Drug Agents’ Deaths Shed Light on El Salvador’s Drug Trade

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In the first of a two-part series, Salvadoran diplomat Hector Silva Avalos describes the murder of a narcotics investigator in eastern El Salvador at the hands of drug traffickers, illustrating the dangers facing law enforcement in the Central American country.

These are the stories of two Salvadoran government agents — an undercover police officer and an ex-army major working in military intelligence — murdered for threatening the interests of drug traffickers in eastern El Salvador, and their accomplices in government security organizations. Agent Nahun, of the police’s Anti-Drug Division (DAN), was killed on a beach in [the eastern province of] La Union while he was preparing to track a kilo of cocaine that would lead to traffickers in [the municipality of] Santa Rosa de Lima. Former Major Carlos Antonio Portillo Escobar was strangled in an abandoned house in the San Miguel neighborhood of Las Aguilas; Portillo was, according to police intelligence reports, an informant gathering information about the restructuring of the criminal group Los Perrones.

Part I

Agent Nahun was shot dead in El Tamarindo (see map). A “strange” death, according to an anti-narcotics investigator familiar with undercover operations that the National Police were conducting in La Union, which aimed to gather intelligence about the movement of drugs on the coastline of eastern El Salvador. Nahun was part of an anti-drug operation known as Plan Chameleon, which — like others — ended in failure due to information leaks and collusion between high-ranking police officers and drug traffickers in the area.

Almost three years after the death of Nahun, Major Carlos Portillo, another agent working for the Salvadoran government, this time for military intelligence, was assassinated in San Miguel for collecting information about drug traffickers and relaying it to his superiors. A high-ranking official accused the major of being a “snitch”; five days later, 10 minutes before 1 a.m. on June 8, 2010, Portillo’s corpse was discovered. To kill the major, the plotters used gang members as hit men.


Below is a reconstruction of the death of Nahun at the hands of assassins paid by drug trafficking interests, taken from two interviews conducted between 2008 and 2009 with police involved in Operation Chameleon:

Chameleon began to fail when the drug traffickers learned that the police post in El Tamarindo was controlled by the DAN … For God’s sake, the information that we had was that the officers in Tamarindo were watching over the shipments themselves, the traffickers had bought the [local] police.

Friction began to arise in El Tamarindo, major friction … There was an incident when they shot at a pick-up truck near the police post; there were shots and the fellow who was driving came out injured. Actually, he couldn’t work anymore. Nahun was already working in the field, and he continued when trouble began. He wanted to get the job done, but the problem was that they already knew him there.

And they killed him…

Correct. There was a strong suspicion, but that was (intelligence) that could not be proved. But there was the impression that it was his boss — a head of DAN — that assigned him to track the drug, because this boss was already seizing drugs from (Daniel) Quezada. The story went like this: Nahun tracked a little over a kilo as far as Santa Rosa de Lima…

The following succession of events preceding the death of Nahun were gathered from the combined account of the two sources linked to Chameleon:

– An informant of Nahun’s, from El Tamarindo, assures him that a kilo order of cocaine that usually arrived at Quezada’s Playas Negras Hotel from Nicaragua would be held in Santa Rosa.
– The information leads to three arrests, but not of the owners of the drugs.
– Nahun decides to go to Santa Rosa in search of the owners of the kilo. A doubt eats away at him: according to his informants, a police officer — one of his bosses — has begun to receive cocaine as payment for accommodating the transfer from El Tamarindo to the Pan-American highway that leads to San Salvador and to Guatemala.
– The trail brings Nahun once again to the beach: it appears that the kilo has not left El Tamarindo. One day before going again to Playas Negras, Nahun notifies his unit of his plans.
– There, on the dirt trails that start from the wet sand beach towards the surrounding mangrove forest, a group of hit men were waiting for Nahun. Nearby were police — a backup team that, according to intelligence following the murder, let him die.

One of the sources summarized the epilogue:

It was very strange: that the support team did not hear anything and it was not very far away. That was premeditated. Remember that there are instances … I wouldn’t call it revenge, but rather a form of intimidating [state] personnel, like telling them “this is the limit.” Killing one or more officers — what stronger message can be sent to the rest of the personnel?

Did the police open an investigation of the case?

That is the other curious thing, if you notice: the police increased their presence afterwards … because, look, his body was there for hours, dead, and that is the strange part: the team couldn’t let too much time pass … the fellow (Nahun) went, and the informant and the others stayed there waiting, but the word was that he went to do reconnaissance, he went to talk to people to find something out, he might have been there for an hour, he might have eaten some fish, he might have been there for one or two hours. The way it works is that he has his team, his phone, what you do is make a missed call and your backup arrives and you are in the hands of God, if you are with criminals … They didn’t even give him the chance to make the call, the most logical explanation is that they were already waiting to kill him…

*Translated and reprinted with permission from Héctor Silva Ávalos, a Salvadoran diplomat and former journalist. See his blog, and read the original Spanish post.

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