Plaza Publica: The Decline of Guatemala’s Drug Dynasty

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Following the capture of Waldemar Lorenzana, alias “El Patriarca,” head of one of Guatemala’s biggest drug trafficking groups, Mexican gang the Zetas are tightening their hold over the organization’s territory.

The following is an translation of an extract from Plaza Publica’s article, “The Decline of the Lorenzanas.”

The capture of Guatemala’s capo of capos, Waldemar Lorenzana Lima, seemed utopian, along with the police’s arrest of two other national bosses: Mauro Salomon Ramirez, who was behind the shooting of Tikal Futura, caught on October 2, 2010, and Juan Ortiz Lopez, alias “Juan Chamale,” well-loved in many villages in San Marcos, imprisoned since March 30.

German philosopher Hannah Arendt says that authority figures — or those who consider themselves as such — use violence when they are challenged. But Lorenzana, 71 years old, with 15 construction companies (some contracted by the state), transportation fleets, fruit and gasoline exporters, could employ (and thus buy) a considerable number of “hearts and minds,” in order to avoid opposition and to launder the money that came from drug trafficking.

Lorenzana, like Ramirez and Ortiz, filled space neglected by the state, offering employment, sports fields, clinics, and even public lighting, and thus won goodwill. Only when this method did not work any more, did he use force.

Before the Third District Court, Lorenzana described himself as having been a commercial exporter since 1959. We can calculate that he started in the business when he was 19 years old. The Public Ministry says that since the 1970s the Lorenzanas have received thousands of [tons] of Colombian cocaine which, via El Salvador, was transported to Guatemala by land or by sea, from where they would take it to Mexico.

El Patriarca allegedly became familiar with smuggling when he was a customs agent, many years ago. Arnoldo Vargas followed the same path, after becoming mayor of Zacapa, and was one of the first crime lords to pursue the strategy of winning “hearts and minds.” He was also one of the first arrested for drug trafficking in 1990. He was extradited to the U.S. in 1992, and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Still, the Lorenzanas always believed that they had enough eyes and ears for their protection, in the village of La Reforma, in Huite, Zacapa, and in Chiquimula, Jalapa, Izabal, and even in El Progreso, where El Patriarca was captured. The urban legend lives on about the person who neglected this duty in 2009, and did not live to tell the tale, when (with support from the DEA [U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration]) there were four spectacular failed attempts to capture the Lorenzanas, father and sons.

This time, in 2011, the attorney general, Claudia Paz, and the interior minister, Carlos Menocal, say that the Guatemalan intelligence systems worked, that they are quieter, that they were more effective. In addition, neither the DEA nor the FBI participated, but were limited to advising the investigation. After all, it was a court from the District of Columbia (in Washington) which ordered the capture of the Lorenzanas on March 10, 2009, for conspiracy to import cocaine into the U.S.

Why the capture? And why now?

In 2010, the map of drug trafficking in Guatemala changed dramatically. Once divided between the Gulf Cartel (in the north and the Atlantic coast) and the Sinaloa Cartel (in the south and the Pacific coast), the Zetas entered to take over the territory of the Gulf Cartel, their former bosses. The Zetas are a group founded by the Gulf Cartel as an armed wing, formed by Guatemalan ex-Kaibiles and ex-soldiers from Mexico’s elite. But the Zetas became independent in 2007, and began to enter Guatemala, through Huehuetenango towards Coban, where they established their center of operations, which included training camps in Quiche and major displacements [of rivals] in the east.

Last year, in 2010, the break was final. Members of the Gulf Cartel murdered Victor Peña, alias “El Concord 3,” part of the inner circle of the Zetas, and the Zetas demanded that the Gulf Cartel hand over the assassins. The Gulf refused and declared war on their former allies, with Guatemala as disputed territory, like the whole Caribbean coast of Mexico.

Here, the Zetas lacked the power to win “hearts and minds,” and imposed themselves by force. The first demonstration was the famous assassination of “Juancho” Leon in March 2008 in Zacapa. According to military and civil intelligence sources, this was [punishment] for stealing drugs from the Zetas, and killing two of them. They allegedly had the consent of the Lorenzanas, in whose territory the execution took place. The Lorenzanas had to give the green light, to compensate the Zetas for the harm that Juancho had caused them. Balance: 11 dead. The second demonstration came eight months later, when the Zetas confronted a group from Sinaloa at an interrupted horse race in Huehuetenango. Balance: 17 dead.

They didn’t need to say more until April 2009, when they killed five police officers who were allegedly trying to steal drugs stored in a warehouse in Amatitlan, rented by the Zetas. They became bolder a few months later, stealing weapons from a police officer, and inspiring in a manhunt that covered five departments in the east. They reappeared in October 2010, allegedly to recover cargo hidden in El Naranjo, Peten, in a farm belonging to Juancho’s alleged successor, who was murdered that same year.

On December 19, the government imposed a state of siege in Alta Verapaz, “to restore governance” in the department, diminish the criminal activities spurred by the Zetas, and to destroy their hegemony. Two months later, apart from seizing hundreds of weapons, various planes, and vehicles, the arrest of 22 people, and the reduction of crime during that period, according to Menocal, the only visible change was that the Zetas adopted a lower profile.

The interior minister declined to say how many Zetas there are in the country. An investigator from the Public Ministry said in 2010, based on police and military intelligence, that there were some 800, of which a third are Mexicans and the rest Guatemalans.

Strategic Geography

The Lorenzanas worked with the Sinaloa Cartel to move drugs between El Salvador and Mexico via the south coast of Guatemala. A little further north, the Mendoza family, based between Izabal and Peten, were closer to the Gulf Cartel, whose zone of operations is the northeast and north of the country.

However, there were some traffickers with more flexible borders, who wanted to cover the Pacific coast as well as the Atlantic. One of these was Jorge Mario “El Gordo” Paredes, accused of killing [Ministry of the Interior] security advisor Victor Rivera. El Gordo was captured in Honduras in May 2008 and deported to the U.S. He was allegedly a member of the Zetas, like his brother Arturo Paredes, killed by gunmen in Izabal in November 2010. [A third Paredes brother was also gunned down in May 2011].

The Zetas arrived in Guatemala as the “armed wing of the Gulf Cartel.” When they wanted a slice of the cake, they demanded a share of the profits from routes that were already established and operated by other groups. That explains why they have not tried to take the place of the Mendozas or the Lorenzanas. And it is also why they have never been detained with drug shipments, but only with weapons and ammunition.

In mid-2010, a civilian intelligence investigator, using military and police information, concluded that the Lorenzanas, the Mendozas, and the Zetas “were letting each other work;” a small “pax mafiosa.” The only one who hired the Zetas to displace his opponents was Walter Overdick in Coban (according to a U.S. cable from February 2009, recovered by WikiLeaks). Overdick made the same mistake as a capo from the Gulf Cartel when he contracted the Zetas; he asked for help from a guard dog capable of biting the hand of its master.

The Zetas got out of Overdick’s control. They even had the help of an ex-vice minister of defense to set up the operational structure in that department. They also enjoyed the complicity of Otoniel “El Loco” Turcios Marroquin, detained in Belize in October, who was the right hand of Paredes (close to the Zetas) and who is now facing trial in New York in the same case that cost Paredes a 31-year prison sentence.

The state of siege in Alta Verapaz did not make a single dent in the Zetas’ operations. The security forces removed them for two months, but they have returned with the assassination of a cardamom businessman and the burning of a car shop. They have returned, but less flagrantly.

After the Big Catch

When the capos Mauro Salomon Ramirez and Juan Chamale fell five months apart, in October and March, the Lorenzanas were left in a dangerously fragile equilibrium. The dominoes of Sinaloa began to fall, while the Zetas gained space (barely disturbed by the state of siege in Alta Verapaz), in a context in which “being left to work peacefully” is now less necessary for the Zetas.

There were a series of murders following the captures of Ramirez and Ortiz, which according to [Interior Minister Carlos] Menocal had to do with the power struggles to succeed them as small bosses; in the case of the Lorenzanas, the same could have been predicted. With one exception. According to Tomas Borges, the family clans of drug-trafficking survive better than those in which the succession of power is not related to a degree of blood relationship. He offers as an example the case of the Tijuana Cartel, in which the Arellano Felix brothers ruled until one by one — by capture or death — they fell and the cartel was weakened under the under the command of the only sibling who survived and was at liberty: Enedina Arellano Felix.

With the Lorenzanas, established in the east since the 1950s, the same thing could happen. But El Patriarca is in prison, and there are arrest warrants against his three sons (Waldemar, Haroldo, and Eliu Lorenzana Cordon), the husband of one of his daughters, and another man (Carlos Alvarenga Mejia and Gonzalo Lopez Cabrera). With things as they are, decline is knocking on the door, unless the clan has another member to impose the family authority, who knows how to play his cards with the Zetas. [See diagram of the Lorenzanas’ structure below].

The Zetas will measure their actions based on the reaction of the Lorenzanas, in order to maintain the current equilibrium, or to hit them when they are most vulnerable — not to get rid of them, but to colonize their operations (without wasting the wealth of “hearts and minds” that the Lorenzanas have in the east), to collect their share, and to take over the transit routes which until now have had the stamp of the Sinaloa Cartel.

Translated and reprinted with permission from Plaza Publica.


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