Security forces sources in El Salvador and the United States say the arrest of alleged criminal kingpin "El Burro" Herrera is the result of a long running investigation that goes to the heart of Central America's infamous Texis Cartel.
Roberto Antonio Herrera Hernandez, alias "El Burro," a cattle rancher from Santa Ana, El Salvador, does not seem like a friendly guy. Salvadoran authorities say they are investigating him for car theft, drug trafficking, and for being a member of the Texis Cartel. In the photos of him that circulate in the Salvadoran press, he appears with a look of disgust or an exasperated expression directed at the camera.
In 2007, Herrera displayed his temper to a man who had the bad luck of encountering him in the Azacualpa housing development in Texistepeque. Forty-six-year old Jose Adeli Sandoval Linares had come to pick up some documents, according to a complaint he filed with the national police on July 15 that year. There in the entrance, El Burro Herrera was waiting.
"What are you doing here?" asked Herrera.
"I've come to pick up some receipts," responded Sandoval.
"Look, I've got a lot of problems and a lot of enemies and I don't want you here. Get out of here."
"Those are your problems," said the visitor.
Herrera took out his gun and offered a solution to the problem: "Well if you want, we can settle this right now." That time, at least, nobody died.
On July 23, 2013, when police presented him, handcuffed, to Salvadoran media after arresting him for car theft, Herrera made an enigmatic declaration: "I am the toilet paper of this country," he said, before claiming that he was arrested because he had refused to allow important politicians to blackmail him.
The confession, of course, stopped there, but served to add another piece to the drug trafficking puzzle -- money laundering and the complicity of the Salvadoran state in organized crime. This long running and productive "political protection" has been provided to the Texis Cartel -- the drug trafficking organization to which El Burro allegedly belongs -- and the Perrones for a long time, according to a report published last year by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
SEE ALSO: Profile of the Texis Cartel
La Prensa Grafica wrote the following about Herrera's statement: "The deal offered was to get rid of all investigations into the Texis Cartel [whose existence he qualified as an 'invention'] in exchange for $200,000 per person. 'I am someone's scapegoat here; everything has been based on extortion,' he said."
In February 2011, when the Police Intelligence Center (CIP) arrested him based on a US warrant, Herrera did not act so fiercely with his captors, according to two agents who participated in the operation. One of the agents said he even seemed resigned from the start; he knew his days of impunity in El Salvador were over and that he was going to have to return to the US, where the contacts he had made at the cattle ranching fair in Santa Ana, his network of political contacts, and his deals with the national police would be of little use to him.
One of the officials recalled the conversation he had with Herrera in 2011 after telling him that he would be detained while the validity of the US order was being confirmed:
"'Take care of the kid and sell everything we've got,' he said to his wife when he spoke to her after we arrested him, when we were already at the laboratory in San Salvador matching his fingerprints. He knew where he was going and he knew that if we sent him north, he was not going to escape. It was one thing to be here in El Salvador, where he already had bought out a load of high level police and politicians. It was another thing to be in the north [the United States]."
Now, according to a source from the Salvadoran Attorney General's Office, two national police officers and a US source, Herrera's capture may mark the beginning of the biggest operation yet against the Texis Cartel. The operation could reach as high as Jose Adan Salazar, alias "El Diablo," who is the leader of the group according to an El Faro investigation, or Jose Misael Cisneros, alias "Medio Millon," the MS-13 narco-gangster who the US Treasury Department placed on its kingpin list aside five other members of the gang.
El Burro Herrera, El Diablo Salazar and Medio Millon have appeared in police reports since at least 2009, the year in which the national police, following circular order Number 009-12-2008, signed by then Police Chief Rodrigo Avila, opened a number of investigation records, which were called "Caso Limites" (Extreme cases), "Terraza" (Terrace), "MAOO" and "Metapan."
In one of those reports, it says: "El Burro, or El Coyote, a Salvadoran national who is one of the principal leaders of a powerful criminal structure dedicated to drug trafficking in the western region of the country, is also linked to members of the MS-13 gang and the murderous group the Zetas, in Guatemala and Mexico.
"Said drug trafficker has been moving freely for years, boasting that he has significant political influence with high level police commanders and other important public officials."
Herrera got a scare in 2011. Authorities attempted to capture Medio Millon in 2010 with a cinematic police operation that, according to an investigator from the national police, collapsed because of leaks from the antinarcotics division (DAN) and from a prominent official in Chalatenango -- a deputy-inspector who had already been accused by witnesses of not following proper procedures in Quezaltepeque -- for which he was never investigated by the Attorney General's Office.
All of that stopped between November 2011 and the middle of 2013, when Generals David Munguia Payes and Francisco Salinas were put in charge of public security in El Salvador. The arrival of the two military men marked a change in strategy by the Salvadoran state -- from attempts to attack to silence.
"There may be no traces of cocaine, but there are traces of money"
El Burro's police record dates back to before his involvement with the Texis Cartel.
On September 4, 1993, the Executive Antinarcotics Unit of the former national police, in the midst of demobilizing following the Peace Accords, arrested him for brand counterfeiting in the Colonia Roma neighborhood in San Salvador. Between 1992 and 1993, he was arrested five times; twice on charges of minor crimes and three times on charges of fraud related to the trafficking of migrants, according to old police records. Between 2005 and 2006 he was arrested another two times, for aggravated threats, and for the possession, carrying and use of arms.
After escaping from an attempted capture by the CIP the year before, on April 18, 2012, Herrera collected $3 million from a container brought in a van from Costa Rica, according to a report from the State Intelligence Agency. The report, created by a state security team, says that Herrera Hernandez carried out the transaction in a Toyota Land Cruiser, model 2005, license plate number P122-119, and registered in the name of a lieutenant of El Diablo Salazar.
For now, the Attorney General's Office has arrested Herrera on charges of car theft. However, Security Minister Ricardo Perdomo, the successor of Munguia Payes, has said that investigations for drug trafficking remain open.
A Salvadoran police officer explained that, in the case of the Texis Cartel and El Burro Herrera, the money laundering schemes to which the organization is linked are even more important than the drugs. "You think that they're going to find the coke, or that they travel around with the coke in their cars. What they move is the cash. Even if they don't find traces of cocaine, there are traces of cash. The problem is that the Attorney General's Office doesn't have a good record in these investigations," said the officer.
It is true the Attorney General's Office has a poor record on money laundering cases: between 2010 and this year, only 13 people have been processed, all captured in the act, and not one of them a result of investigations by the Public Ministry's money laundering unit. And, according to the US State Department's 2013 global report on financial crimes, El Salvador only issued four concrete sentences against money launderers, the lowest number in Central America, an unwanted honor shared with Costa Rica.
In 2008, the Attorney General's Office and the national police, with assistance from the United States, attempted to move forward a similar investigation related to cocaine shipments for which money was laundered using financial front businesses. The group was called the Perrones and the operation was a complete failure for the same reasons as Herrera has been able to, according to police records and state intelligence, continue operating despite his considerable police record: protection from national police officers and the inability of the Attorney General's Office to build a case for financial crimes.
"If they are going to catch El Diablo for real; they have to catch him for fiscal evasion, for financial matters, for his hotels, his agricultural businesses... they're never going to find cocaine," said the Salvadoran police officer. If they are going to catch him...
*Hector Silva Avalos is a Salvadoran journalist and current resident fellow at American University's Center for Latin American and Latino Studies (CLALS), which sponsors InSight Crime's work. Read more of Silva's writing here.