José Adán Salazar Umaña, alias “Chepe Diablo,” does not fit the normal profile of a criminal leader. As the former president of the first division of Salvadoran soccer and the owner of numerous hotels, he is a prominent businessman and political operator. He has built a business empire around a chain of hotels, granaries and cattle ranches. Yet, officials from El Salvador and the United States say Salazar Umaña is one of the founders of the Texis Cartel, which controls El Salvador’s Northern Route through which cocaine is brought from Honduras to Guatemala and money is laundered by the truckload.
Salazar Umaña enjoyed what at the time appeared to be a series legitimate business successes prior to being linked to drug trafficking. In 1990, he launched a small investment brokerage, shortly followed by five other firms including a hotel chain, transportation firm, livestock company and transportation business.
Alongside local business figures Juan Umaña Samayoa and Roberto Herrera, Salazar is suspected of founding the Texis Cartel during this period. According to a report by El Faro, the group began running contraband through the mountainous northwest region that connects El Salvador with Honduras, prior to the early 1990s. Salvadoran authorities have been investigating the group since at least 2000. In 2001, the United States DEA mentioned Salazar Umaña as a suspected drug trafficker and money launderer. In 2014, the US Treasury Department put him on its “Kingpin List” of suspected money launderers. In April 2017, however, the Treasury Department reversed its decision and took him off the list, although the department has said it may bring other legal actions against him in the future.
Chepe Diablo Factbox
DOB: June 16, 1948
Group: Texis Cartel
Criminal Activities: Drug Trafficking, Money Laundering
Status: Free with no pending legal cases
Area of Operation: El Salvador
Despite investigations into himself and the Texis Cartel, Salazar Umaña has managed to avoid criminal conviction. Critics have said this is not a sign of innocence but of strength. Salazar Umaña is allegedly supported by a large network of official protection, ranging from prosecutors and congressmen to police officers and judges, leading many cases against him to be shelved. Authorities have also said Salazar’s business empire and veneer of legitimacy have given him added flexibility as a money launderer. The amount of legitimate cash flowing through Salazar Umaña’s accounts make it easier to hide illicit revenues.
In April 2014, Salazar Umaña was formally charged with tax evasion, amid attempts to topple Texis Cartel leadership by targeting financial operations. However, he was exonerated in January 2015, after paying some hefty fines. In 2016, the Attorney General’s Office announced that it was actively investigating Salazar Umaña for money laundering, again. This investigation led to Salazar Umaña’s April 2017 arrest in a police operation involving raids on about 50 of his properties, which authorities claim had been used by the Texis Cartel to evade taxes or launder money from illegal activities.
Salazar Umaña is suspected of crimes related to drug trafficking and money laundering. The Attorney General’s Office believes he used dozens of companies to launder some $215 million.
Salazar Umaña’s Texis Cartel operates in a northwestern slice of El Salvador running from the borders of Honduras and Guatemala.
Allies and Enemies
The Texis Cartel is noted for using bribery and corruption instead of the extreme violence often associated with Central American criminal groups. Salazar himself reportedly encourages members to rely on law enforcement for protection instead of carrying arms. Salazar Umaña reportedly has ties with and enjoys the support of numerous politicians, including Juan Umaña Samayoa, the mayor of Metapán, and Óscar Ortiz, the current vice president.
With high placed political connections, including a former business partner who is the country’s vice president, and a veneer of legitimacy, Salazar Umaña has generally avoided public scrutiny and dodged legal convictions. Thus, the likely outcome of his prosecution on the money laundering charges remains unclear.