Four years after several of its members were arrested, the Perrones, El Salvador's formidable illicit transport organization, has quietly regrouped, reestablishing its dominance in the eastern part of the country and recuperating its control of public institutions to facilitate its illicit activities, according to Salvadoran police, police intelligence documents, and media sources.
Together the evidence paints a disturbing picture of a group very much on the rise, returning to the hotels and other infrastructure they used in the past to move and hide their products, and employing new techniques, including the use of submarines, to move illicit goods north and launder money in the south.
The Perrones also appear to operate throughout the isthmus and are reaching into the Caribbean, meeting with contacts in Tegucigalpa and the Roatan Islands of Honduras, and arranging to move drug shipments for the powerful Mexican Sinaloa Cartel from Nicaragua through the Northern Triangle and possibly Cuba.[See InSight Crime's Perrones profile]
The turnaround is stunning. Three years ago the group seemed finished. Many of its top leaders were in jail, facing years of time for numerous crimes including drug trafficking, human smuggling, and money laundering. This included Reynerio de Jesus Flores Lazo, Juan Maria Medrano Fuentes, Daniel Quezada, Wilfredo Antonio Reyes Martinez, and Carlos Armando Umanzor. The group's co-chair, Jose Natividad Luna, alias "Chepe," was on the run.
The cases made for national headlines, and seemingly career-making cases for prosecutors who had developed and executed an impressive strategy to dismantle the organization. The top suspects, in particular Flores, were depicted as the go-between for large criminal organizations in Colombia and Mexico.·They were said to control hotels and trucking companies, and relied on corrupt police, politicians and migration officials to move contraband, migrants and drugs north. The proceeds were laundered through properties and used car lots. They worked closely with politicians and relied on corrupt prosecutors to keep them out of jail.
But with time most of the cases have unraveled, including those of Quezada, Martinez, and Umanzor. Quezada was sentenced to three years in prison, which was substituted for public service. Several police who allegedly worked with him to receive and move drugs were exonerated. Martinez was released and then recaptured for tax evasion, but not drug trafficking. Umanzor was exonerated by a judge when investigators failed to present the evidence against him.
Since the mass incarceration, the Perrones allegedly purged their ranks of suspected snitches as well. El Diario de Hoy says these included Salvador Augusto Parada Guzman, a former Salvadoran military official who was killed in Nicaragua in May 2011, after traveling to that country with Reynerio Flores' brother, Hector Armando.
They have also focused on regaining power and dominance in their eastern stronghold, around the Gulf of Fonseca (See InSight Map: Perrones' Areas of Influence below). Among those who have filled the power vacuum left by jailed leaders are Elmer Bonifacio Medrano Escobar, who intelligence sources say operates from La Union, an eastern province in El Salvador bordering Honduras. La Union was known as a drop off and staging area for cocaine shipments that moved through at least one hotel owned by the Perrones member Quezada, who was released last year.
Medrano Escobar is not confined to El Salvador. The intelligence documents -- first revealed by former reporter and now Washington-based diplomat Hector Silva and later obtained by InSight Crime -- say he was slated to meet with Joaquin Guzman Loera, alias "El Chapo," the head of the Sinaloa Cartel in the Honduran coastal province of Colon in November last year.
Intelligence documents also say "Chepe" Luna remains very much in control. This dual Honduran-Salvadoran citizen operates from Honduras where he holds meetings with what the documents say are high-level political contacts in that country that facilitate his illicit business.
The Perrones' infrastructure has advanced considerably since its humble beginnings as providers of dairy contraband during the country's civil war in the 1980s during which time it earned the nickname "El Cartel de los Quesos." The intelligence documents say at least one shoreline property is being used to receive submarines from Colombia full of drugs.
The use of submarines would seem to confirm the Perrones' alliance with the Sinaloa Cartel, an organization that is known to finance the building and use of submarines along the Pacific seaboard to move illicit drugs from the Andes north. La Prensa Grafica, citing police intelligence documents, also spoke of the use of submarines on the coast, and during a recent raid on a property owned by Reynerio Flores, Salvadoran police captured a Mexican citizen who they said had numerous entries on his passport.
The Perrones, once confined to working the traditional Central American route, also appear to be expanding their purview. One member of the group allegedly made four reconnaissance missions to Cuba, although it is not known if illicit shipments pass through that island or if they are using the island in other ways.
Although sentenced to 80 years, Reynerio Flores also continues coordinating some of this illegal activity, the intelligence documents say, in part with the assistance of his brother, Hector. In September 2011, Costa Rican authorities seized 140 kilos of cocaine that Salvadoran intelligence believe was Flores' property.
The document goes on to name numerous high-level politicians, officials, judges and investigators that the Perrones allegedly pay for services that range from acting as political shields to protection from legal prosecution.
Among these roles, perhaps the most important is helping the group launder proceeds. The money collected for these services are laundered through gasoline stations throughout the country, among other businesses.
If the allegations of the political collusion in the intelligence documents are true, this money may also be bankrolling numerous campaigns from the local to the national level. What's more, the Perrones seem to be an equal opportunity provider, giving to political parties of all ideological persuasions.
Just how the Perrones managed to reassert themselves even while the country and the Mauricio Funes presidency is under an increasingly powerful microscope internationally is not clear. Funes, who began his presidency in 2009, seemed to support the efforts to prosecute the Perrones. But as the cases have unraveled and the group has reasserted itself, the president has been largely silent.
View InSight Map: Perrones - Areas of Influence in a larger map