Corruption, Organized Crime

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.

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Organized Crime, U.S. Relations

Obama Admin designates MS-13 a Transnational Criminal Organization”

On October 11, 2012, the Obama administration designated la Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) a “transnational criminal organization,” allowing federal officials to freeze the gang’s financial assets in the U.S. The goal is to weaken the gang and make their illegal enterprises less profitable. MS-13 is alleged to be involved in drug dealing, drug and human trafficking, prostitution, smuggling, and extortion in the United States and El Salvador. Gang members in the U.S. allegedly generate large profits from these activities and send money to gang leaders in El Salvador. These illegal ventures often entail violence and have earned MS-13 a high ranking among the world’s most violent gangs.

According to the “LA Times,” U.S. financial institutions “are obligated to immediately identify and freeze property or property interests of MS-13 and to report any such blocked assets to the Treasury Department,” said department spokesperson Hagar Chemali. This will make it more difficult to use banks and wire transfers to conduct gang activity. Police in Los Angeles and Washington DC hail the Obama administration’s decision as a necessary and positive step. They believe the scope of the gang’s activities will be diminished if they have fewer financial assets and are unable to use the banking system to transfer and launder money.

Only two other gangs have been labeled transnational criminal organizations: the Mexican Zetas and Japanese Yakuza, and MS-13 is the first gang to have originated in the United States to receive this label. One thing curious about the Obama Administration’s designation is that it targets MS-13 and not 18th Street, one of El Salvador’s other large gangs.

By requiring that banks identify and freeze M3-13 assets, Government officials seem to be giving the banks a lot of authority. They are going to have to have clear guidelines in place to help banks and financial institutions distinguish legitimate targets from hardworking Salvadorans sending money home to their families. Even if there is an appeals process in place for people who believe their assets have been wrongfully seized, many who send money to El Salvador are undocumented and may be afraid to step forward.

Seizing financial assets may prove important for cracking down on organized crime, but it won’t stop illicit activities such as drug trafficking and extortion. What is still lacking is a comprehensive approach to providing legitimate economic and social opportunities for youth so that they have options beyond joining gangs. It requires treating our drug habit as a public health issue and not just a criminal justice problem.

Corruption, Organized Crime, U.S. Relations, violence

Gun Trafficking in El Salvador- Hard to Track, Harder to Stop

One thing is certain about El Salvador – there is no shortage of firearms. Along with explosives, firearms are the leading cause of violent death in the Republic. The frequency of violent attacks, such as the December 8, 2010 hand grenade assault on the City Hall in San Salvador, and recent highly publicized investigations of gun traffickers, such as former Brigadier General Martínez-Guillén, calls for a closer examination of where the weapons come from and how criminals get them.
El Salvador has an extensive and easily accessible black market where buyers can find firearms and explosives of all shapes, sizes and origins, with little interference from law enforcement. The black market is comprised of individual dealers who operate out of their homes, cars, or even the backrooms of local businesses. Most often, black market weapons come from international sources in the US or Europe and are trafficked through Mexico down to El Salvador, or they are stolen out of Salvadoran military or police arsenals.
One of the biggest buyers of illegal weapons is El Salvador’s numerous security firms that protect private and government interests. Though they are legal entities, security firms prefer to purchase arms off the black market to avoid government scrutiny. Security companies have thrived over the years, making millions from Salvadorans who increasingly live in fear of being robbed or killed by the country’s notorious street gangs. These security firms also serve as a large source of weapons for thieves.  In the past two years alone, more than 1,700 weapons have been reported missing by private security companies.

Every year, Salvadorans purchase roughly $20 million in small weapons from the legal market, and approximately two to three times that amount from the black market. Though government officials tend to blame street gangs for the high murder rates that make El Salvador one of the deadliest countries in the world, political scientists and international experts have been questioning whether they could really accomplish the 10-15 murders per day they are blamed for. One of the points they make is that the youth involved in these gangs probably  cannot afford to purchase the high-grade weapons that are often used.

Many of the weapons used in crimes have been in El Salvador for decades, left over from the 12-year civil war that ended in 1992. Despite the United Nations’ numerous efforts to disarm El Salvador following the conflict, a large percentage of wartime weapons continue to be bought and sold on the streets. Additionally, the Salvadoran military’s large arsenals are frequently stolen from, and their weapons end up being sold on the streets. Such weapons include M-16 AK-47 automatic rifles and hand grenades, such as the ones used in attack on San Salvador’s City Hall that killed two and caused $20,000 in damage. Last summer, the Washington Post published an article highlighting the issue of “1980s-era hand grenades, originally distributed to the militaries of El Salvador and Guatemala, making their way onto the black market. Drug cartels have used them in firefights with police and military, and against rival gangs.

As the Wall Street Journal recently explained, large-scale gun traffickers are responsible for a negligible percentage of the weapons in illegal circulation.  Gun theft and small-scale distribution of stolen and found weapons are much more common and even harder to combat, especially since policymakers are focused on the very few large-scale distributors.  Current strategies like this one, and using the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms databases to trace U.S.-made guns used in crimes abroad, turns up fewer than 15 high-volume (more than 250 guns per year) gun trading networks each year.

The Ministry of Defense has uncovered numerous gang plots to steal or illegally buy small numbers of weapons from the armed forces or police.  Traffickers tend to prefer lower-volume sales or thefts, and guns that change hands up to four or five times, making the guns harder to trace, and the buyers harder to find.

The illicit weapons market in El Salvador and other Central American countries is closely tied to drug trafficking. Not only do traffickers use the same routes, but drug traffickers buy weapons to protect their shipments and territories. Most significantly, guns are the most common method of payment for drugs.  One explanation for this lies in the trade equity between the two products. Because guns and drugs are both high-value and low-density items, it is easier to trade based on bartering rather than using currency as a medium of exchange.  Since weapons (especially small, cheap guns) are more abundant than drugs, the higher-ups in the drug trade networks have begun to demand and subsequently gain access to newer, bigger, and more sophisticated weaponry, making the potential for violence even greater.

A recent story that has been widely reported by the Associated Press, the Washington Post, and the Canadian Press, among others, highlights exactly how far this black market reaches.  Three missing M-16 rifles from military barracks sparked an investigation aided by the US Drug Enforcement Agency, which has an office in El Salvador.  The investigation revealed that Brigadier General Hector Antonio Martínez-Guillén was illegally selling arms to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which the United States considers a terrorist organization.  Although the general resigned in May 2010, the DEA spent nearly a year on a sting operation that focused heavily on him.  In a meeting with an undercover agent, Martínez-Guillén agreed to illegally sell rifles after being warned by the agent that they would be used to kill American troops and consultants in Colombia if possible.  This agreement along with a later trip to the US to sell more than $1 million in cocaine in what he believed was a FARC drug deal, put the issue under US jurisdiction.  He was arrested upon arrival to the Washington Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia and has been awaiting trial, which is scheduled for July 29.  Also accused of selling more than 20 pounds of C-4 plastic explosive, he allegedly fully supported the FARC’s cocaine trafficking and Anti-American ideology.  He admitted selling “automatic rifles, ammunition and plastic explosives” to FARC members, but the investigation continues in El Salvador to unearth similar actors in illegal gun trades and narcotrafficking.  His guilty plea came as part of a plea deal in which the prosecution agreed to seek no more than 45 years for terrorism charges.

This case is just one of many that highlights exactly how far the illegal black market for weapons extends. The cooperation between the Salvadoran authorities and US agencies was instrumental in this case, and it shows one way this widespread and dangerous trade can be confronted.  The case is also a good sign, showing that El Salvador may be beginning to take seriously both illegal arms deals and military officials acting outside the law.

Corruption, El Salvador Government, Organized Crime, transparency

Update on Inspector General of the PNC, Zaira Navas

Since last week when we posted an article about the Legislative Assembly’s plans to form of a Special Commission to investigate the Investigator General of the National Civil Police (PNC) Zaira Navas, several top ranking officials, including Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes have spoken out on her behalf. Members of the Legislative Assembly, including Diputado José Antonio Almendáriz, accuse Navas of improperly investigating Police Commissioner Douglas Omar Garcia Funes, former Commissioner Godofredo Miranda, ex-Director of Police Ricardo Menesses, and many others for corruption and ties to organized crime and drug trafficking.

During the legislative session last Thursday, the 45 votes in favor of the Special Commission were enough to move ahead with the investigation of the Inspector General. While no left-wing FMLN diputados voted in favor of the special commission, 45 right-wing ARENA, PCN, PDC, and Gana legislators supported it.

Yesterday, President Funes expressed his support for Navas, confirming that she has only followed the guidelines he gave her in conducting a thorough “cleaning’ of the PNC. Simialrly, the Minister of Justice and Security, Manuel Melgar, has claimed that the commission may be unconstitutional and should not be permitted to go forward. Even Carlos Ascencio, the Director of the PNC, defended Navas, saying that she was simply following the lines of investigations that President Funes had ordered. The Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights has also stated “we must respect the work of the Inspector General.”

Government Agencies in El Salvador have operated in the shadows for a little too long.  A little sunshine every now and then is good for everyone, unless they have something to hide.

Corruption, El Salvador Government

A Message to El Salvador’s Diputados: When Death Threats Fail; Form a Special Commission.

El Faro photograph of Zaira Navas

This week, Diputado José Antonio Almendáriz from the conservative National Conciliation Party (PCN) proposed that the Legislative Assembly Security Commission form a special commission to investigate Zaira Navas, Inspector General of the National Civil Police (PNC).  Diputado Almendáriz is challenging Navas’s very clear mandate to investigate Police Commissioners accused of corruption or criminal activities.

Since 2009, Inspector General Navas has made news for her office’s investigations of PNC Commissioner Douglas Omar García Funes, former Commisioner Godofredo Miranda, ex-Director General of Police Ricardo Menesses, among others. Commissioner García Funes is the chief of the Counter Transnational Gang Center and is suspected of drug trafficking. According to an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, the Commissioner used his officers to provide security for shipments of drugs as they pass through El Salvador, and ensured that other police agencies would not interfere. Godofredo Miranda was accused, among other things, of botching an investigation into drug traffickers arrested under his command. Ricardo Menesses was forced to resign his post last year due to allegations that he has ties to high-ranking gang leaders and organized criminals.

Late last year, Inspector General Navas began receiving death threats for her investigations. The threats were so serious that U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, who has had an interest in El Salvador for many years, wrote a letter to President Funes asking that he provide her with adequate protection so that she is able to complete her investigations. The threats did not deter Navas and her office continued its work.

Diputado Almendáriz justifies the need for a special commission claiming that 20 of the police officials that she is investigating have been cleared of the charges against them, and that she is targeting them because they are all former members of the Salvadoran Armed Forces. Citing the case of Godofredo Miranda, he said, “this is the case of Commissioner Miranda, which has already been dismissed, and the Police Inspector is still looking to gather evidence. She has been investigating for a year without results.”

It is curious that Diputado Almendáriz is worried about the Inspector General’s office investigations into allegations of drug trafficking and organized crime. He is the President of the Legislative Assembly’s Security Commission (the full title of which is the Commission on Public Security and Combating Drug Activity).  His mandate complements that of Navas’s.  He also represents Sonsonate in the Legislative Assembly, which has one of the highest crime rates and is allegedly a main transit points for drug traffickers entering El Salvador on their way to Guatemala and up to the United States. One would assume it is in his interest to investigate high-ranking police officers accused of trafficking drugs.

The Diputado, however, does have a history of cover-ups. The El Salvador Truth Commission, which among other things investigated war crimes during the civil war, found that then Lieutenant Colonel José Antonio Almendáriz was in command of the troops who executed Begoña Garcia Arandigoven, a 24-yeard old Spanish doctor, and that he “covered up the crime with the collaboration of the National Police Third Command Santa Ana Unit.

Threats did not seem to deter Investigator General Navas last year. We hope that the Special Commission doesn’t get in her way either.