Guatemalan Drug Kingpin ‘Chamalé’ Arrest ‘Strengthens Rule of Law’

By Dialogo
May 13, 2011

When Guatemala’s most wanted drug trafficker was captured last month by
Guatemalan agents in the town of Quetzaltenango, Interior Minister Carlos Menocal
could not have been happier.
“We believe that this arrest is of fundamental importance for strengthening
the rule of law” in Guatemala’s border area, Menocal said at a news conference
following Juan Alberto “Chamalé" Ortíz López’s capture. “San Marcos is a department
that has suffered from drug trafficking and from traffickers’ violent actions.
Therefore, we believe that with this arrest, we’re taking steps to strengthen the
rule of law.”
Ortíz López, arrested March 30, had achieved near-mythic status in recent
years. Controlling vast swaths of the department of San Marcos — from the border
town of Tecún Umán to the Pacific coast municipality of Ocos — he allegedly acted as
Guatemala’s chief middleman for cocaine coming up from Colombia, unloading it and
then sending along northward with his Mexican partners.
Charged in a federal arrest warrant issued in Tampa, Fla., with two counts of
conspiracy to distribute cocaine, “Chamalé” travelled through his fiefdom in a
brazen convoy of a dozen cars and to boast a personal fortune of more than $100
million, authorities said. Now, he faces a possible life sentence if convicted on
all charges.
“For over a decade, Ortíz López’s drug organization received multi-ton
cocaine shipments in Guatemala, which would then be transported through Mexico to
the United States, where the cocaine would be further distributed,” U.S. Attorney
Robert O’Neill told the Associated Press.
The 41-year-old Ortíz López had been under surveillance for seven days during
the operation by Guatemalan intelligence agents and the U.S. Drug Enforcement
Agency, according to Menocal. He was captured six months after one of his reputed
top lieutenants was arrested as part of the same probe, the AP reported.
His arrest prompted authorities to confiscate 14 properties registered in
Ortiz López’s name. But it also led an estimated 4,000 people to demonstrate in the
municipality of San Marcos in favor of his release — and now, Guatemala’s battle
against drug trafficking and its handmaiden, organized crime, appears as tangled as
Two months after the government of Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom lifted a
60-day siege in the northern department of Alta Verapaz, violence is again on the
upswing. The rest of the country — the most populous in Central America —serves as a
battleground among various factions of Mexican cartels pushed south by President
Felipe Calderón’s campaign against drug traffickers. Also being targeted are
Guatemala’s indigenous criminal groups.
This past autumn in Guatemala was particularly bloody, with mass casualty
shootouts becoming a frequent occurrence. In September, a gun battle raged for 30
minutes inside Guatemala City’s posh Tikal Futura mall. It ostensibly erupted when
Guatemalan police attempted to capture a wanted drug trafficker who had been spotted
there. Two policemen and an evangelical minister were killed.
That same month, three more were killed during an intense gun battle in the
eastern department of Zacapa. On Oct. 6, the Guatemalan military confronted a 10-car
convoy of armed men believed to be members of the Mexican cartel known as Los Zetas,
in a series of encounters that left five dead in Grano de Oro. That town is located
in the El Petén region along Guatemala’s border with Mexico.
Since their first appearance in Guatemala in late 2007, Los Zetas seared
themselves into the national consciousness with the March 2008 killing of Juan
“Juancho” José León Ardón in the eastern state of Zacapa. A suspected local drug
lord, León Ardón was gunned down along with 10 others in a wild shootout that left
16 semi-automatic assault rifles littered on the road near the bodies. Since then,
Los Zetas has established a strong presence across the country, but especially in
the departments of El Petén and Alta Verapaz in the north, and Izabal in the east.
The Zetas and, to a lesser extent, the Cartel de Sinaloa of Joaquín “El
Chapo” [Shorty] Guzmán, based in the Mexican city of Culiacán, have found fertile
ground for their endeavors amidst a state that is as fragile as Guatemala’s terrain
is rugged.
More people are killed annually these days than in the past few years of
Guatemala’s 30-year civil war, with the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias
Sociales [Latin America College of Social Sciences] estimating Guatemala’s homicide
rate at 53 per 100,000 — far surpassing Mexico’s 26 per 100,000.
While visiting nearby El Salvador last month, U.S. President Barack Obama
announced $200 million in funding to combat drug trafficking and insecurity in the
Guatemala now has its most capable and activist attorney general in recent
memory: Claudia Paz y Paz Bailey. A criminal law specialist who helped establish the
Instituto de Estudios Comparados de Ciencias Penales de Guatemala, Paz will almost
certainly be an asset to elements within Guatemala’s crime-fighting security
In 2007, Guatemala formed the International Commission Against Impunity in
Guatemala (known by its Spanish acronym CICIG). This is a United Nations-mandated
body charged with investigating clandestine organizations and exposing corruption.
Until June of this year, CICIG was under the direction of Carlos Castresana,
a magistrate experienced at prosecuting drug-related cases in Mexico and
investigating corruption in his native Spain. Since Castresana’s resignation last
year, CICIG has been led by Francisco Dall’Anese Ruíz, the former attorney general
of Costa Rica. The agency has targeted a variety of high-profile drug and corruption
cases, including a pivotal one against former President Alfonso Portillo — the first
of its kind in Guatemalan history.