Sinaloa Cartel-Linked Drug Network Dismantled in El Salvador

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Authorities in El Salvador have captured nearly two dozen members of a criminal network with ties to the Sinaloa Cartel, highlighting the importance of Central America’s Northern Triangle region to the hemisphere’s most powerful drug trafficking organization. 

Members of El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General de la República – FGR) and National Civil Police (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC) made the arrests on the night of February 5 and morning of February 6 following 14 months of investigation, the FGR announced in a statement. A total of 22 suspects were captured, including the alleged head of the network in El Salvador, José Leonidas Gómez Cuellar, alias “Pepe.”

The group worked under Guatemalan national Marlon Francesco Monroy Meoño, alias “Fantasma,” a high-level drug trafficker who was arrested in April 2016 and extradited to the United States in November. In addition to allegedly acting as a middleman for Colombian drug traffickers and Mexico’s Sinloa Cartel, Monroy Meoño has been linked to scandals connected to current Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales and his jailed predeccessor, Otto Pérez Molina. (See the FGR’s chart below)

According to the FGR, the Salvadoran network pretended to be small-scale fishermen but were in fact carrying out a variety of tasks for drug traffickers moving through El Salvador’s Pacific coast on go-fast boats. This included refueling the boats and protecting them as they reached shore, as well monitoring the location of patrol ships. Between January and June 2016, authorities confiscated some 400 kilos of cocaine connected to the group during two interdiction operations. 

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InSight Crime Analysis

The arrests draw attention to the crucial role that El Salvador, along with the other Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala and Honduras, play in sustaining the drug trafficking operations of Mexican organized crime. According to a 2012 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Mexican cartels have moved 90 percent of their cocaine trafficking operations to Central America. 

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

The Sinaloa Cartel in particular, widely considered the most powerful in the Western Hemisphere, has deep roots and extensive contacts in the region. In January 2015, the US Treasury Department designated as a “kingpin” the cartel’s former leader in Central America, Cesar Gastelum Serrano, who US officials believe was influential enough to negotiate directly with top Sinaloa bosses. And it was in Guatemala that legendary Sinaloa drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was arrested for the first time, back in 1993.  

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