El Salvador Dismantles Organized Crime Structure
By Lorena Baires/Diálogo March 23, 2017“Along the Salvadoran coast, a group of artisan fishermen would abandon their nets at night to support a drug-trafficking structure that supplied the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel so they could move cocaine from Ecuador to Guatemala,” the Salvadoran Attorney General’s Office and the National Civil Police (PNC, per its Spanish acronym) announced. The group was dismantled the morning of February 6th during an operation in the departments of La Libertad, Sonsonate, and San Salvador. “The shipments came from Ecuador and arrived in the Salvadoran Pacific, where artisan boatmen took care of supplying the fuel to the go-fast boats, as well as the transfer of cargo to Iztapa, Guatemala,” Howard Cotto, general director of PNC, told Diálogo. Twenty-eight fishermen were arrested during the operation; six fugitives remain. In addition, a fleet of 14 boats, 10 outboard motors, GPS systems, electronic tablets, cell phones, four vehicles, cash, and several weapons were seized. The clue linking the structure to the Sinaloa Cartel came in December 2015, when Task Force Tridente of the Salvadoran Navy (FNES, per its Spanish acronym), seized a total of 400 kilos of cocaine in the department of La Libertad. The market value was $10 million. The tridents are part of an elite group working to dismantle drug-trafficking structures that attempt to smuggle drugs into North America. The information they gathered pointed investigators to this area. “Drug-trafficking structures now move in small boats, which they use to distribute the drugs. Our high concentration and training allow us to pursue them all at the same time, using more resources in a more efficient manner,” said Captain René Merino, FNES chief of General Staff. FNES engages in constant information exchange with international narcotics agencies, alerting them to routes taken by suspicious vessels. That was how they discovered that drug traffickers had handoff points at the border between Guatemala and Mexico, as well as between El Salvador and Guatemala. “These local structures provided support to move the illicit substances that were headed north, especially to the department of San Marcos, Guatemala. There are several places where drugs would be received in order to be transferred [by] land,” Salvadoran Minister of Justice and Public Security Mauricio Ramírez, explained to Diálogo. Beach houses, supply points One of these places was San Diego Beach in the department of La Libertad. During the 70s and 80s, many huge beach houses were built in the area. Now, neighbors say that many of them have been abandoned because the owners have moved out. But the ones by the beachfront open their doors to the hundreds of tourists looking for some fun on the weekends. At night, some of these residences become supply points for structures linked to organized crime. Manuel Pérez, a 45-year-old fisherman originally from San Diego Beach, was offered the opportunity to take part in a “business” a few months ago but rejected the offer. “A neighbor came to tell me they were paying for people to fill up cans of gasoline and also supply a few motorboats. When I asked them who they were and what they were doing, he told me they were moving drugs,” he told Diálogo. Everaldo Linares, another area fisherman, confirmed that he saw motorboats docking at those houses at night. Although he never saw them move any items or packages, he did witness the refueling of gas. “It was strange to see motorboats coming several nights per week only to fill their tanks with gas. If they were fishermen, they would have returned in the morning with fish. But no, you would only see them at night,” he said while repairing his fishing net. The network’s bosses The Attorney General’s Office confirmed that the head of this structure in El Salvador, José Leónidas Gómez Cuéllar, also known as “Pepe,” would purchase vehicles and motorboats in the name of third parties. He also managed country houses where they unloaded drugs and met to plan their routes. Planning was coordinated by Marlon Monroy, also known as “El Fantasma,” [“the Ghost”], who was arrested on April 30, 2016, and extradited to the United States in November. He was accused of “collecting” the drugs and receiving illicit goods along various routes, or “lines.” “They managed this while associated to the Sinaloa Cartel, mainly ‘The Ghost,’ who was extradited to the United States,” Salvadoran Attorney General Douglas Meléndez said. The international criminal group was discovered in December 2015, when Guatemalan authorities arrested Ana Lucrecia Muñoz, who was transporting $1 million hidden in several secret compartments in her vehicle. On February 8th, she was sentenced to 14 years in prison and given a $997,020 fine. On February 11th, the justice of the peace in Puerto de La Libertad sent all the arrested fishermen to prison because he deemed there to be sufficient evidence of their participation in this structure. The Attorney General’s Office now has six months to gather more evidence. Thanks to their alert, the dismantling of the structure will be added to the list of the tridents’ successful outcomes. Thanks to this elite group, 7,465 kilos of cocaine were confiscated last year, an outstanding number for an elite unit successfully dealing with the challenges of confronting drug traffickers and the sea with limited resources.