Guatemala has now captured more top-level drug traffickers in the past two years than in the previous decade, no doubt thanks to pressure from the U.S., with the latest arrest being a member of the Lorenzana crime family.
On November 8, police announced the arrest of Elio Lorenzana, the youngest son of the Lorenzana clan. A network of contraband-runners and drug traffickers, the Lorenzanas are among Guatemala’s most influential familities, deeply involved in both legitimate and illegitimate businesses.
Like his father Waldemar, arrested in April, Elio Lorenzana was detained peacefully in what appears to have been a low-key operation supported by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). He is now awaiting extradition to the U.S., where the government placed a $200,000 reward on his head. According to Guatemala’s anti-drug prosecutor, he is believed to have coordinated the handover of Colombian cocaine to Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel.
Elio’s quiet arrest and surrender is a marked difference from the previous five failed attempts by Guatemalan authorities to apprehend members of the Lorenzana family. Guatemalan security forces only began to pressure the clan after a U.S. court indicted the Lorenzanas for drug trafficking in March 2009.
What followed was a succession of botched raids that pointed to the Lorenzanas’ influence in Zacapa, a department some 130 kilometers east of the capital. Elio was arrested in the same Zacapa town where, in July 2009, the government launched a huge raid involving police, army and DEA officials, as well as several helicoptors.
Nobody from the Lorenzana family was arrested and the operation was deemed a failure. Even more embarrassingly for the government, the Lorenzanas orchestrated several mass protests in Zacapa that summer. Demonstrators declared support for the family, who are known for donating lavishly to local causes, and brandished signs critical of the DEA and the government.
That authorities were able to capture both Elio and his father this year shows that their new strategy is working. In 2011, the government has favored top-secret operations involving a small Guatemalan task force, shying away from the overt participation of the DEA (who still play a key advisory role). So far, this strategy has apparently kept intelligence from falling into the hands of the Lorenzanas, and allowed Guatemala to successfully detain the Lorenzana “patriarch” and his youngest son on their home turf.
But while the arrest of Elio is evidence of progress, the operation also points to ongoing institutional failings in Guatemala’s battle against organized crime. Neither Elio or his father have been indicted for crimes in Guatemala. If it wasn’t for the pending indictments in U.S. courts, and the U.S. Treasury’s designation of the Lorenzanas as significant drug traffickers, it’s likely that Guatemalan authorities would be moving much more slowly against the crime family.
The Lorenzanas are still able to operate their 15 legitimate businesses within Guatemala, even though all family assets have been frozen in the U.S. According to elPeriodico, Elio has various businesses registered in his name, including two transport companies, an agribusiness, a gas company and a construction firm. Other construction firms owned by the Lorenzanas have won highly profitable government contracts. The Lorenzanas are even believed to own land in Guatemala’s bio-reserve in the northern Peten department, according to think tank the International Crisis Group.
Until authorities move to undercut the Lorenzanas’ economic base, the government will have a tough time arguing that they are truly growing less tolerant of Guatemala’s traditional contraband families. The government has apparently stepped up operations against these old-time traffickers — which include figures like the Lorenzanas and Juan Chamale — just as a foreign crime wave is moving in, in the form of the Zetas.
Elio’s exit from the scene represents a victory for the government against traditional organized crime. It is also clear indication that Guatemalan forces are growing more competent at successfully carrying out arrests of top-level operatives. The downside is that it may yet give the Zetas another lucrative opening in Guatemala’s underworld.