán, Santa Ana before going on to Guatemala and up to the U.S. markets. In addition to trafficking, the Texis Cartel has an extensive money laundering operation.


(video credit-El Faro)

To ensure it is able to move drugs and other contraband around with impunity, the Cartel pays off police, soldiers, mayors, diputados (representatives in the National Legislative Assembly), farmers, local businesses, street gangs, and others. The police are paid to guard and transport drugs, prevent arrests, and advise others of investigations. Local mayors are paid to approve construction projects, incorporate businesses used for money laundering and fronts for trafficking, and provide information. Street gangs serve as assassins for the Cartel and sell drugs in local markets. Representatives in the National Legislative Assembly provide leaders of the Cartel with access to the highest levels of power in the Salvadoran government. The Cartel also pays off judges and officials in the attorney general’s office to terminate investigations into their activities. Of course, not everyone in the Salvadoran Civil National Police and attorney general’s office is corruptible, but those who have tried to investigate have encountered significant obstacles within their own departments.

The El Faro report also provides information on the Cartel’s leader, Salazar Umaña. The 62-year-old alleged crime boss is a prominent businessman who owns hotels, funds a soccer team in Metapán and is president of a large soccer division. He is also a successful cattle farmer. Over the past five years, Salazar Umaña reported over $30 million in income from his business activities. In 2008 alone, while others were struggling through the global economic crisis, the crime boss reported an income of $9 million. In response to El Faro’s investigation, Salazar Umaña stated that, “When one has struggled all his life to be an honest person, when one cannot even imagine it, they involve him in things that don’t make sense.  We don’t know why they have fabricated these things, we don’t know who invented them or what they hope to gain from it.”

The El Faro report also alleges that Juan Umaña Samayoa, the mayor of Metapán, Santa Ana, is a close associate of Salazar Umaña and another leader of the Texis Cartel. In a video interview posted on the mayor’s official website, Mayor Umaña Sama calls on investigators to look into who is responsible for making these accusations, which he argues are false and only meant to discredit and harm him. The Mayor defends Salazar Umaña as an honorable and hardworking person who knows a lot of people in the community and in the national government. He also says that the people who are responsible for the accusations are people who want to hurt El Salvador and have political motives.


(video credit- Metapanecos.com)

Other prominent politicians mentioned in connection with the Texis Cartel are Armando Portillo Portillo, the mayor of Texistepeque, and Reynaldo Cardoza, who represents the province of Chalatenango in the National Legislative Assembly. So far, all of the politicians named in the case are from the National Conciliation Party (PCN, in Spanish), and they all deny being involved in the Texis Cartel.

Part of the significance of the report is that it provides specific examples of how drug trafficking and organized crime has infiltrated local and national governments, and all other segments of society. While street gangs are blamed for the high rates of violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, they are often used as a smokescreen to hide the activities of the more sophisticated organized crime networks with international connections.  Street gangs are involved, but so are prominent businessmen, mayors, police officers, military soldiers and officers, and officials within the national government.

The Texis Cartel is one network that covers Santa Ana and Chalatenango, but there are surely others. Similar organized crime networks likely operate along the coast, trafficking drugs and other contraband through El Salvador and on to Guatemala and Honduras. Since April, for example, the Salvadoran police and the U.S. DEA uncovered three shipments of chemicals that entered El Salvador through the port in Adcajutla, Sonsonate, and were bound for laboratories in Guatemala that would have used them to produce crystal meth. The size and value of the shipments indicates a sophisticated network of traffickers. Other networks likely control other border regions such as Cabañas, Morazán, San Miguel, and others.

The Texis Cartel seems to have been in operation for over ten years, and, as the El Faro report points out, spanned at least three presidential administrations (Flores, Saca, and Funes) and five directors of the national police. Investigators wrote their first report back in 2000, but only last week did the Supreme Court and President Funes call on the attorney general to investigate or open their own investigation. Last Tuesday, Attorney General Romeo Barahona said that an investigation into the Cartel is underway, but he wouldn’t release any details.

Last week, a reader of the Metapán website commented on Mayor Umaña Samayo’s video response to the accusations, calling on the people of Metapán to open their eyes to the kind of mayor they have. People throughout El Salvador should follow this reader’s advice and determine whether their local governments and national representatives are serving their interests or others. To be certain, some of El Salvador’s local governments are hard working and strive to serve their communities. But upon examination, the citizens of many municipalities would have to come to terms with the common knowledge that their local leaders and even representatives in the national government are corrupt and involved in organized crime.  Only when people begin openly addressing the problem and holding their elected representatives to a higher standard will El Salvador be able to address the detrimental impact that organized criminal networks like the Texis Cartel is having throughout the country.