Timing in Arrest of Salvadoran Drug Trafficker Raises Questions

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With the recent capture of a Salvadoran drug trafficker, Central America stands to lose one of its most powerful “transportistas.” But the timing of the arrest only serves to highlight how he likely enjoyed official protection for years. 

The Salvadoran Attorney General’s Office is preparing a drug trafficking case against Jorge Ernesto Ulloa Sibrian, alias “Repollo,” who was arrested Friday, March 15 in Guatemala and deported to El Salvador the following day for immigration violations. Salvadoran police intelligence have linked him to two gang leaders, Roberto Herrera, alias “El Burro,” of the Texis Cartel, and Wilber Rivera, a government representative imprisoned for a confusing shootout which police have also linked to drug trafficking. El Salvador and Guatemala police say that Repollo trafficked 16 tons of cocaine to the United States.

“He is bigger than ‘Neyo’ and Juan Colorado,” said a Salvadoran police chief, comparing Sibrian with Reynerio Flores Lazo and Juan Maria Medrano, two drug transporters –- known as “transportistas” in Spanish — from eastern El Salvador who are also in prison. Flores was sentenced for trafficking at least 2.1 tons of cocaine between Nicaragua and Guatemala. Medrano was sentenced for sending up to 100 kilos per week to New Jersey and Maryland. The Salvadoran Attorney General’s Office says that Ulloa has moved some 10 tons through Salvadoran territory en route to the United States since 2000; Guatemalan police add another six tons.

The numbers, in effect, put Ulloa Sibrian in the same league with former Salvadoran congressman William Eliu Martinez, sentenced in the United States in 2005 by a Washington D.C. court for bringing 36 tons of cocaine to the United States. Lawyers from the Department of Justice said eight years ago that Martinez directed one “of the biggest cocaine trafficking consortiums in Central America” and that “he hid behind the political power of his post,” the post being that of congressman.

Last weekend, Guatemalan authorities said something similar about Ulloa Sibrian regarding the size of his criminal operation, and one intelligence official in Guatemala even likened him to Byron Berganza, a drug trafficker from that country sentenced in 2008 for trafficking 22 tons of cocaine. The extent of the political protection received by Ulloa isn’t completely clear at first examination, but it does exist, according to reports from Salvadoran police.

In its Monday edition, Salvadoran newspaper La Prensa Grafica profiled Ulloa Sibrian in significant detail: a man of modest beginnings who, like other drug transporters in El Salvador, began by moving small quantities of cocaine between Nicaragua and Guatemala. Over the years, protected by state agents and after forming a large network of transporters, Ulloa began to buy real estate in El Salvador and Guatemala. Sunday, March 17, the Salvadoran Attorney General’s Office presented him before the media on the Santa Rita farm, a Pablo Escobar-style estate — complete with synthetic leather furniture, replicas of classical statues, and a deer farm –- and announced that the drug trafficker had moved $275 million worth of cocaine northwards.

Unlike Flores Lazo, who used high tonnage vans, or Juan Colorado, who used a small army of suppliers — travelers who make a living carrying shipments to Salvadoran migrants residing in the United States –- Ulloa opted for a diversified fleet of pick-ups and, according to some investigators, even speedboats.

And, just like Neyo and Colorado, Ulloa Sibrian made deals with politicians, police, and gang members; ties dating back to the days when he moved small quantities of cocaine in “tacuacinas,” as automobile trailers are known in El Salvador. A report from the El Salvador Police Intelligence Center connects Repollo to a drug shipment of 24 kilos of cocaine discovered in 2004 in a “tacuacina” linked to a politician from the ARENA party.

One of the documents that the Salvadoran police used when they began to investigate Ulloa Sibrian in 2010 notes that in 2009, he began meeting with a wide range of criminal power brokers in a used car shop along San Salvador’s Juan Pablo II Avenue. These power brokers included Wilber Rivera, the imprisoned politician suspected of being a member of the Texis Cartel, according to an El Faro investigation; Jose Misael Cisneros, gang leader of the Fulton Locos Salvatruchos in Nueva Concepcion, territory under the influence of the Texis Cartel, who was captured in May 2012 and liberated shortly thereafter under unclear circumstances; and Carlos Alberto Rivas Barahona, leader of the Barrio 18 gang with links to former national police (PNC) director Ricardo Menesses, who is currently in the Izalco prison, from where he serves as a spokesperson for the gang truce.

Another report, this one from agents who followed Ulloa Sibrian in El Salvador two weeks prior to his capture in Guatemala, says that Repollo had coffee with “El Burro” Herrera in the biggest shopping center in Santa Ana. El Burro is another Salvadoran drug trafficker, whose arrest warrant was issued by Interpol and who was arrested by the Salvadoran PNC in February 2011. He was later freed due to problems with the court paperwork that was turned in to the United States.

Before this meeting, Repollo had gone shopping for automobile parts along the Troncal de Norte highway which runs through the Salvadoran capital. Despite the fact that, following his capture in Guatemala, Salvadoran police said that they were on Ulloa Sibrian’s trail for months, they still haven’t explained why they didn’t arrest him while he was in El Salvador.

Monday night, the Salvadoran Attorney General’s Office ordered complete discretion in the case, meaning that only prosecutors and defenders will be able to know the details of the investigations. Salvadoran law utilizes this method when a criminal case poses a risk to national security.

InSight Crime Analysis

Jorge Ulloa Sibrian’s arrest is one of the most important captures in the past two years in Central America’s northern triangle. This is one the region’s principal drug corridors, with Guatemala serving as an outpost for Mexican cartels, Honduras as the unofficial airport for cocaine shipments entering the country by air, and El Salvador as an alternative route, a place of rest and recuperation for criminal groups and, in the past decade, home to the growth of complex networks of drug “transportistas.”

Prior to Ulloa Sibrian, another Salvadoran drug trafficker, Jose Natividad Luna Pereira, (who actually has Honduran nationality) was arrested in August 2012 in Honduras. Wanted by the DEA since 2003, he was freed 48 hours later on a legal technicality and, according to a Honduran agent consulted Monday, continues operating a network of buses that authorities suspect are used for drug trafficking.

It seems unlikely that Ulloa Sibrian will be freed in El Salvador, to where he was deported a day after his arrest in Guatemala. Nevertheless, it is odd that Salvadoran police never tried to arrest Repollo during the multiple times that he entered the country. There are those in El Salvador’s PNC who believe that Ulloa has been paying for protection from officials since 2004. Still, Ulloa’s arrest in Guatemala, (and the pressure exerted by the DEA there), as well as the large scale investigation already being undertaken by the Salvadoran Attorney General’s Office, will make it very difficult for the drug trafficker to get let out of prison quickly.

In a first, Guatemalan authorities connected Ulloa Sibrian directly with the Sinaloa Cartel, something that the Salvadorans deny. Like Eliu Martinez or Reynerio Flores, the most likely is that Ulloa has worked for the Guatemalan intermediaries of Mexican cartels. His case is one more in the list of Salvadoran transporters who, thanks to official protection, impunity, and the sophistication of their criminal techniques, continue moving significant quantities of cocaine to the United States.

*Hector Silva Avalos is a Salvadoran journalist and current resident fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies (CLALS), which sponsors InSight Crime’s work. Read more of Silva’s writing here

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