El Salvador's customs authority has classified 152 of the country's freight companies as presenting either a "high" or "medium" level of risk, and among them are several linked to drug seizures in the region. Many of them, officials say, work as "free agents" at the service of drug traffickers.
Nicaraguan police approached the front of the truck on March 1, 2013. The truck had Salvadoran plates but had come from Guatemala and was bound for Panama with a shipment of beer. The Nicaraguan and the Salvadoran drivers were kept at a distance as the agents registered the vehicle in the tiny hangar at the Peñas Blancas border crossing in Nicaragua. The truck's hidden compartment, once broken into, showed its contents: $166,900 in bills of $20, $50 and $100 organized into three packages. Hours later, both drivers were photographed looking helpless, standing opposite the money and flanked from behind by four Nicaraguan police agents with their faces covered.
According to Salvadoran investigators, the license plate number RE 1251 belonged at that time to Fidel Ernesto Martinez Heredia. Martinez is the owner of a transport company from Metapan in the Salvadoran department of Santa Ana, which, according to the country's customs authority (DGA), is currently classified as "medium" risk as an international freight company. A truck that Martinez admitted belonged to him at one point in a judicial document was caught moving 47 kilos of cocaine on the Costa Rican side of the Peñas Blancas border crossing on December 12, 2012. His brother, who also works in international freight but whose name has not been linked with any seizure up until now, is classified as "high" risk.
In July 2013, the DGA published a list of active and inactive transporters of international cargo in the country. A series of reforms to the Customs Simplification Law required the DGA to publish the risk level of each one: 76 are considered "high" risk and 76 "medium." These 152 are those that have been involved in frequent or repeated "incidents" when transporting goods.
A number of the names listed as risks have been connected with 10 seizures totaling 966 kilos of cocaine and $366,900 in cash from Salvadorans or from trucks with Salvadoran license plates in Central America since 2011. The shipments clearly followed drug trafficking patterns: cocaine moving north and money moving south. However, no one has been arrested and no case has been brought before the Salvadoran courts.
Raul Alfaro is the president of the Salvadoran Association of International Cargo Transporters (ASTIC), which includes the majority of the country's transport sector business owners. He admits, with no intention of avoiding the thorny subject, that many in the Salvadoran freight sector "are involved in the game." That is to say, they move cocaine in the trucks. And he does not save any pity for the DGA, which, he says, is not interested in combating contraband or drug trafficking. Alfaro said that the only relevant activity undertaken by the DGA in recent years was the updating of its database in 2011, which showed that of 3,470 transporters in the system, 1,677 were active.
The head of the DGA, Daisy Reynosa, explained that there are a number of criteria that the institution uses to establish "medium" and "high" risk levels in the Salvadoran freight sector.
Reynosa said that the level of risk was established using a computer program that analyzed a number of variables. "It can be based on arrival times, if [the driver] arrives late, how many times he arrives, the type of product he is transporting, what type of product he is carrying when he arrives late, breaks in the pattern of movement, deviations from the route -- everything is analyzed" she said.
Reynosa added that all of the information is included in the risk evaluation, which includes information generated in Central America about Salvadoran trucks caught transporting cocaine.
"What happens when a truck outside the country is caught with drugs? The country immediately notifies the SIECA and the transporter is blocked at an international level. This means the [the truck in question] is blocked," said Reynosa, adding that this affects the risk profile of a freight company, but does not block the rest of the trucks it operates.
The legislation that provides for these classifications of risk only deals with frequent or repeated "incidents" for the medium and high risk levels, without specifying what is being referred to in the information included in the DGA risk levels list. The Vice Minister of Finance, Rene Guardado, did not want to explain it, either, when he was consulted.
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"Those involved know what it is, but we can't tell you who did what," said the official, adding that they cannot reveal details of the incidents because "if someone committed a mistake and wants to improve, then they will be reevaluated at some point and there could be a moment when they are no longer considered high risk, but rather, medium risk." Guardado also said, as strange as it seems, that if any transporter remains or gets newly classified as high risk, "we don't say anything to him; he decides who is going to contract him. Those responsible for hiring will see he has a high level of risk, and if they contract him, they should bear in mind the consequences."
What does this list have to do with drug trafficking across Central American borders? The answer is found in the fact that in the majority of cases, the owners of the Salvadoran trucks confiscated since 2011 were registered in associations of international freight companies. They had a legal livelihood that distanced them from the cliche of clandestine outlaws.
This pattern is, of course, not exclusive to the Salvadoran freight sector. As the most recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says, transport networks are a secondary group involved in international drug trafficking, and although they may have long term relationships with other organized crime groups, these "are not exclusive."
Nicaragua, Guatemala and Costa Rica do not have similar lists to classify the risk level of transporters. Members of the Honduran customs authority said that they were working on creating one.
"These people [transporters], what they do is they consolidate the [drug] shipment," said Vicente, casually explaining how those involved in moving cocaine from Panama to Guatemala operate. Vicente has met some of the main figures in Central American drug trafficking face to face. He is somewhat friendly with them, has privileged information from this group, and knows every detail of how they operate.
He explained how "consolidating the shipment" means that some transporters have the capacity to move a certain quantity of drugs per month, or what is called a "line," to move 200, 500 or more kilos of cocaine per month. Part of this is for their own profit and the other part is distributed at different points along the Pan-American highway, to avoid conflicts in various countries and with various groups from Panama to Guatemala.
The illicit business deal ends in Guatemala, where the cocaine shipment is placed in the hands of Mexicans, who take control of transporting it to Mexico, according to a Guatemalan anti-narcotics official. This is where the struggle for control of the territory used to distribute and transport cocaine has been most evident in recent years, with the incursion of the Zetas in the country, as reported by the UNODC.
SEE ALSO: The Zetas in Guatemala
The ASTIC president, Raul Alfaro, drew similarities between the Peñas Blancas border crossing and that of El Amatillo in La Union. Both see an incessant passage of merchandise, with around 300 to 350 trucks per day. The head of the association supports an unavoidable reality: drugs trafficked through Central America are moved over main highways -- trafficking is fed and prospers under the protection of legal businesses and traffickers take any opportunity they get.
"Contraband and drugs pass through here with the complicity of authorities and that is irrefutable, because they know they pass through. Everything that falls here [seizures] is because there is a finger pointed [an accusation]. At the moment of the arrests and the police and the cameras and everything..." said Alfaro, moving his hand to show that one truck passes right after another. That is to say: the use of a small seizure as a decoy to ensure another larger one gets through. In part, the lack of will to combat drug trafficking and contraband is made clear by the fact that the DGA has not renewed the freight sector customs codes for nearly a decade, according to Alfaro. Some of the inactive codes, he said, continue to be used.
Although an interview was repeatedly requested with the Attorney General's Office (FGR) in regard to this subject, the institution responded that for the moment they will not talk about it. Security and Justice Minister Ricardo Perdomo did not want to speak decisively about the collusion of DGA personnel with organized crime either. "I can only say that we are investigating it," say the minister. But he did not deny that it is happening.
The minister added they have found that various Salvadoran transporters are acting as independent contractors: moving drugs for those who pay and handing over the packages of cocaine to a range of Central American groups.
Roberto has been a truck driver carrying international loads through Central America for more than a decade. This man, of a dark complexion, over 40 years old and with his hair going white, knows how miserable it is to be stuck for three weeks at the border without a place to sleep halfway decently and to wash himself adequately, driving more than 24 hours without stopping and dealing with contraband "coyotes." The pay, sometimes, is no more than $200 per month, depending on conditions.
It is clear to Roberto that when the packets of drugs or money are found in hidden, handmade compartments, it is the owner of the company who is trafficking. The ASTIC president agrees.
"It can only be the truck owner who rigs the machine [truck] to hide drugs. The driver who takes it, what are they going to give him? Four little packets. They halfway mention that they are going to examine the shipment for another reason, and he gets nervous. And that's what you see in this country. Because a lot of the drivers, when it's the company playing the game, don't even know," said Alfaro.
One example of what the head of the association is talking about occurred on August 21 of this year, when Salvadoran antinarcotics police arrested a Salvadoran driver at the El Amatillo border crossing. The driver had recently returned from Costa Rica. They found six kilos of cocaine: four wrapped in plastic and two hidden in the air filter in the cab of the truck.
Roberto talked about it the other way around. "I don't accept a rigged truck," he said, referring to being contracted to drive a truck with the legal merchandise already on board, without having been there at the moment it was loaded. That, he said, is an indication that they are moving drugs and, in those cases, the drivers do not know.
An obvious indicator of the involvement of freight companies in drug trafficking, which Alfaro and another two heads of transport associations in Central America agree on, is the undercutting of prices by companies that repeatedly send out caravans of dozens of trucks. "It's been said here that companies emerge out of nothing, with new trucks and charging cheap prices," he said.
"We have found transport companies that are offering prices lower than the operating costs. This raises alerts for us, because working for less than the cost of operations doesn't make any sense, unless they are involved in things they shouldn't be," said Marjorie Lizano, president of the Chamber of Unitary Transporters of Costa Rica (CCTU).
Marvin Altamirano, president of the Nicaraguan Association of Transporters (ATN), stated this in different terms: "The traditional companies in each country, which are older and have similar prices for regional commerce, are well-known. But suddenly new companies appear that from one day to the next bring down the prices in Central America, because the trip doesn't matter to them, just the illicit activity they are going to perform. What interests these people is their other business. What they look to do is to tell the importer that they will bring them the product for $600, when everyone else offers a price of $1,200."
Lizano openly admitted this, just like Alfaro, of the ASTIC. "There have been many people involved in trafficking drugs and money; we have been seeing for three or four years how many transporters are being caught at our border checkpoints. We have said it is extremely important for scanners to be installed at the border posts to detect these situations, in order to start eliminating the false freight sector, because what they do is dress up as freight operations in order to perform another kind of service."
Despite the clear indications, in El Salvador there has not been any case since 2008 of an international freight company being accused in court of drug trafficking. The UNODC says that in El Salvador, these groups have been working "undercover."
*This report was produced as part of a project funded by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) in which InSight Crime has collaborated. It was first published in La Prensa Grafica, see original here.