The irony of the narcocorrido in Telmo Castro’s honor is, at best, tragic. The song brags about the criminal prowess of the former Ecuadorian army captain, who at the time was in prison on charges of trafficking drugs for Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel.
“They won’t manage to lock up the wild beast for long,” it finishes.
But in December 2019, Castro’s body was found in his prison cell in Guayaquil, Ecuador; naked, his hands and feet bound, and with 15 stab wounds.
For Ecuador, the death of one of the country’s most notorious homegrown drug traffickers was the end of an era. But for his Mexican bosses, Castro’s demise will do little to interrupt their thriving pipeline of cocaine through Ecuador.
Telmo Castro, also known as "El Capi," took his first steps into the underworld around the turn of the century, when he was stationed with military intelligence in the jungle province of Sucumbíos on Ecuador’s northeastern border with Colombia.
*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, third, and fourth parts.
There, he made connections with the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), according to several sources who worked on investigations into Castro, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity.
SEE ALSO: Ecuador - A Cocaine Superhighway to the US and Europe
The FARC at that time were doing what the Ecuadorean military could not – bringing order to the lawless border region. They were also getting ever deeper into the cocaine trade. Moving in this world, Castro soon came into contact with Mexican traffickers from the Sinaloa Cartel, who had been buying cocaine in southern Colombia, and were beginning to explore ways to traffic it through Ecuador.
By the middle of the decade, the Sinaloans had built up an extensive trafficking network in the country, and Castro was an integral part of their machine.
The man behind the network was Jorge Cifuentes, a Colombian trafficker who was a trusted lieutenant of the Sinaloa Cartel, but would later become a star witness in the trial against cartel leader Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias "El Chapo."
Investigators describe how, from his base in Ecuador's capital Quito, Cifuentes built up a network of suppliers and cocaine laboratory owners in the border region, and Ecuadorean transport networks, and dispatchers, who sent loads by air or sea. Cifuentes also set up several companies in Ecuador as a façade for his business and to launder the profits.
Within this network, Castro’s job was to pick up drug shipments in the border region and transport them to dispatch points. He did this using military vehicles escorted by military personnel, say investigators. For this service, he charged $100 per kilo, netting payments of up to $600,000 a time, according to Cifuentes' testimony in the El Chapo trial, published by AP.
Castro’s luck ran out for the first time in 2009, when he was arrested while escorting over half a ton of cocaine, BBC Mundo reported. By this time, he was no longer on active duty with the military, but he was arrested in a vehicle painted green with military logos on the body.
Castro was sentenced to two years in prison. However, he was soon free after his first sentence was reduced to 20 months, and then he was granted early release for having served 49 percent of his term, according to an investigation by Plan V. The cost of his liberty was $500,000 in bribes the Sinaloans paid to Ecuadorean judges, according to allegations made by Cifuentes’ brother Alex in the El Chapo trial, reported by the New York Times.
Shortly after his release, the Sinaloan network in Ecuador began to fragment. With international authorities on the tail of the whole Cifuentes trafficking clan, Jorge Cifuentes left Ecuador and took refuge in Venezuela, where he was eventually arrested in 2012. Castro rose in the vacuum. No longer a simple transporter, he began to make his own cocaine buys and organized their dispatch on light aircraft making clandestine flights, say investigators.
SEE ALSO: Sucumbíos: Lawless Ecuador Border Province Is Sanctuary for Traffickers
However, with greater responsibility came not only greater profits but also greater risks. After authorities seized several of Castro’s aircraft as they were preparing to take off loaded with cocaine, the Mexicans kidnapped him, demanding payment for their losses, according to the investigators who spoke to InSight Crime.
Castro was freed after handing over several properties to his captors. His debt forgiven, he went back to work, establishing himself as the Sinaloans star trafficker using the aerial route. However, in 2013, he was arrested once again.
According to an account of the operation in Plan V, a police surveillance team watching over a clandestine runway first saw a truck approach and deposit fuel. Then a Cessna aircraft landed, and two Mexicans stepped out of the plane. They watched as Castro appeared, talked to the Mexicans and then left. Shortly after, another truck arrived, but after detecting the police presence it turned around and attempted to escape, firing at police to keep them back. The police forced the truck to stop and found around half a ton of cocaine inside.
Castro was arrested and a year later was sentenced to ten years and eight months for drug trafficking. In 2017, he received a further five years for laundering money through a network of front companies and straw accounts, which contained deposits of over $1 million.
Investigators believe Castro continued coordinating drug planes from his prison cell. He certainly retained influence in the underworld, as he was soon free again after yet another suspect judicial ruling.
In August 2018, Castro was released after serving 40 percent of his sentence, even though this benefit is only on offer to minimum security inmates, not those like Castro interned in maximum-security facilities.
At first, Castro’s release passed unnoticed. But after the revelations of his Sinaloa Cartel ties in the El Chapo trial prompted local media to publish reports of his current whereabouts, he was soon rearrested. A corruption investigation was launched into the judge that freed him - although half a year later and she remained in her position making controversial rulings freeing criminals.
However, to the Mexicans and their flow of cocaine, it made little difference. As Castro returned to prison to begin the final chapter of his life, the Sinaloa Cartel’s trafficking operations had long since moved on.
There is no longer a fixed network of Sinaloa operators based in Ecuador. Instead, investigators describe and cases show operations that are agile and low profile, organized by small cells of Mexicans that enter the country, set up the trafficking logistics with local structures, oversee operations, then leave the country.
Using this subcontracting model, the Mexicans no longer need extensive criminal infrastructure and grand networks, they just need contacts. This division into decentralized cells and the rotation of personnel allows them to operate below the radar and stay ahead of the authorities.
Castro is dead, and the drug lords he worked for, Jorge Cifuentes and El Chapo are in prison. There will be no narcocorridos sung for those that have replaced them in Ecuador. And yet experts consulted by InSight Crime agree that the Sinaloa Cartel is likely moving more cocaine through the country than ever before.