Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Mexican drug cartels move into Central America

Associated Press

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – On a steamy, late-summer day near the Salvadoran coast, more than 100 police working an intelligence tip scoured a near-vacant cattle ranch the size of 42 Manhattan blocks.

Using probes and backhoes, they unearthed two plastic storage drums packed with U.S. dollars. It took three days to count the $20s, $50s and $100s — which added up to more than $10 million. A third barrel was excavated a week later from beneath a patio in an upscale San Salvador suburb, for a total of $14.5 million.

Though questions remain, the stash may be Mexican drug cartel money. One of the two Guatemalan ranch owners allegedly had ties to the leader of a Guatemalan branch of Mexico's Gulf Cartel, who is serving a 31-year sentence for drug trafficking in the U.S.

Mexican drug cartels now operate virtually uninhibited in their Central American backyard. U.S.-supported crackdowns in Mexico and Colombia have only pushed traffickers into a region where corruption is rampant, borders lack even minimal immigration control and local gangs provide a ready-made infrastructure for organized crime.

"The cartels are clear on the possibilities for using El Salvador as a place to launder money or to transport it south to pay for their drugs," National Police deputy director Howard Cotto told The Associated Press in an interview.

When President Barack Obama visits El Salvador later this month as part of a swing through Latin America, he will hit the region at its hottest point since the civil wars in the 1980s. Cocaine seizures in Central America tripled from 2003 to 2008, according to the U.N. World Drug Report. The murder rate in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, already the highest in the world, is climbing in part from a rise in local drug dealing, authorities say.

While the U.S. and Mexico focus on gunrunning on their shared border, arms trafficking thrives in Guatemala, a country that doesn't manufacture a single firearm. There is even evidence that guns are brought from the U.S. into Guatemala and then smuggled into Mexico, in an example of reverse trafficking from south to north, one U.S. government official said.

"We have no firm numbers," said the official, who could not be named for security reasons. "What we know is that it's occurring and it doesn't seem to be random."

Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, who maintains close ties with the U.S. despite being the country's first leftist leader, says he will focus the Obama visit on poverty. El Salvador has seen little change in the poverty and violence that fueled its 13-year civil war until 1992, and the rural states and outskirts of the capital that served as guerrilla battlegrounds are now the domain of deadly gangs.

The White House says the president, scheduled to be in El Salvador March 22 and 23, will talk about "regional and bilateral economic, clean energy, and citizen security cooperation initiatives."

But other Central American countries say security is issue No. 1 and are baffled at White House plans for only a bilateral meeting.

"For those of us who have worked for decades in regional cooperation, we feel let down," said former Guatemalan Vice President Eduardo Stein, noting that the White House may not have wanted to wade into regional problems, such as a border dispute between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. "It looks like they are trying to protect the president from local infighting. But it feels like a cop out."

Central America has always been a transit corridor for drugs coming from Colombia to the United States and a hideout for Mexican capos. A key suspect later convicted in the 1985 killing of DEA agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena in Mexico was arrested in Costa Rica. The head of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, was nabbed near the border between Mexico and Guatemala in 1993.

"There have long been connections between five to six families here and the Gulf cartel and Sinaloa cartel," said U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Stephen McFarland. "Most groups had dealings here with one or the other or both ... generally the drug-trafficking organizations more or less left each other alone."

But the flood of drugs and money have intensified, first with security crackdowns in the U.S. after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and later with Mexico's assault on organized crime beginning in 2006. Authorities mark the worst crime waves with the arrival of the Zetas cartel in Central America in 2008, about the same time Mexican cartels started to pay their collaborators on the ground in drugs instead of cash — creating a boom in local drug sales and violent street crime.

McFarland said the Zetas, formed from defectors of Mexico's elite forces as the enforcement arm of the Gulf Cartel, were invited to Guatemala by local cartels to provide protection, but soon after began taking over the territory for themselves.

Today, any cartel that wants to do business in Guatemala has to pay an extortion fee to the Zetas, according to Leonel Ruiz, federal prosecutor for narcotics activity, whose caseload has gone up 50 percent in the last five years.

The Guatemalan government recently ended a two-month siege in the mountainous northern state of Alta Verapaz near the Mexican border, a prime corridor for smuggling drugs from Honduras to Mexico, where Zetas roamed the streets with assault rifles and armored vehicles and even controlled when people could leave their homes. But few people think a siege in one state did much -- Ruiz says the Zetas control four other states and as much as half of Guatemala's territory.

Now, the vast majority of suspicious transports by sea end up in Guatemala, while an overwhelming number of suspicious flights land in Honduras, according to intelligence information shown to the AP. Honduran authorities have found an average of 20 abandoned airplanes a year along the Atlantic coast in the last three years and suspect that fishermen help offload drugs from ships at sea to avoid potential detection in ports.

Honduran authorities were alarmed last week to find a cocaine-processing laboratory in the remote northeastern mountains. Evidence ties the lab, capable of producing 440 to 880 pounds (200 to 400 kilograms) a week, to the Sinaloa Cartel.

Government corruption and porous borders make it difficult for authorities to fight back. Across the region, countless public officials, including police chiefs and drug czars, have been prosecuted or made to resign. An arms trafficking study by the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala cited dozens of uncontrolled vehicle crossings along Guatemala's borders with four countries, including 44 along the 600-mile (963-kilometer) border with Mexico.

The northern triangle already struggles with networks of street gangs that pushed murder rates to between 50 and 60 people per 100,000 in 2008, compared to 11.6 in Mexico and five in the U.S., according to the U.N. World Drug Report.

The gangs still mostly stick to petty crime and extortion, especially in Guatemala. But they have become increasingly involved in local drugs sales. And in El Salvador, Cotto said, authorities have reports that the Mexican cartels are eyeing the Mara Salvatruchas for an alliance that could overwhelm the small country.

"We would be in a very difficult situation crime-wise, because they would have more money and bigger arms than they do at the moment," said Gen. David Munguia Payes, Salvadoran defense minister, who says he also has documented cases of Zetas trying to recruit Salvadoran military and police.

Even in Costa Rica and Panama, countries with much lower crime rates, murders and cocaine seizures have skyrocketed, including cases of execution-style killings in Panama that authorities say are directly related to drug trafficking.

The U.S. and international groups have worked with Central America to build regional programs for fingerprinting, wiretapping and police training, among others. A U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime program to inspect containers coming into Guatemala ports is set to begin this month. And the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is now establishing arms-tracking operations in the region.

After complaints that Central America was an afterthought, receiving only $165 million for the now $1.8 billion Merida Initiative to fight drugs in Mexico, Congress last year created a separate Central America Regional Security Initiative with a total of $248 million to date.

The region says it's not enough.

The Central American Integration System, an organization representing seven countries, says it would take close to $1 billion to pay for a viable security plan and plans a donors conference in June to raise the money.

But the stunning case of the narco-barrels shows how deep the transnational drug ties already run.

The two barrels were dug up in early September about five yards (meters) apart on a 72-acre (29-hectare) ranch in the town of Penitente Abajo, about 40 miles (62 kilometers) from the capital of San Salvador.

One of the ranch's owners, Guatemalan Bilbardy Obdulio Ortega Vasquez, was already in custody after he and two women were picked up in the San Salvador airport in August, heading to Panama with $36,900 in undeclared cash. Authorities say Ortega Vasquez is the alleged accountant of jailed drug kingpin Jorge Mario Paredes Cordova, a.k.a. "El Gordo," who ran an arm of the Gulf Cartel in Guatemala before he was captured in Honduras and sentenced in New York last year to 31 years for conspiracy to import and distribute cocaine.

A third narco-barrel found a week later under a patio had more than $4 million in $100 bills. Cotto says the barrels are clearly related to the same operation, packed in the same manner with money distributed in the same quantities. But they still don't know who is behind it.

"We don't know for sure that there aren't more barrels," Cotto said. "They say everyone is now excavating their patios."


  1. Damn...$14.5 mil... Thats gotta hurt...

  2. Ha ha ha ha ha... Take that bastards... How you like them apples?

  3. ^^^ Hey are you guys retarded? 14.5 mil is nothing in a business of an estimated value of 40-70 billion dollars. How do you like them apples?

  4. Here is the orignial in the Washington Post..
    including the slide show..

  5. they found one guys piggy bank.. how much more can he have if he buried 14 mil.. Ill take them applles all day.

  6. What this piece is is a pure propaganda puff piece in advance of the big visit, as US 'Drug War' top general, Barack Obama, prepares for a visit to his allied troops (the rotten US puppet governments of Latin America) throughout Central America, where the US High Command has now successfully regionalized its Latin American fighting under the current guise of supposedly just fighting drug cartels.

    The US now has regionalized fighting going on everywhere and stretching from South Texas and Arizona, into Mexico and all the way through every Central American country minus Nicaragua into and through Colombia, too. Yet another undeclared war of the Pentagon without the understanding of the US people, and without even any observation of it by most US citizens. Sad that the US has so many folk totally just entirely clueless about their own government's military interventions.

    Only a few folk are even reading Borderland Beat, and it is rare when dissident websites like or Common Dreams ever even offer a tidbit of info up to the public to see. The public can't seem to see the trees for the forest!

  7. $14.5 million. Now that has to hurt. Seems like cartel and gang members are going to have to take pay-cuts soon.

  8. I'm just wondering who keeps the money they find? Make it where if your government finds the cash you keep it and STOP asking for our damn cash! Shit, do they think the US has a fucking money tree orchard somewhere? Those damn trees have died long time ago!

  9. The low intensity US 'drug war' in Latin America stretches from north in Mexico throughout all of Central America and down through all of South America, too. In some cases it involves US military and US policing 'advisors', but in all places it involves much more how the relationship to the Colossus of the North (the USA) will play out and how it will play out with D.C.'s fetish 'drug war' militarization of Latin America amongst the local politicians and governments there.

    In less than a month Peru will have its national elections and the top 3 candidates are all US trained/ educated professional politician hacks, with the top dog in the polls previously having been a 'president' whose popularity had sunk to *% when he was last in in 2006. His main challenger is the daughter of the horrible torturer and criminal, ex US allied boss, Fujimori, who had to flee to Japan as a wanted criminal, protected by the uS and Japan.

    The article below gives an idea about just how pervasive US militarizing of Latin America really is...

    Drugs Playing Role in Peru Presidential Contest

    Who wins may very well determine how easy it will be for the Pentagon to slip its forces deeper into South America, always using the 'drug war' as its excuse.

  10. "The top 3 candidates are all US trained/educated"...considering the quality of a Peruvian education, does this surprise you? Instead of blaming everything on the evil empire to the north, just admit that your country is for the most part, a shithole. Redirect your anger for the US towards doing something positive within your country.

  11. I live in the US and the US is my country, AnonyMoe 12:34. I do point out though that the rich Latin American elites are almost all US educated because that is most usually an indicator of where their actual loyalties lie. To the US elites, and not their own paisanos of all classes other than the elites.

    So how would you like, Mr. USA guy, if all our candidates from the upper classes were always mandated that they had to get their education in China or France at the top foreign universities, and that they then felt more respect and alliance for those countries than our own one? That they came back with goals to vacation in Beijing and Paris as often as possible, while waving the little US flag around like they were great American patriots?

    'Redirect your anger for the US towards doing something positive within your country.'

    You are utterly clueless about how US imperialism distorts the lives of people in other nations in negative manner. Instead, you just want to cheerlead for corporatized/ militarized US culture as it craps up the entire planet. You think it simply A-OK that the US pushes wars and poverty around the globe to enrich its own corporate US elites, but I do not. YOu love the evil empire and think it all lovely but it really does suck, Mr USA Flag Man.

  12. @11:52AM
    It IS the USA's fault, for using the policy of Drug Prohibition as an excuse to militarize the entire region. After 41+ years & 1+ TRILLION American dollars spent on this failed Drug War, I HOPE they had an ulterior motive to militarize the region...if not, the US gov't is stupider [sic on purpose] than anyone could've imagined. How many DECADES need to pass before people realize that the Drug War cannot & will not ever be won? How many DECADES need to pass before people realize that drugs are here to stay? Why has 41+ years passed without trying a different strategy? If you can't see that as being the case, and many don't, including the gov't, then the status quo will continue on this path to nowhere. Call it what you want on the surface, but you don't have to dig too deep to see it is Imperialism in its truest form. The USA wants to control every country/gov't that it possibly can. There really is no rational reason why our military is there, none. The Drug War is just a facade.

  13. 2:24 pm...Thanks for proving my point and I'll bet you don't even realize it. Redirect your anger to do something positive. The US is far from perfect but not everything is the fault of the US...that was my only point.

    Just curious, where did I say anything about promoting corportized/militarized US culture? Once again, you've proven might point. When folks like you are angry, you make things up to justify your position.

    "You are utterly clueless about how US imperialism distorts the lives of people in other nations in negative manner".....I've lived in Mexico, Brazil, Ecuador, Italy, France, and spent time in numerous other south american countries along the way. You??

  14. yeah maybe the US is getting into everyone elses business, but you have to think what would be of Columbia if the US didn't help them get Pablo...

  15. Colombia still is about where it has been since 1948 with the killing of Gaitan and even before then, too. It is in a dirty war, or civil war, if one prefers, Anonymous 7:02PM.

    The US becoming involved has just added to the level of Colombian violence rather than actually decreasing it, and made it much more probable to pop up in an even more vicious form in the near future. We should not mistake the lull in fighting for a permanent peace because Colombia has solved none of its social inequality.

    And Anonympus 5:03, I don't really care how many countries you have lived in to have been previously calling the country where you thought I lived in (which was other than the US you were cheering on) to be a shithole, as you put it.

    That said more about you than all your subsequent apologetics. Was it Peru or Mexico you originally thought I was from that you called a shit hole? Calling another place a shithole shows more personal anger than I have mustered up against you for being the fool.

    'The US is far from perfect but not everything is the fault of the US...that was my only point.'

    Yeah, sure and I can hear your blahblahblah.... And if I had a single dollar for every US Right Wing numbskull who has come up with this line I'd be richer than Bill Gates.

  16. get'em Ardent!!!!

  17. The reason the US can get in every other countries is because we are bigger, richer and more powerful. And we didn't get that way by sitting on our asses. Through innovation, cut throat tactics, and business savvy we grew to one of the most powerful nations in the world. Now I don't know if its racist to say that mexico & south america are just populated by less intelligent individuals, but how else do you explain a country that has been around for longer being so far behind the US?

  18. Tiso -

    don't forget theft. the land we got from mexico we stole fair and square.

  19. Tiso do you even know your history? To say "a country that has been around for longer " Tell me when Mexico and most of the South America countries became countries and you will see how stupid your statement really is. And to say "less intelligent" does not make you racist but really ignorant and misinformed on how these countries became the way they are. All I have to say is learn your history.


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