Guatemala Drug Thief Holds on to His (Stolen) Assets

More than four months after capturing top drug trafficker Jairo Orellana Morales, Guatemala still hasn’t been able to seize his property, an indication of the challenges that the authorities face when attempting to confiscate criminals’ assets.

As elPeriodico reported, officials said they had identified 16 properties in Guatemala belonging to Orellana, a notorious trafficker whose tendency to steal cocaine shipments from larger criminal organizations — a practice known in the underworld as a “tumbe” — earned him the nickname “The King of Tumbes.”

Orellana was arrested in May, but the government has yet to seize the farm where he was captured after a bloody gun battle. The same goes for 15 other properties belonging to Orellana in Guatemala’s capital, as well as the provinces of Zacapa and Izabal near the Honduran border.

The unit of the Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office responsible for asset seizures told elPeriodico that they lacked the evidence needed to definitely prove that these properties belong to Orellana. They also lacked definitive information on the size of the properties in question. 

Even Honduras managed to move faster than Guatemala in seizing Orellana’s property. In June, Honduran authorities took control of 17 properties, 22 bank accounts, and four businesses linked to Orellana or his alleged intermediaries. These assets were all located in Honduras’ most violent city, San Pedro Sula.

Orellana had long been comfortable operating in Honduras — he was known to have worked with Honduran drug trafficking organization the Valles (he even stole 1.2 tons of cocaine from them at one point, elPeriodico reported), and he primarily moved cocaine shipments across the Honduran-Guatemalan border. Nevertheless, Orellana’s primary base of operations was Guatemala, where he started his criminal career working as a gunman for prominent drug trafficking family the Lorenzanas, before working with the Mexican criminal group the Zetas.

Under Guatemala’s asset seizure law, state and municipal authorities must hand over any requested information on assets under investigation to the Attorney General’s Office within 48 hours. But this deadline is rarely met due to the heavy workload of local government employees, elPeriodico reported.

InSight Crime Analysis

The fact that it remains so difficult for Guatemalan authorities to quickly enforce their asset seizure law is a sign that the country desperately needs to train up more staff, both in the Attorney General’s Office (known in Guatemala as the Public Ministry) and in the relevant local government offices. If state and municipal employees in Guatemala’s land management and property registry offices are not capable of responding to the Public Ministry’s information requests within the mandated 48-hour period, then this must be corrected. Clearly, if a lack of manpower is preventing the government from effectively enforcing the law, then the number of people working on these asset seizure cases — as well as their capacity to deal with the workload — should be expanded. 

It may also be worth re-examining the asset seizure legislation to see what — if anything — can be done to give the Public Ministry more teeth to enforce it. Perhaps the process would move faster if there were more serious consequences for those who do not comply with the required deadlines. Asset forfeiture is tricky, and there is plenty of room for abuse. But given that the law requires the Public Ministry to prove a property’s origins beyond a reasonable doubt, it may be worth asking whether the law’s definition of this standard of proof is overly stringent. 

Guatemala’s asset seizure law has been active for less than four years, so it is understandable that officials are still getting used to its implementation. The delay of four months, so far, in seizing Orellana’s assets doesn’t look like much when compared to the three years that it took Guatemalan authorities to seize property belonging to another drug trafficker, Juan Alberto Ortiz Lopez, alias “Juan Chamale.” Last March, a judge threw out the Public Ministry’s case against Juan Chamale, due to errors in the investigation (the case eventually went ahead, and the state formally seized some of Chamale’s properties in July).

Guatemala isn’t alone in facing challenges in implementing its asset seizure law. In Colombia, the average time it takes the government to complete a property seizure currently stands at seven years.  Honduras, however, has recently counted a few successes, seizing properties linked to the Valles drug trafficking organization, as well as assets belonging to the family of convicted drug trafficker Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros