Following the arrest and speedy release of Salvadoran drug kingpin ‘Chepe Luna,’ analyst Hector Silva Avalos looks back at the trafficker’s friends in high places who have helped Luna escape justice many times before.
Jose Natividad Luna Pereira is a man who owes his success, and his freedom, to his good friends. By the end of the 1990s, this man — who is either Honduran or from Pasaquina [El Salvador] depending which identification he presents — had converted old milk and arms smuggling routes in his territory. One went from Barrancones to the Pan-American Highway, from the beaches of La Union to Santa Rosa de Lima, San Miguel, and El Amatillo. This allowed him, over the next decade, to move scores of kilos of cocaine to the United States, according to a New York court and according to intelligence from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the police of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador.
Chepe Luna, like the majority of narcos in Latin America since the days of Pablo Escobar and the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers in Colombia, built his business thanks to the right balance between “silver and lead” [bribes and bullets]. In El Salvador, he payed for parties and rodeos in Pasaquina, and was even a candidate for town councilor, according an interview former Pasaquina Mayor Hector Odir Ramirez gave to La Prensa Grafica in July 2009. Ramirez, of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), was the one who issued Luna a Salvadoran birth certificate, even though he already had Honduran documentation.
Luna’s money also served to buy informants at the heart of the National Civil Police (PNC) during the administration of former director Ricardo Menesses. Between 2004 and 2006, Luna managed to evade four attempts to capture him. At least two of the operations involved agents from the PNC, the Attorney General’s Office, and the Security and Treasury Ministries, along with US DEA agents as advisers. Two ministers of former President Antonio Saca told me, in various conversations between 2008 and 2009, that these operations failed because, when everything was ready to go — the intelligence teams deployed in the streets and the arrests warrants signed — someone in the police leaked to Luna that they were after him. In the end, Chepe Luna left for Honduras. One can’t say he fled; Salvadoran police intelligence knew that he crossed the border frequently between 2008 and 2010.
The Flores Lazo family, with Reynerio de Jesus at the head, inherited part of the business. “Neyo,” like Chepe Luna, evaded Salvadoran authorities thanks to the spies he had infiltrated into the Anti-Narcotics Division. Until they captured him in Honduras. Like Chepe Luna.
The Perrones and Luna also tried to buy political support, according to Salvadoran intelligence and newspaper reports. One example of this is the phone call between Adolfo Torrez and former representative Carlos Silva Pereira, a scandal that El Faro revealed. [Torrez, former departmental head for ARENA, was removed from his post after he tried to extract a bribe from Silva, who was accused of money laundering and bribery on behalf of the Perrones.] Torrez is dead. Silva is imprisoned and awaiting deportation in Arizona.
Salvadoran intelligence also revealed two payments of between $200,000 and $250,000 made by the Perrones to political operators between 2007 and 2009 to avoid being pursued by police, something that former prosecutors and agents that worked for the Flores Lazo family spoke to me about.
The political ties between Luna and the Perrones have, by now, been mislaid in the archives of the Attorney General’s Office, accumulating dust. There are, for example, trails that were never followed, like the meetings that Oscar Rene Molina Manzanares hosted in his car dealerships with political operators, as testified by a witness in an extrajudicial statement. [In 2010 Molina was sentenced to seven years in prison for using his businesses to launder over $13 million for the Perrones].
There was money. And lead: at least two uniformed Salvadoran agents who worked undercover in these organizations have died. In 2008 another undercover agent told me the story of one of them: Agent Nahun, who was killed in El Tamarindo, La Union, while pursuing the trail of a kilo of cocaine that belonged to a policeman linked to the Perrones. Lead also served to silence adversaries and competitors.
Until 2009, no proceedings against police officials suspected of having ties with Luna, Flores Lazo, or other members of the group that was by then known as the Eastern Perrones had resulted in a criminal investigation. It wasn’t until lawyer Zaira Navas arrived at the General Inspectorate, during Carlos Ascencio’s time as head of the PNC, that four commissioners, five sub-commissioners, an inspector, and two sub-inspectors saw their names listed in an administrative inquiry into alleged links to Chepe Luna or the Perrones.
Two former directors are also on that list. An official police document stated, “investigations [have been] initiated into serious and very serious offenses on the part of high-level police officials, among them ex-Director General Ricardo Mauricio Menesses, to whom responsibility has been attributed for the supposed failure of four operations designed to capture the notorious drug trafficker Jose Natividad Luna Pereira, due to the leak of information while [Menesses] was director of the institution and to links with said person.”
The political response in the National Assembly to the Navas investigation was clear: persecution. The right, with votes from ARENA, the Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA), the Christian Democratic Party (PDC), and the National Conciliation Party (PCN), formed a special commission to investigate the investigator. In the end, the commission was dissolved, Navas resigned amid changes in the security cabinet, and some of the officials mentioned in the investigation returned to important positions in the police.
Chepe Luna was arrested [on August 7]. He was held for a little more than 24 hours, and is now free once again. In Honduran media outlets and social networks, questions are circulating over how Luna’s money played into this incident. In El Salvador, the question of Luna’s old friends has re-emerged.
In Latin America, there are many stories similar to this one, in which police and judicial corruption, bribery and death are the fundamental ingredients. The most famous was that of Pablo Escobar, the “paisa” [Medellin native] who invented the business and who bought police, paid off judges, and escaped a thousand times thanks to well-timed whispers.