In 2003, the United States began a manhunt that has lasted almost a decade. Its objective: dismantle a criminal network led by the Guatemalan Otto Herrera Garcia, which acted as a hinge between remnants of the Cali Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel.
A goldmine. That was what authorities from Washington DC — with help from Guatemalan police and government officials — found on April 2, 2003: $14.4 million from drug trafficking (112.3 million Guatemalan quetzales, at the exchange rate at that time), in a house in zone 14 of the Guatemalan capital. It was a discovery that would set off a manhunt now running for nine years, and which still has not ended.
The repercussions of the discovery extended in two directions: towards the US capital and Colombia. The money trail enabled the reactivation of a three-year long US investigation into an international drug trafficking network. Its most recent result was the arrest of Elio Lorenzana Cordon, on November 8, 2011, in Zacapa. Lorenzana Cordon, 40 years old, is among the eight Guatemalans, three Colombians and one Salvadoran who have been the objects of the hunt. A court unanimously ordered his extradition last February, but an appeal has halted the process.
However, of the eight sought-after Guatemalans, the main protagonist is Otto Roberto Herrera Garcia (pictured), who was captured in Colombia in 2007. He rented the house where the money was found, and he controlled some of the international operations of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, according to the US Department of Justice (USDOJ).
Nine years ago, at the age of 38, Herrera Garcia was added to the list of the 41 most wanted drug traffickers and money launderers in the world. This list is the main objective of the US judicial authorities specialized in investigating those two crimes. This is why the money found in zone 14 — in a residence in La Cañada — was so important. But at the time, the magnitude of that discovery went unrecognized by Guatemalan authorities.
In 2003, the US Department of State estimated that in Guatemala only five percent of the cocaine that moved through the country was intercepted. But it also calculated that of all of the cocaine that traffickers were attempting to transport to the US, only 12.2 percent was seized at the American borders, as a June 24, 2003 diplomatic cable recorded (#03GUATEMALA 1902). That year the US authorities seized a portion of the drugs that moved through those borders, as was the case with nine metric tons of cocaine seized solely on the eastern US coast, one of the principal trafficking zones of the Sinaloa Cartel, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC).
Understanding Don Otto
Herrera Garcia supposedly traveled to Los Angeles, California in the 80s, when he was 21 years old and worked as a truck driver. His first contacts in the Cali Cartel unofficially date back to those years. Those who know him say that when he returned to Guatemala, he was a different person.
The USDOJ traced his first steps in drug trafficking as far back as 1996, but his first contact with the head of the Sinaloa Cartel — Joaquin Guzman Loera, alias “El Chapo” — dates back to the early 90s, according to Michael Vigil, ex-Chief of International Operations for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
“In those days, Otto was a powerful international trafficker because of the contacts that he had; he made important deals with Guatemalan militants and some government employees,” says Vigil, who retired in 2004, and is a consultant at Mission Essential Personnel, an international security consulting firm in Washington, DC. “Otto operated at the Latin American level and was known for his ability to buy protection.”
By the late 90s, Herrera Garcia was known as “El Ingeniero” or “The Engineer,” possibly as a result of his contact with the Colombians. In that time, according to Andres Lopez, a Colombian drug trafficker turned writer, “[in Colombia] people coming from other countries went to great lengths to appear agreeable and as a general rule everyone had to be called ‘engineer.’”
The Engineer’s role was clearly laid out in a note, dated November 12, 2010, that the US Embassy in Colombia sent to Colombia’s Supreme Court of Justice. The document established that sometime between the end of 1999 and the beginning of 2000, members of the organization headed by Phanor Arizabaleta Arzayus, [the last active head of the Cali Cartel in Colombia,] met with members of Otto Herrera Garcia’s organization. As a result, the Colombians agreed to provide cocaine to various drug trafficking groups in Mexico, through Herrera Garcia’s network. The job was to transport the drugs from Colombia to Central America, and then on to Mexico.
Herrera Garcia and his accomplices found the perfect way to lead the authorities on a chase that spanned from the south to the north of the continent. On top of that, the money shipments to the US were designed to make the business more profitable with an unusual formula: purchasing airplanes in the country to transport cocaine from South America to Guatemala and Mexico, and later be shipped to American consumer markets. This discovery only made US authorities pursue Herrera Garcia’s organization more vehemently.
American Airplanes for Colombian Cocaine
On April 2, 2003, the authorities found $14.4 million in cash in a home in the Guatemala capital, which they linked the Guatemalan drug trafficker Otto Herrera Garcia. By then, the organization was in full active mode shipping dollars to North America, and not solely South America, as the Guatemalan officials had originally thought. The case record in a Florida district court shows that in October 2003 and June 2006, the organization made 35 wire transfers from currency exchange offices in Mexico to the US. They sent $2.7 million to the Bank of America in Oklahoma City by way of Miami. In April 2007, they sent another $600,000 in six transfers from Mexico to the account of an aviation company — Advanced Aviation Sales Inc, in Naples, Florida.
Almost two years after the $14.4 million were discovered in Guatemala, and the transfers to the US were underway, the authorities released two Colombians who had presumably been guarding the money. They were Carlos Eduardo Rodriguez Monar and Jose Fernando “Zimber” Arizabaleta Lenis. The latter was the nephew and emissary of Phanor Arizabaleta Arzayus. Zimber and Monar were only convicted of concealment. A third suspect, the Guatemalan Byron Linares Cordon, was arrested in connection with the money, but he too would go free on bail and would be recaptured eight years later.
The diplomatic cable identified as “Guatemala Confidential 001673” revealed that the American Embassy in Guatemala was troubled by case of the multi-million dollar seizure, and was convinced that Herrera’s organization was involved. By July 2003, the embassy had requested the help of the Supreme Court of Justice, the Attorney General’s Office and even President Alfonso Portillo (who is now imprisoned with a US order for his extradition on money laundering charges).
Since 2003, the arm of prosecution in the US capital has reached half of the accused in Mexico, Guatemala, Panama and Colombia. Now it navigates the complex extradition processes in order to put them in a district court in Washington DC. Four Guatemalans, three Colombians and one Salvadoran have already been captured. Five other accused suspects — four of them Guatemalan — remain at large.
On April 21, 2004, the unexpected happened. Otto Herrera Garcia, at the age of 39, was detained in Mexico City. The arrest took place while he was in the airport, about to reunite with his girlfriend, the Mexican Marcela Gonzalez, according to Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office (PGR). She had traveled from Guadalajara, Jalisco, while his wife — from whom the trafficker was separated — was presumably living in Cancun. Herrera Garcia was taken to a maximum-security prison in the Federal District, in the midst of a hyped-up media event that Mexican authorities had set up for his arrest.
The same day, the USDOJ also divulged that Herrera Garcia was “one of the biggest drug traffickers in Central America.” This accusation was the result of a multinational investigation involving DEA agents in Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador. The investigation linked Herrera Garcia and another four accused persons to the transportation of “five shipments of cocaine, totaling more than 6,500 kilos destined for the US,” roughly between March 1996 and October 2003, according to US authorities. They also announced that they would pursue “Herrera Garcia’s rapid extradition to the United States.” Months later, they would state that they did not act quickly enough.
On May 14, 2005, Herrera Garcia’s escape was a known fact. The Mexican newspaper El Universal reported that he had escaped from prison two days earlier, disguised as a policeman. The press cited data regarding the bribes that the Guatemalan had evidently paid out in order to escape. The figures ranged from hundreds of thousands of dollars to $2 million. Coincidentally, days before his capture, Mexican authorities revealed that Herrera Garcia had sold a yacht for $2 million, and that the vessel was in Cancun. They also confirmed that Herrera Garcia was still doing business with Don Pacho (his mentor and associate from the Sinaloa Cartel) in Colombia, as well as Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada Garcia (an associate of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman in northeast Mexico), according to a 2004 PGR archive.
At the time of his capture, the Guatemalan was an invaluable player in the international drug trafficking trade. Unofficial information says that several bosses in the Sinaloa Cartel — with the permission of El Chapo — financed Herrera Garcia’s escape, according to Michael Vigil. “The cartel’s efforts to free him showed how important he was to them,” says Vigil, who also worked as an undercover agent in Mexico. “Otto oversaw important operations for El Chapo, who also paid him large sums of money; it was a mutually beneficial relationship for both of them.”
According to Vigil, Herrera Garcia was a “crucial intermediary,” and was sent to Colombia to negotiate with the heads of the largest cartels. Documents from the court in Washington DC show that he was in Colombia for at least a year and a half, and that he did business with the Arizabaleta and Cifuentes Villa organizations. Herrera Garcia traveled at ease in Bogota, without imagining that on June 8, 2006, the US had ordered his capture and extradition to the Colombian government, according to a Colombian Supreme Court of Justice document. The request was backed by then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
In April 2007, Herrera Garcia made multiple wire transfers adding up to $600,000 (about 4.5 million quetzales), from Mexico to Florida. On the surface, the court’s decision did not perturb the organization, but again prosecutors in Washington D.C. were closer than ever to Herrera Garcia. Colombian authorities were already tailing him in Bogota.
On June 20, two months after the last wire transfer to Florida, Colombian police cornered Herrera Garcia. The press reported that they found him in a mall, accompanied by two Colombians. The police agents did not recognize him immediately, but one official soon put two and two together. He had seen that face before. The hair almost shaved to a crew cut, the thinner features (there were rumors of plastic surgery), and plucked eyebrows did not keep Herrera Garcia from being noticed.
This time, his money couldn’t help him — not one of the $700,000 (about 5.3 million quetzales) that he offered each agent involved in his capture, or $5 million in total, according to different press reports. Once in custody and defeated, “he did not deny being the person required by the US government,” according to an extradition document. The Florida court had also requested the capture and extradition of Herrera Garcia for money laundering, but this process was absorbed by the ongoing case in Washington DC for drug trafficking and money laundering.
Four years would suffice, after Otto Herrera Garcia’s capture, for other heads to roll in the organization — not without some negotiations with Washington DC officials, and lenient sentences involved. Meanwhile, nine years after the discovery of the $14.4 million in Guatemala, and with key testimonies by the detained and extradited individuals (sealed up to the public), the arm of the US prosecution continues searching for the suspects at large, in a hunt that still appears to have no end.
*The above is InSight Crime’s translation of a selection from a series of articles by Julie Lopez for Plaza Publica, published with permission from Plaza Publica. Read the original Spanish articles here: part I, part II, and·part III.