El Salvador's Attorney General's Office arrested José Adán Salazar Umaña, alias "Chepe Diablo," the alleged leader of the Texis Cartel, the most important drug trafficking and money laundering organization in the country. The arrest raises new questions about the links between Salazar Umaña and powerful politicians in El Salvador, including current Vice President Óscar Ortiz.
Salazar Umaña was arrested at noon on April 4 during a police operation that involved raids on some 50 properties, including hotels, gas stations and shops that either belong to Chepe Diablo or his associates. According to the authorities, the companies were used by the Texis Cartel to evade taxes or launder money that came from illegal activities.
Attorney General Douglas Meléndez said three of Salazar Umaña's relatives were also arrested. The other suspected leaders of the organization, however, remain fugitives from justice.
On the morning of April 5, the director of the National Civil Police (Policia Nacional Civil - PNC) confirmed that two main suspects evaded capture during the operation: Juan Umaña Samayoa, the mayor of the northwestern town of Metapán, and Wilfredo Guerra, the president of the Gumarsal grain company that has been linked to Chepe Diablo's business network.
SEE ALSO: Texis Cartel Profile
The raids and arrests carried out on April 4 are the result of an investigation reopened by Meléndez after his predecessor, former Attorney General Luis Martínez, dropped a money laundering investigation that had implicated Salazar Umaña, Samayoa and Guerra, as well as several of the companies raided yesterday.
In 2014, InSight Crime reported that Martínez had ordered attorneys to destroy evidence, close the case and even return documents that incriminated alleged members of the Texis Cartel. Attorney General Meléndez stressed that he had to revive these investigations when he assumed power last year. Martínez has been arrested for an unrelated corruption case.
Yet Luis Martínez was not Salazar Umaña's only powerful ally. Chepe Diablo also had ties to El Salvador's current vice president and a likely presidential candidate for the 2019 elections, Óscar Ortiz, who is considered one of the most powerful men in the ruling party, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional - FMLN).
In 2000, Salazar Umaña, Ortiz and Rogelio Cervantes, a hotel businessman who had financed FMLN campaigns, founded the real estate company Desarrollos Montecristo. Through Montecristo, Ortiz was able to purchase and sell properties located in the department of San Vicente, in the center of the country, and on an island close to the Jiquilisco bay area.
When he participated in founding the company, Ortiz was already mayor of Santa Tecla, a suburb of the capital San Salvador, and police authorities already believed Salazar Umaña was a member of an illegal drug trafficking and money laundering organization.
As investigations by the press published in 2016 revealed the connection between Chepe Diablo and Ortiz, the latter at first minimized the matter, and eventually lied when he claimed he hadn't seen Salazar since 2004 -- even though a picture published by El Faro portrayed the two sitting next to each other at a soccer stadium in 2014.
The relationship between Ortiz and Salazar Umaña developed through soccer. Chepe Diablo was the president of El Salvador's soccer federation and manager of the Isidro Metapán soccer club, whose facilities were also raided on April 4, while Ortiz is currently manager of the Santa Tecla soccer team. Attorney General Meléndez confirmed that Isidro Metapán is part of the money laundering investigation.
Yesterday's raids were also carried out in the municipality of Metapán; in Gumarsal plants in San Juan Opico, in the country's southwest; in the Figueroa Cruz law firm, which authorities believe links the Texis Cartel with a construction company; and in several hotels owned by Hoteles de El Salvador (Hotesa), which was accused of tax evasion in 2014.
All this appears to be part of Salazar Umaña's network, a business consortium whose revenues were valued at an estimated $60 million in 2016, according to calculations that InSight Crime based on information provided by El Salvador's Treasury Department.
Additionally, Gumarsal has been a state supplier since 2009, when former President Mauricio Funes, also a member of the FMLN, took office.
On the other hand, Samayoa is a mayor from the rightist National Concertation Party (Partido de Concertación Nacional), which also counts as a member Congressman Reynaldo Cardoza, who was recently prosecuted for illicit enrichment, though he was absolved by the judge. Another political operator linked to Samayoa is Herbert Saca, the cousin of former president Antonio Saca who is also close with ex-President Funes.
During investigations into the Texis Cartel and its members in 2009, El Salvador's Police Intelligence Center (Centro de Inteligencia Policial – CIP) found Salazar Umaña and Samayoa were linked with police officers as well as other criminals, including Roberto "Burro" Herrera, currently incarcerated for car theft.
While the current investigations are only related to money laundering, as Attorney General Meléndez clarified, the Texis Cartel has been linked to drug trafficking for at least a decade. Incidentally, in March 2017, Howard Cotto, director of El Salvador's police, said that 160 kilograms of cocaine seized in the outskirts of San Salvador were connected with the organization. Other police and legal authorities also told InSight Crime that the Salvadoran group is allegedly linked with drug trafficking networks in Guatemala and Colombia.
InSight Crime Analysis
As a result of his alleged participation in money laundering and drug trafficking activities, José Adán Salazar Umaña has been one of El Salvador's most investigated men. But the political connections Chepe Diablo and the Texis Cartel could count on also turned them into some of the most protected targets in the country.
When the cartel began to intensify its trafficking and laundering operations during the past decade, police and other officials protected the group, according to an investigation by El Faro.
Again in 2014, when the tax evasion case allowed authorities to connect Salazar Umaña with other members of the business consortium and the activities carried out by Gumarsal, Samayoa and Guerra tried to distance themselves from Chepe Diablo.
The pressure of the United States is undeniably part of the reason for the recent arrests, and could boost efforts to establish an international anti-corruption mission in El Salvador, similar to those already established in its neighbors Honduras and Guatemala.
Attorney General Meléndez revealed yesterday that US Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) had written him at least three letters asking to intensify the investigations of the Texis Cartel. US sources told InSight Crime that the State Department and other congressional offices sent Meléndez messages stressing how important for them it was to see the Texis case come to an end and possibly result in sentences.
During field research last week in San Salvador, InSight Crime was told that the Attorney General's Office was preparing some raids and arrest warrants to be executed shortly. The office appeared on April 4 to make the first arrests and take first steps toward seizing assets belonging to Chepe Diablo and Texis.
It looks as though the first obstacle has been overcome. But it remains to be seen how far the Attorney General's investigation will be able to go, and how El Salvador's corrupt justice system will handle the case. And of course, it is still not clear how Chepe Diablo's powerful friends will react.
At the time of this article's publication, Vice President Ortiz had not commented on the arrests.