Betsy Maribel Prado Álava had chosen a place she thought her family would be safe. She rented a house in the hills of her home state of Manabí in western Ecuador that could only be reached along narrow footpaths passable on foot or horseback. It took them two months to find her.
It was around nine in the evening on a Friday night when the group of armed men burst into the house and opened fire on the whole family. Betsy and her children escaped through the bushes, a bullet grazing her 15-year-old son as they fled into the darkness. But her husband Angel died with 12 bullets and a stab wound in his body.
*This article is part of an InSight Crime investigation into how Ecuador became one of the global cocaine trade’s primary dispatch points. Read the first, second and third parts.
The killers of Betsy’s husband escaped. But investigators suspect the man behind the attack is the same man who used to guard her brother’s countless millions in cocaine profits: José Adolfo Macías Villamar, alias “Fito.” Fito, they believe, was after the hidden fortune of drug trafficker Washington Prado Alava, alias “Gerald.”
Gerald’s rise to becoming one of the most notorious drug traffickers Ecuador has produced to date was meteoric. But his fall has been just as dramatic, exposing not only the violence and betrayal characteristic of the cocaine trade, but also the corruption that is rotting away the Ecuadorean state from within.
The investigation that would lead to Gerald’s downfall was not sparked by a cocaine haul or a narco-feud, but by the murder of a construction worker. The worker had built special secure facilities in Gerald’s properties where he could stash the cash he was earning faster than he could launder. When millions of dollars went missing from these safe houses, Gerald blamed the worker, and the worker paid with his life.
As investigators began to dig around into the murders, they were shocked to trace them to a homegrown drug trafficker from Manabí who had risen to the top of the regional cocaine trade under their noses.
SEE ALSO: Ecuador's Alleged 'Pablo Escobar': From Boatman to Drug Lord
Gerald had got his start in the drug trade as a "lanchero" —piloting the boats that make the arduous drug run to the coasts of Central America and Mexico. But by the time investigators began to unpick his network, Gerald had become one of the most powerful traffickers, not only in Ecuador, but also in southwest Colombia. He had moved up the supply chain one link at a time until the point where he was buying his own cocaine in Colombia, and coordinating transport the entire route to Guatemala, where his own buyers were waiting.
According to US authorities, by the time of his arrest, Gerald had trafficked at least 250 tons of cocaine towards the United States, while communications intercepts presented as evidence in court showed he was sending 3-4 boats out a week, each of which would be able to carry up to a ton of cocaine.
While much of Gerald’s business was conducted in Colombia, in Ecuador, he concentrated on making his home province of Manabí a safe space for his family and for his money. He built up a network that could not only traffic drugs but could also launder money, exercise armed power, and manipulate the state.
InSight Crime spoke to several investigators with direct knowledge of the case, who spoke on condition of anonymity. They suspect it was three key members of this network behind the events that would lead to Gerald’s exposure in Ecuador: a police captain, a human rights lawyer, and a gangster.
The murdered construction worker, the investigators believe, was set up. Gerald had acted on supposed police intelligence that didn’t exist. The source of the information, according to court documents, was police captain Freddy Zambrano Herrera.
Zambrano allegedly began his criminal career as a bodyguard for a drug lord while working in a corrupt special operations police unit that provided security for drug traffickers and their operations. After being transferred to Manabí, he led a corruption network from within the police at the service of Gerald, according to the investigators.
Zambrano was married to Olga Rosalía Machuca Mera, a human rights lawyer who ran for congress in 2017 in a campaign bankrolled by Gerald, according to witnesses at her trial. Machuca was a key point of contact between Gerald and the legal world.
The investigators believe that the couple hatched the plot to steal the money and then blame the construction worker along with one of Gerald’s most trusted lieutenants: Fito.
A leader of the once fearsome gang Los Choneros, Fito ran operations from his prison cell – aside from the four months he spent on the lam in 2013 following a spectacular jailbreak. Initially, Gerald sought out Fito for his intimate knowledge of money laundering, and for his armed network, which provided security for Gerald’s stash houses and operations, investigators say. Soon though, he became an integral part of Gerald’s machine, and evidence presented in court shows Fito laundering money, overseeing drug shipments, and organizing refuelling stops for Gerald’s drug boats.
After tracing the murder to Gerald, authorities in Ecuador began to work closely with their Colombian counterparts to track his network, and it was in Colombia that he was finally captured in April 2017. This, investigators confess, was their preferred option as they feared the protection he enjoyed in Ecuador would likely see him walk free.
However, while they left Gerald for the Colombians, Ecuadorean investigators targeted his network in Manabí. They arrested 11 people, among them Captain Zambrano, Rosalia Machuca, and Gerald’s wife Julia Mero García.
Gerald responded to his arrest and the capture of his family and allies by counter-attacking on all fronts. He hired a flock of criminal lawyers, cranked up his corruption machine and drew up a hit list.
In his prison cell in Bogota, Gerald received a stream of lawyers from the United States, Ecuador and Colombia, with Colombian newspaper El Espectador tracking visits from at least 26 attorneys.
Gerald’s army of lawyers launched a barrage of lawsuits in Colombia and Ecuador in attempts to avoid extradition to the United States. He also leveraged his contacts with the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), who had been his main cocaine suppliers and were at the time handing over their weapons as part of their peace process with the Colombian government. Gerald bought his way onto a list of demobilizing combatants due to receive amnesty, but he was quickly struck off by the Colombian authorities.
In Ecuador, Gerald’s efforts began by calling in favours with one of the giants of Ecuadorean politics: Jose Serrano, according to recent allegations made by one of Gerald’s lawyers, Luigi García Cano.
SEE ALSO: Ecuador: A Cocaine Superhighway to the US and Europe
Serrano was the interior minister during the previous administration led by President Rafael Correa. He is widely credited with overseeing a remarkable drop in violence levels during his time as minister, and was decorated by the DEA for record drug seizures on his watch. He has previously been accused of corruption, abuse of power and even kidnapping, and in Ecuador there is a constant murmur of rumours of his involvement in darker things still.
At the time of Gerald’s arrest, Serrano was no longer a government minister, but he was president of the National Assembly. According to García, Serrano summoned him to a meeting at a Marriott Hotel in Quito. In an interview with Ecuadorean investigative website Plan V in 2019, García described how Serrano had asked him if he knew of Gerald, before telling him he was going to be defending the arrested trafficker, who Serrano then called and spoke to on the phone in front of Garcia.
Serrano responded to the allegations on Twitter, denying all ties to drug traffickers.
Gerald’s attempts to avoid trial in the United States, however, were unsuccessful and, in February 2018, he was extradited.
The legal team assembled in Ecuador, meanwhile, had been plotting his wife Mero’s freedom. Inside the prison, Mero had her own private room and security and had employees bring her money and cell phone sim cards. But she wanted out.
According to intelligence documents obtained by InSight Crime, Mero’s team targeted the judge slated to preside over her first hearing. The report details how the judge reported coming under pressure from a top-level official at the body that oversees Ecuador’s judiciary, the Judiciary Council (Consejo de la Judicatura). The official allegedly offered her a large sum of money in order to kill the case and drop charges against Mero.
Just how large a sum was on offer was soon made clear, when one of Gerald’s lawyers then approached the judge, offering her $5-7million for the ruling. When the judge refused, the council official sought to replace her for the trial, according to the intelligence sources.
When their bribery failed, the lawyers resorted to delaying, pushing back hearing after hearing. One of the judges involved filed a report demanding an inquiry into whether the defence was delaying until the defendants had been on remand as long as the law allowed, and so would have to be freed.
But Gerald’s network was not only focused on working the legal system. In June, Gerald dispatched a hitman from Colombia. Authorities picked the assassin up before he could act, finding in his wallet the names and addresses of two policemen working on the case.
The police were not his only targets. Authorities also obtained what they said was a hit list, seen by Plan V, which included the names of a prosecutor, a member of the Manabí assembly, and the name “Serrano,” for whom Gerald had offered a bounty of $2million.
The convictions for both Gerald and his network both came in 2018. And while Gerald received 19 years in the United States, the sentences handed down to his network were a stark illustration of the impunity that the investigators had feared.
Mero was sentenced in January. She and the other defendants had all accepted plea bargains, in which the charges were lowered from drug trafficking to organized crime. Mero and Fito received 28 months, while the others accused, including Rosalia Machuca, received 20 months. With the months taken off for time served, the sentence amounted to a little over a year.
The only member not to benefit was Captain Zambrano, who was not part of the same case. In June 2017, Zambrano was found hanging from a bedsheet noose in his prison cell – but still alive. A Ministry of Justice spokesmen called it a “normal” suicide attempt due to “prison stress.”
Although no evidence of further corruption emerged over the sentences, bribing prosecutors and judges to lower charges, then accepting a plea deal with time served, is a common feature of the rampant corruption in Ecuador’s judicial system. One furious prosecutor went on the radio to brand the sentence “a joke.”
However, even then, Mero was not satisfied. Shortly after her arrest, phone intercepts show Mero discussing how one of Fitos lawyers said he had connections with public officials that could secure Mero’s release through a habeas corpus petition – for the right price. A year later, and that was exactly what happened.
In April 2018, Mero filed a habeas corpus petition. Within ten hours, the three judges that received the filing had reviewed it, held a hearing, accepted her petition and set her free.
The ruling was overturned less than a week later. Mero was recaptured, and the judges involved were arrested and accused of perverting the course of justice. However, within weeks, the judges walked free following a Constitutional Court resolution that concluded judges on a national level do not pervert the course of justice, according to the intelligence documents.
While Gerald and his wife were fighting their legal battles, they also had another concern: their business and their money.
During the raids that followed the arrest of Gerald and Mero, authorities struck cash time and again. There was the $7.5 million hidden in a garage, $1million under a trash can, $3.1 million in a house in the city of Manta. In total, they seized $12 million.
However, Gerald’s estimated worth runs into the hundreds of millions and could even reach a billion dollars, according to intelligence sources.
Responsibility for managing Gerald’s hidden treasure fell to the one member of the network who had escaped the raids: Gerald’s sister Betsy. Phone intercepts show how Betsy, managed funds and even continued to run drugs in 2017.
In September 2017, though, came the first sign Gerald was losing control within the underworld when an assassin murdered his brother, who had been hiding out in a small town in central Colombia’s coffee district, buying up the land under a false name.
And then, or so investigators believe, came Fito. The man who had an intimate knowledge of Gerald’s stash houses and finances. Betsy turned herself in to the authorities days after the attack that left her husband dead and her child wounded. In August 2019, she received a five-year sentence for illegal enrichment.
Gerald’s attempts to secure his freedom, meanwhile, allegedly continue today. The allegations against former Minister Serrano emerged in August 2019, in a criminal complaint filed by Gerald’s former lawyer.
Garcia described how he decided to file the report after threats to his life. In March, he claims, came the call from the former minister, in which Serrano threatened him to keep silent about their meeting, telling him “you don’t know who you’re dealing with.” Then in August, people García knew to be connected to organized crime told him that Gerald had put a price on his head, and that his murder was a condition of Jose Serrano for helping Gerald with his legal troubles in the United State.
While Gerald allegedly continues to use his hidden millions to try to buy freedom, those charged with protecting his wealth may soon regain theirs, - but at the risk of their lives. Investigators believe the attack against Betsy was just the beginning. Fito continues to run a network of armed men from his prison cell, they say, and he is poised to embark on a violent treasure hunt that could leave yet more victims in the saga of the rise and fall of Gerald.
*Additional reporting was contributed by Mayra Alejandra Bonilla.
*This article is part of an InSight Crime investigation into how Ecuador became one of the global cocaine trade’s primary dispatch points. Read the first, second, and third parts.