Salvadoran diplomat Hector Silva Avalos tells the story of a botched operation to capture the drug lord known as ‘Chepe Luna,’ leader of the Perrones drug gang. Its failure points to corruption at the highest levels of El Salvador’s police.
The story of a failed 2005 attempt by Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, and US authorities to capture the “transportista” kingpin Jose Natividad Luna Pereira, alias “Chepe Luna,” highlights the extent to which his drug network had corrupted the police force. Chepe Luna, one of El Salvador’s most important drug traffickers, is still at large today, running the trafficking network known as the Perrones, which controls cocaine routes in the country’s eastern border.
The following is InSight Crime’s translation of extracts from Hector Silva Avalos’ blog post on the botched attempt to capture Chepe Luna — “Operation Failure.”
A Salvadoran ex-minister revealed to me, in 2008, the majority of the details from which I reconstructed this story. He talked with me various times over the course of four months, when the journalistic investigation about the criminal band Los Perrones had been in the pages of La Prensa Grafica for more than a year and the connections between drug traffickers and high-level officials were already clear. In the epilogue of that investigation, my talks with the ex-minister confirmed two things that had been driving forces in the publications: 1. Despite the official cover-up, the infiltration of drug traffickers in Salvadoran institutions is very serious; 2. The infiltration began with the formation of the new police force [the National Civil Police, established in 1993]. Here is the story of Operation Failure.
The minister had gone to his beach house on Wednesday of Easter week, in 2005. In San Salvador, in the east of the country, even in Nicaragua, the operation that he, the police, other secretaries of the state and even agents of the United States had drawn up over many long meetings at the ministry’s conference room, offices of the embassy, or in the president’s house, was finally ready. If everything went well, by Easter the minister could tell the president that his new government had done something somewhat exceptional: capturing the drug trafficker most wanted by the DEA in El Salvador (arrest warrant issued in New York); he could say that Chepe Luna was in prison. And so, on the alert, the minister returned to his beach house, ready to rest a few days. His cell phone, though, would stay on.
From the first hours of this holy Wednesday, long before the minister set off for the beach in El Salvador, in Nicaragua a pair of Salvadoran agents and their Nicaraguan colleagues put the finishing touches to the surveillance operation that, according to the plan, would begin the hunt for Chepe Luna. The idea was to make the smuggler and drug trafficker fall into a trap: undercover agents arranged to deliver him a shipment of beef and cocaine that he would transport from the coast of Chinandega to the Pan-American highway on the Salvadoran side. The intelligence analyzed in El Salvador, picked up by anti-narcotics agents with the help of the DEA, had given a very good idea of the routes used by Chepe Luna: Chinandega, Golfo, Barrancones or Las Tunas, Pasaquina, Santa Rosa de Lima, the Pan-American. The operation included surveillance points in the majority of these places. Including San Miguel, the last point of departure to San Salvador or to the markets of northern El Salvador.
In San Miguel, the agents Rosario and Marcial (fictitious names) were also awaiting a signal near Metrocenter. Sitting in a white Nissan they pretended to be a loving couple, taking advantage of the first day of the holidays to exchange kisses in the half-empty parking lot of the mall.
The night had begun, and the minister’s phone was still waiting for news.
A few months after the government of Antonio Saca came to power, a group of his ministers and heads of the National Civil Police met with diplomats and police attaches from the US Embassy to receive, from DEA and FBI agents, information about drug trafficking and smuggling. The US reports were broad: as early as 1996 the DEA had detected a significant·presence of drug boats on the beaches of eastern Salvador, as well as the use of old dairy and arms smuggling routes for drug trafficking.
In 2005, the name most often heard at the minister’s table was that of Jose Natividad Luna Pereira, born in Honduras but also registered at the city hall in Pasaquina during the administration of Arena party mayor Odir Ramirez. North American intelligence attributed the most important drug shipments that passed through El Salvador to this man, also known as Chepe Luna.
The task force formed after the first meetings made a decision: the government would undertake a relentless search for Chepe Luna. Capturing the kingpin was meant to demonstrate, in the first months of the administration, that the police had not been infiltrated, that the Technical Secretariat was in control of smuggling and tax policy, and that El Salvador took the fight against drug trafficking seriously. All of this failed, because the basic premise was false. The police were deeply infiltrated, especially by Chepe Luna and his subordinates.
The boy left the bicycle on the pavement, close to the driver’s side door of the white Nissan; he gave a few taps on the window. The agent Marcial, who had already completed five days of surveillance, rolled down the window.
“If you want, you can leave. The man you are waiting for is not coming,” the boy said.
The man the Salvadoran and Nicaraguan police were awaiting would not arrive. Chepe Luna had fled.
From the first moment, the minister suspected the police who had been at the meetings. This wasn’t the first time that complicity at the highest levels of El Salvador’s National Civil Police had thrown an investigation overboard like that. It wouldn’t be the last. (The ties of police and ex-police with Chepe Luna. Published in LPG.)
After that spectacular failure, at the end of 2005, the minister decided to restrict access to the meetings. The next step seemed clear:
“I informed everyone at the Presidential Palace. What had just happened was very serious. Capres [the administration] knew about everything. We also told them of our suspicions about the police,” the minister told me at the beginning of 2009 while we talked at his home in San Salvador.
“What did Capres do?,” I asked, despite the fact that at this point the answer seemed clear.
“Nothing. Or very little.”
In fact, in 2006, the Saca administration did something with the then-director of the National Police, Commissioner Ricardo Menesses; they sent him as a police representative to El Salvador’s Embassy in Washington, at the time led by Rene Leon. The Saca government created the post, ad-hoc, for the commissioner. On top of that, in addition to Menesses, the Police Inspectorate investigated four other then-top police bosses for suspected links to Chepe Luna, among them Commissioner Oscar Aguilar, who, in 2008, then-police director Francisco Rovira would rescue from ostracism to name as intelligence chief.
The special committee, thought of as the seed of a task force to combat smuggling and drug trafficking with the advice of the United States, failed without completing its first operation. The complicity of police in crime was already so severe in 2005 that it it made it impossible for such an idea to work. From then, I have listened to officials, ex-officials, Salvadoran and US investigators, academics, diplomats and journalists repeating this truth. The most recent time was last week.
Read the latest from Hector Silva Avalos here.