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Textiles Contraband Surges in Colombia as Convenient Money Laundering Tactic

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Textiles valued at more than 10 billion pesos (some $2,600,866) were confiscated in Bogota, the capital of Colombia.

Fashion continues to fuel money laundering in Colombia, generating millions in losses for the country’s textile industry.

During the last few days in September, several anti-contraband operations raided stores in the neighborhoods of Los Mártires and 7 de Agosto in the capital city of Bogotá, leading to textile seizures valued at more than 10 billion pesos (some $2.6 million). 

Some 322,000 articles of contraband clothing were seized in a joint operation by the police, the army, the Attorney General’s Office and the National Tax and Customs Department (Dirección de Impuestos y Aduana Nacionales – DIAN). Apparently, the merchandise belonged to a criminal gang linked to the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and the Urabeños, Noticias Uno reported.

In a report earlier this year, the magazine Dinero estimated that money laundered through contraband in Colombia was now equivalent to 7.5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).

SEE ALSO: Textiles and Organized Crime: How Everyday Products Turn Criminal Profits

The deputy director of support management for the Fiscal and Customs Police (Policía Fiscal y Aduanera – POLFA), Lieutenant Colonel Hernán Cortés Dueñas, indicated in January this year that “drug trafficking is being paid with contraband goods, and this criminal dynamic connecting the two is particularly serious for a country like ours that has 70 percent of the world’s coca leaf production.”

Between 2018 and 2019, Colombia experienced a 337 percent increase in textile contraband, according to statistics from POLFA.

InSight Crime Analysis

The smuggling of clothing began to take force during the 1990s as the Colombian economy expanded. The free trade zone in Colón in neighboring Panama became a money-laundering paradise thanks to contraband smuggling, as traffickers bought large quantities of textiles with tax benefits before smuggling them into Colombian territory.

Room for further textile contraband schemes came with the start of a free trade agreement between Colombia and the United States in 2012. In 2016, the Sinaloa Cartel, for example, reportedly laundered criminal proceeds by smuggling Chinese textile goods into Colombia by way of the United States, thanks to the benefits derived from the free trade agreement.

SEE ALSO: Sinaloa Cartel Laundered Money in Colombia Using Textiles: Report

The textile sector, a key Colombian industry, has been negatively affected for several years by the massive arrival of Asian clothing. These items enter the market with a value set at lower than the production price of the domestic textile industry. According to POLFA, the Colombian textile industry is losing about $3 billion per year due to contraband. 

This is not a problem unique to Colombia. In Mexico, two out of every three articles of clothing purchased in the country entered illegally, while in Argentina, textile goods and illegal commerce flow freely across the country’s borders with Bolivia and Paraguay.

Guatemala Prosecutors Link Dirty Money to Former Minister

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José Luis Benito Ruiz, former President Jimmy Morales’ minister of communications, infrastructure and housing

Guatemalan prosecutors said a multimillion-dollar cash seizure has been linked to a high-ranking minister who served under former President Jimmy Morales, making him the second official from that administration to face money laundering charges this year — and the first in Guatemala. 

On October 20, the Attorney General’s Office issued an arrest warrant for José Luis Benito Ruiz, who served as Morales’ minister of communications, infrastructure and housing between 2018 and 2020.

The announcement came just days after the anti-impunity unit (Fiscalía Especializada Contra la Impunidad — FECI) within the Attorney General’s Office seized 122,351,456 quetzales (around $15.5 million) in cash found in 22 suitcases inside a home in the colonial city of Antigua. 

SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profiles

According to prosecutors, Benito Ruiz was found to have leased the property with an option to purchase it just one month after leaving public office.

The Attorney General’s Office said in a news release that the “anonymity” of the cash makes it “very attractive” for “criminal activity,” especially considering that it never passed through any financial institution.

Benito Ruiz is currently a fugitive and authorities have requested Interpol issue an international red notice for his arrest.

The former minister is not the only official that worked under President Morales (2016-2020) to face criminal charges. Acisclo Valladares Urruela, Morales’ former economics minister, was indicted by US authorities in August 2020 for allegedly laundering almost $10 million in “drug proceeds and other ill-gotten money” that was used to bribe politicians between 2014 and 2018.

InSight Crime Analysis

Benito Ruiz was one of President Morales’ closest confidants and advisors, which raises questions about whether the probe may eventually touch others in the former president’s inner circle. 

Indeed, when Morales gave a speech in early 2019 months after ousting the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala  — CICIG), Benito Ruiz was among the officials standing in the first row behind him in support.

The former president leaned heavily on his closest allies in his efforts to push out the CICIG, which had been heralded for its prosecution of former President Otto Pérez Molina (2012-2015), and his vice president at the time, Roxana Baldetti, on corruption charges. Formed in 2007, the CICIG also prosecuted massive illicit campaign financing and graft cases. But Morales orchestrated the demise of the CICIG after its investigations touched his own family and allies.

SEE ALSO: 5 Takeaways from CICIG, Guatemala’s Anti-Corruption Experiment

Since the CICIG’s ouster, Guatemala’s anti-impunity unit has been left to stand alone amid attacks on its authority. Attorney General María Consuelo Porras recently gave the green light to move forward with legal complaints levied against FECI director Juan Franciso Sandoval and two other prosecutors within the unit.

In a news release, the Attorney General’s Office stressed that the move was not an attempt to weaken the FECI. Judicial advocates and more than 75 civil society organizations across the country, however, said otherwise. FECI has also been removed from several high-level investigations.

The inquiry into Benito Ruiz is still in its early stage, but FECI’s willingness to dig into the seized cash shows that the battered unit may still take on investigations into alleged criminal wrongdoing by the country’s business and political elites, even without the CICIG.

Guatemala’s Ministry of Communications, Infrastructure and Housing has become a sort of hub for graft in recent years. Five former ministers across four different administrations have been accused of corruption since 2000, three of which are charged with misusing public funds, according to Prensa Libre.

Whether Benito Ruiz’s case will be allowed to move forward, though, will be telling.

Colombia’s Doubtful Progress Against Landmines

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An improvised explosive device found in La Venta, Colombia

An army official has touted significant progress in clearing landmines in Colombia, but their expanded use by criminal groups has undercut demining efforts and has led to a sharp rise in the number of victims in recent years.

Colonel Hoover Yarley Ríos, commander of the Humanitarian Demining Brigade (Brigada de Desminado Humanitario), reported in late September that soldiers had cleared 7,000 landmines and other explosive artifacts, according to El Nuevo Siglo.

He told the news outlet that he hoped to see “in the not too distant future a Colombia free of the suspicion of contamination by anti-personnel mines.”

Colombia has devoted more manpower to clearing the country of landmines. The number of deminers assigned to the brigade stood at some 4,500 in 2019, a massive increase from  2011, when there were only 360.

Despite these efforts, the number of people killed or wounded by landmines jumped from 57 in 2017 to 352 in 2019, according to figures from the International Red Cross.

SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles

This year has seen a 7 percent decrease in landmine injuries and deaths compared to the same period last in 2019. The drop, though, comes amid heavy restrictions on movement due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Demining efforts are also hindered by criminal groups, which have threatened soldiers involved in clearing landmines. In September, a widely reported video showed a group of 20 soldiers with the demining brigade held hostage in Tuluá, Valle del Cauca.

The video shows soldiers lying face down as they are lectured by an individual who identifies himself as being with the Adán Izquierdo Front, a cell made up of ex-members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). The front is one of many criminalized FARC groups, known collectively as the ex-FARC Mafia, whose fighters refused to demobilize after the 2016 peace agreement with the Colombian government.

As a signatory to the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty in 1997, Colombia pledged to rid the country of landmines by 2021. However, the government has fallen far behind its target.  The Colombian government has requested its timeline to clear the country of landmines be extended to 2025.

InSight Crime Analysis

While the government’s efforts have achieved progress against mines already planted in Colombia, new mines are being laid down by criminal actors, making it difficult for the increasingly threatened demining workers to keep up.

Some of the offenders replanting mines include the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) guerrilla group and the Urabeños, a paramilitary and drug trafficking gang, according to a recent report by the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation (Fundación Paz y Reconciliación — PARES)

The two groups have been locked in a battle for control over territory in the department of Chocó since the FARC demobilized, and both groups have been accused of planting mines to prevent the other from advancing on their territory.

Last year, authorities seized almost 600 landmines belonging to Los Urabeños in Chocó.

SEE ALSO: Urabeños Landmines are Guerrilla Tactic from Colombia’s Dark Past

The increase in coca crops is also to blame for the surge in mines planted. As in the past, there remains a very strong correlation between the placement of landmines and coca plantations.

In the first six months of 2020, 78 percent landmine victims were located in just four of Colombia’s departments: Antioquia, Norte de Santander, Nariño, and Cauca.

The departments are among those with the highest levels of coca cultivation, and new landmines have reportedly been planted to prevent current coca crop eradication campaigns.

What Lies Behind Armed Robbery of Cancer Drugs in Mexico City?

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Mexico's black market for medicine continues to thrive amid the pandemic.

A massive robbery of nearly 38,000 cancer drugs from a warehouse in Mexico City points to a growing sophistication in the country’s lucrative black market for medicine, with those involved reacting to specific shortages and carrying out highly targeted operations.

On October 17, authorities in Mexico City announced the arrest of two suspects after they were spotted discarding 27 plastic bags in the streets of Azcapotzalco, a municipality located in the capital. Officials later confirmed the bags were filled with some 8,000 boxes of five different pediatric oncology medications, about a fifth of the drugs taken in the robbery 10 days earlier on October 7, according to a news release.

The anti-cancer drugs, specifically licensed to treat children, were taken from a warehouse in Mexico City’s district of Iztapalapa, according to Mexico’s Federal Commission for the Protection against Sanitary Risk (Comisión Federal para la Protección contra Riesgos Sanitarios — COFEPRIS).

Between 10 to 15 armed men arrived at the warehouse before dawn in five vehicles. Two hours later, they left with the drugs in hand, according to C4NoticiasMx.

SEE ALSO: Mexico Still Struggling to Curb Illegal Medicine Epidemic

The gunmen threatened, beat, and restrained warehouse workers before locking them up, according to the media outlet, which had access to confidential documents from Mexico City’s Attorney General’s Office.

Although the warehouse belonged to private pharmaceutical company Novag Infancia, the armed group targeted drugs intended for exclusive use by public health agencies, COFEPRIS announced in its health alert.

The drugs “cannot be attained in private pharmacies, private hospitals or via the internet and social media networks,” COFEPRIS announced in its health alert.

The regulator added that such medicines should not be used by the public, stating that their safety could no longer be guaranteed, as a result of their unknown transport and storage conditions since being taken from the warehouse.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador later said the stolen drugs had originally come from Argentina and were particularly difficult to acquire.

Mexico has been increasingly importing such medicines from abroad, in the midst of domestic production complications, which have included bacterial infections and poor production practices discovered by COFEPRIS at manufacturing plants.

The nation has also seen a recent spate of high-profile thefts of medical goods, including a highway robbery of over 10,000 doses of flu vaccine for the public health sector. Gunmen also intercepted a truck carrying 20 dialysis machines in Mexico City.

InSight Crime Analysis

While the robbery of the cancer drugs was particularly striking in terms of its scale and sophistication, widespread shortages in Mexico of expensive drugs used to treat chronic diseases could be leading desperate buyers to the country’s already substantial black market for medicine.

SEE ALSO: El Mencho’s Hospital Rare Example of Infrastructure Built by Mexico Cartels

Andrés Castañeda Prado, coordinator of health and wellbeing at the anti-corruption group Nosotrxs, told InSight Crime that thefts intended to feed the black market usually take place on a significantly smaller scale, with many stolen products destined for use in legally registered private clinics.

“To reduce costs, the clinics use stolen supplies,” he commented, adding that such businesses typically collaborate with intermediaries who have access to the black market.

However, the volume of medication stolen in the cancer-drug robbery indicates the group responsible knew when and where to strike and specific products to target, strongly suggesting the gunmen had inside information and a guaranteed buyer lined up.

While recognizing that this robbery was highly unusual, Castañeda claimed current market conditions make such operations possible in Mexico.

Earlier this year, Nosotrxs published a report on how health institutions across Mexico had been struggling to access critical drugs, most notably those used to treat severe chronic illnesses and immunologic diseases. The study recognized that over a quarter of medication shortages recorded in the nation came from Mexico City alone.

The AMLO administration has faced increasing criticism for medical scarcities since it made changes to how medical products could be purchased last year.

Castañeda also confirmed reports that shortages of anti-cancer drugs had risen significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The armed group in question stole just under 3,000 doses worth of daunorubicin, a chemotherapy drug that is taken via intravenous injection, and over 4,000 packets of dacarbazine, another chemotherapy drug that must be administered by a trained medical professional to avoid malicious side effects.

If a patient were to arrive at a hospital with one of these products, even if sourced from the black market, his or her doctor might administer it without question, due to similarities between medication destined for the public health sector and that circulating on the private market, according to Castañeda.

“Nobody is going to question the patient. They can scratch off the label or erase it,” he said.

Patients in such severe cases would also likely already have a close, trusting relationship with their doctor, Castañeda added.

“There is a market for these medicines, because if somebody with economic resources has a sick child, they will do whatever it takes to find the medicine,” he said.

Enemies to Allies – How Venezuela Decides Which Criminal Groups Thrive

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FAES personnel deployed in Lara state

The Venezuelan government and security forces have spent the last few months building up a criminal known as Santanita and his gang as one of their major targets, while other dangerous groups continue to act with near impunity.

This paradox is the product of a security structure designed for the mutual benefit of the government and specific criminal allies.

Josúe Ángel Santana Peña, alias “Santanita,” is a wanted man. His gang, mostly dedicated to extortion in the populous northern state of Lara, has been a major focus for the government in recent months. He caught the attention of authorities and the media when his gang reportedly began detonating explosives at car dealerships in the state capital of Barquisimeto. And in video messages on social media, Santanita’s members threatened dealership owners to pay up before suffering similar consequences. The gang has even been closely tied to Tren de Aragua, Venezuela’s largest homegrown criminal group.

The response from law enforcement was swift. Security forces have ramped up operations against the gang since May, reportedly managing to capture more than 20 alleged members and killing at least 28 more. Santanita himself remains at large.

Since May, articles and officials have stated that Santanita was “spreading terror,” that he had become a “national target,” and that “no stone was left unturned” in the search for him.

There is little doubt that Santanita poses a very real criminal threat. But the clamor around his operations is familiar.

Carefully Chosen Targets

Shortly before Santanita began to dominate headlines, another gang leader was under a similar spotlight, Wilexis Alexander Acevedo, alias “Wilexis.” 

Earlier this year, Wilexis, who has dominated the slum of José Félix Ribas in the town of Petare, outside Caracas, since 2017, became one of the most wanted men in the country. This followed a number of instances when residents in José Félix Ribas rioted in response to violence from Venezuela’s Special Action Forces (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales – FAES), blamed for 43 deaths in Petare between January and September 2019. According to El Pitazo, Wilexis was one of the key organizers, sending WhatsApp messages to local residents telling them to support the protests.

In early May, President Nicolás Maduro got personally involved. He accused Wilexis of working for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and of having started clashes in order to distract security forces from the failed Operation Gideon in April, when a group of men, including former US soldiers, landed in Venezuela ostensibly to capture Maduro. Venezuela’s interior and justice ministers were ordered to capture Wilexis. But five months on, only a handful of arrests have been made. Wilexis remains free and no longer appears to be a priority target.

SEE ALSO: The Hunt for ‘Wilexis’ – Manufactured Mayhem in Petare, Venezuela

Wilexis and Santanita are only the latest in a list of criminals to temporarily top the government’s priority list. Some have been arrested, some have never been caught and some have been accused of crimes they may never have committed.

One example was that of Wilfredo Torres Gómez, alías “Necoclí,” former leader of Los Rastrojos in Venezuela’s border state of Táchira. Torres Gómez was already a wanted man in Colombia for drug trafficking, contraband and weapons trafficking. But when Venezuelan law enforcement captured him in March 2019, Maduro suddenly linked him to opposition parties and accused him of planning “terrorist acts.” No evidence for such charges was ever made public.

But attacks on Los Rastrojos, who had established control of a range of criminal economies along the Colombia-Venezuela border, have continued ever since. Freddy Bernal, a Maduro favorite named the “Protector of Táchira,” has posted regularly on Twitter about operations against the group, and he has called them “terrorists.” Los Rastrojos have also been fighting a losing battle against the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), which has been gaining steady control over the border. The guerrilla group, however, has not faced similar resistance from Venezuelan forces. Karim Vera, an opposition party member in Táchira, accused Bernal of hiring ELN members to fight against Los Rastrojos.

There has long been speculation about an alliance between the ELN and the Venezuelan government. In its 2019 Country Reports on Terrorism, the United States stated that “Maduro and his associates use criminal activities to help maintain their illegitimate hold on power, fostering a permissive environment for…the ELN.” InSight Crime has previously reported on the ELN paying off Venezuelan armed forces to protect their interests, including illegal mining and fuel smuggling.

Permission to Exercise Control and Violence

Police forces moved quickly against Santanita. But other gangs, working in similar criminal economies and on a comparable scale to Santanita, have often been left alone. One example is the gang led by Carlos Luis Revete, alias “El Coqui,” operating in the poor Caracas neighborhood known as Cota 905. In 2015, Cota 905 was named a “Peace Zone,” part of a national security program that kept police out of certain areas as long as gangs there kept the peace. The measure allowed for the evolution of “megabandas,” large gangs with over 100 members, and the consolidation of their control over local communities. After this status was revoked, there were unconfirmed reports that Revete personally met inside Cota 905 in August 2017 with Delcy Rodríguez, then the president of Venezuela’s National Constituent Assembly and current Vice President, to restore the Peace Zone.

While there have been occasional clashes between El Coqui’s gang members and security forces since then, a recent event showed why Revete is believed to enjoy near-complete impunity.

On August 25, members of the group allegedly attempted to seize control of a shooting range at municipal police headquarters in Caracas, when they were confronted by security forces. A shootout ensued, in which a FAES member was killed and two police officers were wounded. Not a single member of the gang was captured, according to media reports. Further allegations that security forces were ordered to pull out were denied by FAES officials.

The director of the FAES, José Miguel Domínguez, promised a robust response, but no operations targeting the El Coqui gang were reported in the following weeks. This was but the latest example of Revete seemingly being above the law. In July 2019, members of the criminal investigation unit (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas – CICPC) were fired upon inside Cota 905 and then ordered to leave the area.

One breakout of violence between FAES and El Coqui’s gang did occur on September 22, 2020. Two gang members were allegedly killed, according to press reports, but there has been no official confirmation on the matter or the circumstances surrounding it.

El Coqui and Wilexis exercise similar levels of control in troubled neighborhoods and appear to command significant degrees of loyalty. In Petare, Wilexis has been described as a “Robin Hood,” providing residents with food and defending them in the face of abuses by the FAES. The same comparisons have been made of El Coqui.

One could argue that Venezuela’s security forces simply lack the resources to dismantle organized criminal groups as entrenched as those of El Coqui or Wilexis. But the effectiveness of other operations against different groups, such as the prolonged campaign against Los Rastrojos, shows this capacity does exist.

No Mercy

In mid-September, a gang known as El Sindicato del Perú issued a plea for peace. Known for illegal gold mining activities around El Callao in the state of Bolívar, the gang released a video appealing “to the national government…as we are in a senseless war to defend our human rights.”

This small, local gang has been on the back foot for much of 2020 after repeated clashes with armed forces that have left a number of its members dead. Opposition deputy Americo de Grazia posted on Twitter that, similar to Los Rastrojos, security forces were pushing out El Sindicato del Perú to let the ELN take over El Callao.

The plea appears to have fallen on deaf ears. Less than a week after the video, the government pressed its advantage against the group, arresting several members and seizing weapons and grenades.

Drug Tunnel Discovery Highlights Battle for Mexico City’s Largest Market

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Mexico City's Central de Abasto is one of the world's largest markets

The recent discovery of drug tunnels underneath Mexico City’s largest market reveals how criminal groups continue to compete to control a site that has long been a major hub of illicit activity. 

An October 9 raid on the sprawling Central de Abasto market uncovered several tunnels used to transport drugs between warehouses. 

Authorities also detained 17 people during a search of three properties and seized drugs — including cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamines — 36 slot machines, one firearm, cash and several vehicles, according to a news release from Mexico City officials.

One group targeted in the raid was the Fuerza Anti-Unión. The gang reportedly installed 50 members in the market to control drug sales and extortion rackets, according to Milenio. Gang members are suspected of working with the powerful Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG), which allegedly supplied them with weapons, according to local media reports.

Concerning the CJNG, city authorities stated Mexico’s largest criminal group did not operate in the capital directly but had allied itself with “various criminal groups” at different times.

The raid was part of a year-long investigation, known as “Operation Zócalo,” that disrupted the criminal activities of 14 groups in Mexico City, according to a separate news release. More than 1,300 bank accounts were frozen as part of the operation, and some 400 suspects were arrested. 

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

Central de Abasto is home to thousands of businesses and is one of the world’s largest markets. The massive commercial activity has made it a historic hub for contraband, micro-trafficking, money laundering, extortion, kidnapping and more.

InSight Crime Analysis

The raid seems to support recent evidence that the Fuerza Anti-Unión, potentially backed by CJNG allies, has made temporary gains in Central de Abasto. But a market of this size is unlikely to be controlled for long, or in its totality, by a single group. 

Until relatively recently, another gang, La Unión Tepito, appeared to have been in control of part of the Central de Abasto market. In July 2020, Mexican authorities raided market shops believed to be used by La Unión Tepito to launder money.

SEE ALSO: Attempt to Kill Mexico City’s Top Cop Puts Jalisco Cartel in Crossfire

Criminal economies thriving in the Central de Abasto are nothing new. In 2012, Mexican newspaper Reforma published an in-depth expose on massive theft, contraband and drug trafficking rings at the market, which included associates of the Beltran Leyva Organization.

The CJNG’s presence in Mexico City, even if only supplying the Fuerza Anti-Unión, could alter criminal dynamics in the capital. As InSight Crime previously reported, the high-profile assassination attempt of Omar García Harfuch, Mexico City’s public security secretary, in June was likely a sign that the CJNG is trying to establish itself as a major player around Mexico City. If so, the city could face a rapid rise in violence, as seen in most parts of the country where the CJNG is trying to impose its authority. 

US Arrest of Former Defense Minister Deals Blow to Mexico Military

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General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda (left) and former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto (right)

The US arrest of Mexico’s former defense minister on drug charges confirms what has been alleged by traffickers themselves: that the country’s military, which plays an outsized role in the fight against organized crime, has been thoroughly corrupted.

On October 15, the US Ambassador to Mexico, Christopher Landau, informed Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard that former general Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, Mexico’s defense secretary under former President Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018), had been arrested at Los Angeles’ international airport.

The arrest order from the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) came after Cienfuegos — dubbed “El Padrino,” or the “Godfather”  — was charged with three counts of drug conspiracy and one count of money laundering, according to an indictment filed in August 2019 in the Eastern District of New York.

The charges stem from allegations that he colluded with the H-2 Cartel between 2015 and 2017, according to court documentsThe H-2 Cartel — which has its roots in the Beltrán Leyva Organization — was formerly led by Juan Francisco Patrón Sánchez, alias “H2,” who was shot and killed by Mexican Marines in early 2017.

US federal prosecutors accuse the former general of using his “public position to help the H-2 Cartel … operate with impunity” in exchange for bribes, according to an October 16 letter from prosecutors to Eastern District judge Carol B. Amon.

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

Evidence cited includes “thousands of [intercepted] Blackberry Messenger communications” that allegedly show Cienfuegos shielded the group from military operations, secured maritime transport of drug shipments, warned the group about US law enforcement investigations and introduced its members to other corrupt Mexican officials, prosecutors said.

Cienfuegos’ assistance ensured the H-2 Cartel operated without “significant interference from the Mexican military,” allowing the crime group to import “thousands of kilograms of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine into the United States,” prosecutors alleged in the letter.

Cienfuegos is not the first Mexican official accused of conspiring with the H-2 Cartel. Former Nayarit state attorney general Edgar Veytia was arrested in 2017 and later sentenced to 20 years in jail for his role in an international drug trafficking conspiracy with the group.

While Cienfuegos is the highest-ranking member of Mexico’s military to face drug charges, he is just the latest top-level security official to be arrested.

Genaro García Luna, Mexico’s secretary of public security from 2006 to 2012, was indicted in 2019 on a number of cocaine trafficking charges. He and two high-ranking police officers that worked under him, Luis Cárdenas Palomino and Ramón Pequeño García, were also accused of accepting bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel.

InSight Crime Analysis

Cienfuegos’ arrest is unprecedented. That it even happened at all is remarkable.

Military officials have long been accused of corruption but are rarely, if ever, prosecuted. It has been more than two decades since former general and anti-drug czar Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo was arrested and later convicted for colluding with high-profile cocaine traffickers like Amado Carrillo Fuentes, better known as the “Lord of the Skies.”

Cienfuegos’ arrest also hits hard Mexico’s armed forces, which became even more central to attacking organized crime groups when in 2006 then-President Felipe Calderón launched an official crackdown. The militarized approach has only ballooned in the ensuing so-called drug war.

Since then, more than 200,000 people have been killed in Mexico, and tens of thousands more have disappeared. The indictment suggests that while Cienfuegos was leading the institution at the heart of the fight against organized crime under the Peña Nieto administration, he was also allegedly colluding with the very criminals he pledged to root out.

Indeed, Cienfuegos’ arrest further upends any notion of a “war,” in which the state is on one side and criminal groups on the other. In reality, these actors are much more intertwined, maintaining order and driving violence as a means to regulate conditions that are mutually beneficial.

The United States has much to answer for as well. With the arrest of García Luna and now Cienfuegos, it has become increasingly clear that US security and government officials frequently work with counterparts deeply involved in the drug trade. The question now is what was known and when. Speculation about high-level corruption has swirled for decades, especially during the Calderón administration’s tenure from 2006 to 2012. 

SEE ALSO: Torture is Widespread, Systematic Security Tactic in Mexico: Report

“There were a number of red flags when Cienfuegos was a general, and when he was named defense minister in 2012, I had heard rumors about his corruption,” Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former Chief of International Operations, told InSight Crime.

This is far from the first time Cienfuegos has been at the center of controversy. In 2015, the former army chief infamously said that his soldiers “won’t be treated like criminals” in relation to the forced disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School. Last month, authorities issued arrest warrants for the alleged material and intellectual authors of the crime, including members of the military.

In 2014, Cienfuegos also rejected accusations that his troops were culpable in the so-called Tlatlaya massacre, when soldiers killed 22 people in what was described as a “shootout.” In reality, the soldiers received a direct order to kill, according to human rights activists.

Cienfuegos’ arrest also adds to the list of Mexican officials to be charged in the United States and not at home. As a result, he won’t be held to account for some of the grave human rights abuses he is accused of overseeing as a general in Mexico.

What’s more, the military continues to be one of Mexico’s most trusted institutions and a mainstay of domestic security. A May decree signed earlier this year solidified its place in combatting crime groups for the foreseeable future. The United States also recently urged Mexico to crack down harder, demanding the Mexican government demonstrate its “commitment to dismantling the cartels and their criminal enterprises.”

This all but guarantees that the armed forces will remain on the frontlines, despite the latest headlines.

‘Ovidio Fest’ – Culiacán Asked to Celebrate Release of El Chapo’s Son

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Sinaloa Cartel leader Ovidio Guzmán

It has been one year since authorities in Mexico released Sinaloa Cartel scion Ovidio Guzmán to stop his gunmen from laying waste to Culiacán, and now a block party — replete with music, beer, raffles and a parade — is allegedly in the works to celebrate. 

A post on social media inviting people to “Ovidio Fest” has been shared thousands of times and received hundreds of comments. The party — set to be held October 17 — is a self-described celebration of the “rescue” of Ovidio, one of the sons of convicted Sinaloa Cartel capo Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo.”

The capture and subsequent release of Ovidio — an enormous embarrassment for the government — occurred after heavily-armed cartel henchmen laid siege to Culiacán on October 17, 2019. Gun battles erupted on the streets. Smoke billowed from the husks of vehicles set ablaze. The gunmen held the city hostage for several hours until government forces — outnumbered and outgunned — were ordered to free him.

SEE ALSO: Son of ‘El Chapo’ Freed After Fierce Cartel Mobilization in Mexico

The Facebook post invites Culiacán’s residents to celebrate at the Desarrollo Urbano Tres Ríos business district, with festivities kicking off at 5 p.m.  There will be “live music, food, wine, beer,” in addition to raffles, surprise gifts and contests, as well as a parade, the post reads. 

According to local media reports, Culiacán Mayor Jesús Estrada Ferreiro was unaware the invitation was being circulated but said he would look into the matter.

InSight Crime Analysis

While it remains to be seen if the party will happen, the event alone speaks to how the sons of El Chapo, known collectively as Los Chapitos, are benefiting from their father’s quasi-mythical reputation.

The Guzmán family legacy is built on El Chapo’s rags-to-riches origin story. El Chapo was born into a poor family in the rural community of La Tuna in Sinaloa state. He got his start in the drug trade when he and his cousins cultivated marijuana as teenagers.

There is a long cultural, historical and social context regarding drug trafficking in Sinaloa. For decades, security forces have violently cracked down on communities suspected of being involved in smuggling. As a result, locals have, at times, expressed affinity toward those who have been able to outwit authorities and protect what is for many their main source of livelihood.

Like drug traffickers before him, El Chapo gained local support by using the cartel’s wealth to allegedly develop infrastructure projects, provide medical assistance and make other contributions to his home state. 

His legend only grew with two movie-like prison escapes: first in a laundry cart in 2001 and then through an underground tunnel on a motorcycle in 2015.

While the head of the Sinaloa Cartel, he became the world’s most notorious drug trafficker, only rivaled by former Medellín Cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar. 

Narcocorridos celebrated his exploits, and he garnered popular interest in and out of Mexico. He even graced Forbes’ exclusive list of the world’s billionaires for a time.

Numerous profiles have been written about him, and his life story is the subject of a Netflix series, “El Chapo.”

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

Since he was imprisoned for life in the United States in 2019, his family has tried to preserve his Robin Hood persona by handing out pandemic assistance packages, which were stamped with his face and name. His wife also released a clothing line in his styling.

Though El Chapo has become intertwined in popular culture, his ruthlessness as leader of one of the world’s most notorious transnational crime groups must not be overlooked. He either directly participated in or ordered the torture and murder of dozens of people, as was described in his highly publicized trial.

Since their father’s capture, Ovidio and two of his brothers, Iván and Jésus, have seen their profiles raised in the cartel, and there have been reports they are battling the cartel’s old guard for power. They have also left their own trail of bloodshed, with their men reportedly involved in a shootout that left 16 people dead in Culiacán and the execution of a former ally. The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Justice Department allege that they have continued their father’s drug trafficking empire.

The block party celebrating Ovidio’s release falls in a familiar vein — toasting Guzmán’s brazen escape and burnishing the family legacy while disregarding the damage wrought.

The Jaguar King Who Founded Honduras’ Little French Key Zoo

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Aerial view of a section of Little French Key. (Photo taken from the zoo website)

Zimba the jaguar should not have been there. The biologist recognized it as the same jaguar she had ordered to be confiscated a year earlier during her first inspection in 2015. It had the same spot in the shape of a butterfly on its face.

The zoo at Little French Key (LFK) on the island of Roatán, Honduras’ Caribbean coast, did not have the permits to own certain exotic animals and did not meet basic requirements to keep exotic animals. There is no way Zimba should still have been there.

Speaking to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity due to fears for her safety, the biologist said that the LFK zoo was raided in 2015, 2016 and 2018 for the same reasons. Yet nothing changed.

This was just another item on a long list of suspicions that Honduras’ Forest Conservation Institute of Honduras (Instituto de Conservación Forestal de Honduras – ICF) had about the zoo since it started operating in 2011 and which remained constant year after year, raid after raid.

SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profile

Big cats such as tigers, lions and jaguars were kept in cages that were far too small. Enclosures had no elements to help entertain or reduce stress among the animals, such as vegetation or toys. The zoo had no permits to own certain animals, such as the felines or macaw parrots. Some animals, such as certain protected species of monkeys, had likely been illegally trafficked from the jungles of La Mosquitia. The zoo had been prohibited from acquiring new animals and had continued to do so.

And shockingly, part of its infrastructure is mounted directly upon Roatán’s coral reef, one of the most vibrant on the planet, also without the corresponding permits.

But the biologists had not only filed reports. Zimba the jaguar was not the only animal ordered to be removed from the LFK zoo. ICF staff seized the cats, pumas, sloths, sparrowhawks, exotic birds and many more.

One challenge was to find alternative facilities to house them. For example, Zimba was offered to another zoo on the far east of Roatán island, at the small key of Barbereta but the owner refused due to a lack of space. The jaguar was therefore moved to a zoo on Honduras’ mainland at Joya Grande, an area heavily associated with drug trafficking.

So how did the jaguar, butterfly spot and all, end up back in LFK a year later when the zoo had not made any progress in complying with animal care regulations?

The Joya Grande zoo was founded just over 10 years ago by Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, one of the leaders of Los Cachiros, a group that dominated cocaine trafficking in northern Honduras until 2013, when it was dismantled by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). After Rivera Maradiaga’s capture, the Honduran state seized the Joya Grande zoo, which was run by experts who had worked there since the era of Los Cachiros.

According to testimony by ICF members and reports reviewed by InSight Crime, Joya Grande regularly received animals that had been illegally kept at other zoos such as Little French Key. Zimba was among them.

And many of these animals were just sent right back to LFK. After discovering Zimba was in LFK during the 2016 inspection, the biologist documented her findings, compared the results of the two seizures, produced a report and sent it to the Attorney General’s Office in Tegucigalpa. Nothing happened.

“Reports have been filed since 2011. They were given time to legalize the ownership of these animals and they never did it. But the whole time, (LFK) filled up with jaguars,” she told InSight Crime.

And the relationship between Joya Grande and LFK was nothing new. Four of the first pumas ever kept at LFK had been sold without meeting all the legal conditions by the staff at Joya Grande for $4,000 an animal. Upon first arrival on Roatán, they were even temporarily kept at the Barbereta zoo, the one that had no place for Zimba.

 

Two of the felines at the zoo in May 2019

“There is a broad influence ring going on here. There are no permits for all this. There is nothing,” she told InSight Crime.

But the story of LFK is not just about a zoo founded by drug traffickers. It is a story that cuts to the heart of wildlife trafficking in Honduras. It is a story that reveals animal abuse in a spot that is sold as an exotic destination where tourists can swim in the waters of the Caribbean.

Lawlessness in Little French Key

Little French Key is a small key located some 20 minutes by speedboat from Puerto Francés, in the central part of Roatán. History books say that French buccaneers fought the British and Spanish empires for control of the island during the 18th and 19th centuries, and the tourist industry has used this pirate connection to draw in tourists. 

The LFK zoo is only reachable by motorboat, taken from a small wooden pier, flanked by two wooden pirates and a bar near Puerto Francés, a section of Roatán.

The place is surreal. It is halfway between a luxurious, picture-perfect Caribbean tourist resort, with crystalline waters, bungalows and water slides, and a bizarre zoo full of animals that should never have been there.


The zoo is owned by Kaveh Lahijani, an Iranian citizen with Honduran residency, who faced serious civil suits in the United States and charges in Honduras. 

Lahijani arrived in Honduras when he was being sued for $2.5 million from creditors related to real estate deals in Orange County, California. 

According to court documents, Lahijani declared himself bankrupt in 1998 in order to evade creditors. This process lasted until 2009, when, after multiple appeals, Lahijani agreed to pay part of his debts. In order to do so, a relative of his wife, Larissa Krupp Lahijani, loaned him the $2.5 million.

According to the woman’s testimony, Lahijani used part of the money to open and supply the Little French Key zoo.

In March 2011, Lahijani “left California and went to Honduras to start a new life, and used $2 million of the loans that had secured in Santa Ana, to build the place known as Little French Key, that in 2016 was the number 1 tourist attraction in Honduras, receiving between 200 and 300 visitors daily, the majority from cruise ships and generating a profit of around $200,000 per month,” said Larissa Krupp in testimony she gave to the court.

In Roatán, Kaveh Lahijani became a local celebrity because of his exotic animals and his ability to evade justice. But even today, those that speak of him do so discreetly, out of fear. 

During the first inspection of LFK by Honduran authorities in 2015, over 100 animals were kept there. ICF agents estimated it would cost around $28,000 per month to feed them. If the profits estimated in Larissa Krupp’s testimony are correct, Lahijani’s zoo was a major earner. 

Additionally, from the very start, Lahijani tried to keep costs down. This included building amenities rapidly and without compliance to environmental regulations, such as building a swimming pool adorned with concrete horses, beyond the line of the pristine Roatán coral reef, as well as cutting down mangroves to do so. Based on three court cases against him filed between 2016 and 2017, he never repaired the damage this caused. And between 2017 and 2018, LFK workers also filed criminal cases against him for non-payment of wages.

The outside of a pool at Little French Key built on top of the coral reef

In 2016, Larissa Krupp filed a lawsuit in Honduras and in the United States against her husband for intrafamily violence and filed for divorce in a California court, with a request for monthly compensation of $45,911.

InSight Crime tried to contact Lahijani’s lawyers but received no response.

Kaveh Lahijani was able to hide from his legal troubles at his LFK zoo, where the trafficked animals guaranteed him a significant source of revenue. But his luck would only last a few years. 

The Fire

On the morning of Sunday, August 26, 2018, the mangrove and the bunkers surrounding the zoo were ablaze. LFK staff called the police and firefighters. 

By the afternoon, the fire was still not completely under control and had ravaged around one-third of the resort. A team of ICF biologists in Roatán arrived to take inventory of the animals. According to accounts collected from the experts by InSight Crime, the situation was pure chaos.

Much like the previous visits in 2015 and 2016, the zoo had no permits for most of the animals, and the ICF team began procedures to confiscate them. But according to later reports, zoo employees, including two veterinarians from Mexico and Spain, tried to stop them.

SEE ALSO: The Logging Barons of Catacamas, Honduras

One of the biologists stated that the large cats were to be brought to an authorized shelter, but Kaveh Lahijani’s employees tried to stop her. “They pushed her, they pulled her hair, they called her a thief,” recalled one of the state agents that was at LFK on the day of the fire.

Lahijani did not even go to the zoo until someone told him that the police were taking away his jaguars.

However, after the first few hours of confusion, the LFK zoo suddenly saw a new type of visitor. Around 90 government personnel, including ICF staff and army special forces arrived, as well as two helicopters. The biologists stayed one week to make a full inventory. And Little French Key closed.

Temporarily.

By May 2019, LFK was up and running again. On the day InSight Crime visited the zoo, there was no sign of Zimba the jaguar. But three other big cats were sprawled in two cages. There was a baby monkey and several exotic birds, which the ICF suspected had been trafficked from La Mosquitia, as well as peacocks and horses. On the edge of the coral reef, in the pool with the concrete horses, a team of laborers continued construction work.

A baby monkey at Little French Key in May 2019

But Lahijani’s luck was about to run out. Even before the fire, he had been well-known to local authorities, due to the lawsuits he faced at courts in Roatán. But the story of the Iranian man and his zoo of trafficked animals had also reached the Attorney General’s Office in the capital, Tegucigalpa, and the United States embassy, according to a chief prosecutor who spoke with InSight Crime on the condition of anonymity due to not being authorized to comment on open cases. 

“Things accelerated when the United States said there was interest, not just because of the owner’s past, but because there were suspicions of money laundering and animal trafficking,” said the chief prosecutor.

On May 15, 2019, the Honduran police surrounded Lahijani’s house in Puerto Francés on Roatán and arrested him for money laundering and confiscated some $130,000 in cash. Due to a lack of evidence, Lahijani was released and he traveled to Panama. But his legal trouble in the United States was not over. 

In September 2019, Lahijani was returned to California after a judge had demanded his arrest on fraud allegations. When renewing his US passport at the consulate in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, in 2017, he had been asked whether he had any pending court cases in the United States. He lied and did not mention that his ex-wife, Larisa Krupp, was suing him for $1.5 million in family assistance. 

In January 2020, the California District Attorney’s Office asked for the case regarding the passport application to be dismissed, but the cases relating to his debts have not been resolved. In a letter to the judge overseeing the case, Larissa Krupp stated that part of the money she alleges Lavijani owes her was used to maintain the zoo on Little French Key, where he allegedly trafficked animals, damaged a pristine coral reef and is suspected of laundering money. 

Upon referring to Kaveh Lahijani during a bail bond hearing in California in October 2019, a a judge said, “There is nothing about this gentleman that indicates to me that he has any respect for law.” This statement aptly describes the illegality that took place in LFK for over a decade.

And while the LFK zoo was closed during the coronavirus pandemic, a Honduran official in Roatán confirmed a startling yet unsurprising fact: the animals are still there.

*Photos: Héctor Silva Ávalos

Argentina Marijuana Trade Unfazed by Increased Security Controls

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Argentina’s National Gendarmerie processes a seized marijuana shipment

Argentina’s strategic location and booming consumer market have made it a major transshipment point for illegal drugs like marijuana, and massive seizures have raised questions about how well traffickers have adjusted to stepped-up security controls brought on by the coronavirus.

Authorities recently dismantled a well-known family clan of traffickers operating in Misiones province near the Argentina-Paraguay border. The National Gendarmerie seized almost nine tons of marijuana from various properties across six municipalities during the October 8 operation that was the culmination of a year-long investigation, according to a  government news release.

Farms on the Paraná River’s banks served as receiving points for drugs smuggled into Argentina via the river and by land. Authorities arrested four people, and they also seized thousands of US dollars, nine vehicles, two boats and several firearms, according to the National Gendarmerie.

The sweeping operation came after a number of significant drug seizures in this key stretch of the country.

SEE ALSO: Argentina News and Profile

While on routine patrol on October 5, National Gendarmerie officers stumbled upon three tons of marijuana abandoned in undergrowth in the Puerto Esperanza municipality of Misiones, according to a government news release.

Days earlier, on October 1, Argentine naval forces announced they had seized more than 700 kilograms of marijuana and arrested a Paraguayan national traveling by boat near Playita Paraíso in the city of Candelaria, which hugs the banks of the Paraná River in Misiones.

During a 10-day stretch at the end of September, various Argentine security forces seized more than 11 tons of marijuana in Misiones alone. The loads were hidden in large trucks, discarded in wooded areas, concealed on boats from Paraguay and abandoned in the forest, among others.

InSight Crime Analysis

Drug seizures are not a perfect metric for measuring drug flows. But the steady string of large busts suggests that Argentine traffickers are hardly struggling to obtain marijuana from Paraguay, South America’s leading producer of the drug.

Marijuana travels into northeast Argentina from production centers, such as Amambay department. Paraguay’s vast northern region accounted for 93 percent of marijuana plantations identified by authorities over the past 10 years, according to data from the Paraguayan Drug Observatory (Observatorio Paraguayo de Drogas — OPD).

From there, marijuana is transported to towns like Pedro Juan Caballero along the Brazil-Paraguay border. The loads then move south in trucks to the porous Argentina-Paraguay border. The drugs are then crossed via land routes or on boats traveling down the Paraná River into the Argentine provinces of Misiones and Corrientes. 

On the Argentina side, local family clans receive the marijuana and store it for transport to larger regional groups. While authorities have seized notable quantities of marijuana lately, it’s likely the hauls represent only a fraction of the total drugs being smuggled. 

“This is a vast border region that’s hard to control, and the local groups that operate there know the terrain better than anyone, including authorities,” said Carolina Sampó, coordinator of the Center for Studies on Transnational Organized Crime (Centro de Estudios Sobre Crimen Organizado Transnacional — CeCOT) at the University of La Plata, Argentina.

Indeed, local expertise has helped make small cities nestled along the Paraná River, such as Itatí in Corrientes, major transport hubs. One criminal group, known as “Los Gordos,” corrupted everyone from the local mayor to high-ranking police officers and other public officials to move up to six tons of marijuana per week.

SEE ALSO: Argentina’s Itatí Trial Reveals City Corrupted by Marijuana Traffickers

These family clans are crucial to the larger groups that cater primarily to two specific markets: local consumers across Argentina, including in major cities like Buenos Aires, and Chile. Argentina’s neighbor to the west has developed a thriving domestic market of its own in recent years, with one of the highest marijuana consumption rates in all of Latin America, according to data from the Chilean Drug Observatory (Observatorio Chileno de Drogas).

However, the latest seizures could also point to difficulties traffickers encountered moving marijuana shipments within Argentina to consumer markets amid the coronavirus lockdown when national highways were dotted with security checkpoints. 

“There could be a problem with the supply chain breaking from the border regions to the final destination points,” one former Argentine anti-drug official told InSight Crime. “There doesn’t seem to be an issue with product moving from the main suppliers [in Paraguay] to the middlemen.”

The former official added that the seizures may also result from criminal groups trying to smuggle marijuana stocks that accumulated during the first few months of the pandemic, when both federal and local security forces strictly controlled smuggling routes.

That said, Sampó warned that the entrenched corruption and impunity that has helped marijuana trafficking flourish in the border regions would likely allow smugglers to get past any current troubles to feed the country’s growing consumer market.

Drug Flights Climb Again in Honduras and Guatemala

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Officials have identified numerous clandestine airstrips in the Mayan Biosphere Reserve.

The number of destroyed illegal airstrips and the volume of seized cocaine in Honduras this year are set to surpass 2019 figures, indicating aerial routes for trafficking cocaine in the region remain very much alive.

On September 28, Honduran armed forces used explosives to disable an illegal airstrip used for drug trafficking in Brus Laguna, a municipality in the department of Gracias a Dios, according to Honduran news outlet Proceso Digital.

The illegal airstrip was the 31st destroyed in Honduras this year — which will probably see more than the 36 airstrips destroyed in all of 2019. All 31 of the airstrips were found in the jungles of La Mosquitia, on Honduras’ Caribbean coast. In 2019, the vast majority of airstrips were found in the same region of Gracias a Dios.

Cocaine seizures are also rising, with the 2,218 kilograms seized in 2019 already overtaken by the 2,830 kilograms interdicted this year so far.

SEE ALSO: Honduras Goes From Transit Nation to Cocaine Producer

Guatemala also has seen an increasing number of clandestine airstrips. This year, authorities have disabled 15 of them, one fewer than the total for all of 2019.  Authorities have also captured 20 drug planes this year, according to Guatemalan police figures sent to InSight Crime, though the number is unlikely to surpass the record 40 planes secured in 2019.

The same Guatemalan police figures suggest that traffickers are using more sophisticated aircraft in aerial smuggling operations. According to Guatemalan police, 15 of the 20 secured planes this year were jets, which travel faster than the light propeller planes typically used, while jets accounted for only nine of the 40 captured planes in 2019.

A jet can also haul more cocaine — between three to five tons. As a result, the amount of drugs seized from aerial smuggling has increased. From the 20 captured aircraft this year, Guatemalan authorities seized seven tons of cocaine, while the 40 captured aircraft in 2019 yielded a total of five tons of cocaine, according to the documents seen by InSight Crime.

InSight Crime Analysis

The increase in aerial trafficking to Guatemala and Honduras sheds light on a parallel trend: the renewal of Central America’s land routes on which cocaine is later moved.

Drug planes arriving in Honduras partly feed overland routes to Guatemala, with which it shares a 160-mile border. Guatemala has long been the crown jewel in the Central American drug trafficking network, bordering Mexico and with access to the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. Maritime routes — particularly along the Pacific — also feed Guatemala’s overland cocaine passage into Mexico.

The jump in aerial trafficking is likely a product of a historic spike in Colombian cocaine production and Venezuela’s increased use as a trampoline to Central American countries.

Honduras is important in this context for several reasons, not least of which is that some four percent of cocaine shipments that reached the United States in 2019 first made a stop by air or sea in the country, according to the US State Department’s 2020 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. Furthermore, most of that cocaine travels from Honduras overland into Guatemala, from where it continues its northward journey.

SEE ALSO: Cocaine Seizures Expose Flaws at Guatemala, Honduras Ports

In 2015, Honduran authorities claimed that aerial drug trafficking had dropped drastically after improved interdiction capabilities, but maps tracing aerial and maritime drug trafficking to Central America indicate that the number of drug flights reaching Honduras is on the rise.

The dense jungles of Petén in Guatemala and Gracias a Dios provide traffickers with remote landing spots that are difficult to access. Even when drug planes are detected, they are often ditched and burned before authorities can arrive.

Guatemala’s Attorney General Lashes Out Against Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office

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Guatemala Attorney General Consuelo Porras

Guatemala’s attorney general has given the go-ahead to new legal actions against the public prosecutor that has headed Guatemala’s most important graft investigations of the last decade — an act that could lead to his sanction, suspension, or even removal. The move is the latest attack on his unit, which has pursued corruption cases against the country’s business and political elites. 

On October 7, Attorney General Consuelo Porras approved nine new administrative complaints against Juan Franciso Sandoval and two other prosecutors within the unit he directs, the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (Fiscalía Especial Contra la Impunidad – FECI).

In a press release published on Twitter, the Attorney General’s Office said the decision to move the complaints forward was necessary because  “no official…is above the law…the Attorney General’s Office job is to address all allegations it receives.”

SEE ALSO: The Legacy of How Guatemala Destroyed its Own Anti-Corruption Crusade

Sandoval, however, highlighted irregularities in the complaints in an interview with news outlet La Hora. Of the nine complaints approved against him and his colleagues, three of them had been “suggested” by Consuelo Porras’ advisors, and the other six had all been filed by people under investigation by FECI, Sandoval said. 

According to documents seen by InSight Crime, 48 complaints have been filed against Sandoval and FECI between July 6, 2018 and October 7, 2020.

Most of these complaints were filed by current or former government officials, as well as other individuals, that FECI has either investigated or brought into court on suspicion of corruption, criminal activity, or involvement in organized crime. Complaints have come from Guatemala’s former first lady Sandra Torres, who is suspected of illicit campaign financing; representative Felipe Alejos, who is suspected of influence peddling; and political operative Gustavo Alejos, who is jailed on corruption charges. 

A complaint was also filed by Russian citizen Igor Bitkovwho was accused of buying counterfeit documents from a criminal network involving immigration officials. That case — which led to the conviction of 39 people, including both ex-government officials and the recipients of their illegal services — was later used as an argument to oust the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), which worked alongside the FECI in its investigations. 

Nearly half of the administrative complaints made against Sandoval and the FECI were presented by the same legal entity: the Foundation Against Terrorism (Fundación Contra el Terrorismo), an ultra-right organization that continuously lobbied for the dismantling of the CICIG. Sandoval has filed a complaint against the organization and its president, Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, for obstructing justice.

Sandoval’s lawyer, Claudia González, told InSight Crime that most of the complaints filed by the Foundation Against Terrorism in Guatemala refer to actions that are not misconduct. 

“Over the last few months, the foundation has filed almost one complaint per week against Juan Francisco Sandoval. My impression is that this is a way to threaten or intimidate him so that he resigns as head of the FECI,” González said. 

The FECI has opened nearly 200 cases regarding corruption and organized crime. Its investigations have dismantled some 60 criminal structures and led to the criminal prosecution of high-ranking officials, business elites, and even former President Otto Pérez Molina and his vice president, Roxana Baldetti.

InSight Crime Analysis

The list of complaints filed by Porras would appear to be just one part of the government’s repeated attacks against FECI.

The complaints, however, carry greater weight because they come from within the Attorney General’s Office — something unheard of since FECI began collaborating with the CICIG over a decade ago. 

In the press release about the new complaints, the Attorney General’s Office said it was not seeking to “weaken the FECI,” calling “for rumors and speculation to be avoided.” 

Porras’ actions, however, seem to show otherwise.

In August, Porras removed FECI from a drug trafficking investigation related to the La Línea case, a much-heralded investigation that resulted Pérez Molina’s and Baldetti’s resignation and arrest in 2015. The investigation has since led to dozens of other cases implicating former officials, business owners and criminal groups. 

In September, Porras also removed FECI from an investigation into alleged mismanagement of funds by the Guatemalan Social Security Institute (Instituto Guatemalteco del Seguro Social – IGSS).  She did so even at the objection of the IGSS’s president.  

SEE ALSO: A New Guatemala Attorney General Brings New Concerns

And in July, Porras announced the creation of a new anti-corruption unit within the Attorney General’s Office. Judicial advocates say the unit — which is headed by a close colleague of Porras’ — is another attempt to weaken the FECI’s authority. 

Meanwhile, Porras’ decision to investigate Sandoval and the FECI has drawn sharp criticism from US officials. 

On October 8, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Latin America, Michael Kozak, said on Twitter that “the Attorney General has a duty to pursue legitimate complaints of corruption wherever they lead. Prosecute the corrupt, not the anti-corruption prosecutors at FECI.”

Porras responded in a press release, stating that all proceedings against Sandoval met Guatemala’s “legal norms” and confirming the “sovereignty” of the Public Prosecutor’s Office.

On October 9, the Inter-American Human Rights Court (Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos – CIDH) also called upon Guatemala to reinforce security measures in place to protect Sandoval and other FECI prosecutors who  “are the victims of acts of intimidation and threats.” In April, The CIDH made a similar call for FECI’s prosecutors to be protected but harassment and threats against them continued.

The latest attacks on Sandoval are happening as Guatemala marks a year-long delay in electing justices to its highest courts. Several people investigated by FECI, among them Gustavo Alejos, have hindered the process after Sanvodal’s team uncovered a corruption network seeking to influence the election of judges to Honduras’ Supreme Court of Justice and Court of Appeals.