In March 2011, shortly before a group of El Salvador soldiers were linked to the seizure of 1,812 M-67 grenades, Honduran authorities dismantled a Mexican drug trafficking cell in possession of 14 rocket launchers belonging to the Salvadoran Armed Forces.
The official story began on March 17, 2011, with two weapons busts in the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula. One occurred in a warehouse in Rio Bermejo that belonged to Eduardo Elias Handal Saybe, and the other in a residence in the Lomas de San Juan neighborhood. It was the warehouse, full of weapons, that most caught the attention of the authorities.
There were so many weapons that then Defense Minister Marlon Pascua said he had never seen that many under those circumstances, Honduras newspaper La Prensa reported.
This article was originally published by La Prensa Grafica, in partnership with CONNECTAS and the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and was translated and reprinted with permission. See the Spanish original here.
But it was not just weapons that were hidden in the cellar of the warehouse. There were vans with traces of synthetic drugs and precursor chemicals. There were license plates belonging to the Federal Police in Mexico. A man who was keeping watch over the warehouse -- Miguel Angel Banegas Ciles -- was also arrested.
From the moment the bust happened, Handal Saybe (the warehouse's owner) became a fugitive. A Guatemalan businessman identified as Juan Carlos Garcia Urbina -- who Honduran anti-drug police and prosecutors said was a member of the same drug trafficking network -- also became a fugitive, and is still wanted by authorities.
Thirty-nine M72 LAW rocket launchers were among the weapons found in the warehouse. Only one of the rocket launchers had been used.
The Untold Story
However, the untold story behind the weapons has to do with how a group of Mexican drug traffickers settled in Honduras to avoid the drug war that had started under the administration of Mexico's former President Felipe Calderon, which would claim the lives of over 60,000 individuals in Mexico.
It also has to do with how 14 LAW rocket launchers that were supposed to be destroyed in the Salvadoran city of Zacatecoluca -- because they no longer worked, according to authorities in El Salvador -- ended up in a San Pedro Sula warehouse, owned by the ally of a Mexican drug capo.
This story could have been one of unverifiable evidence, but the confessions of a group of Salvadoran soldiers that they had sold the weapons leaves out the possibility that it could be fiction.
For one month, anti-drug police investigated the warehouse and the residence in Lomas de San Juan. Although investigators ran checks on multiple vehicles that entered the warehouse -- including one driven by a person clad in a jacket that said "Police" on the back -- they were only able to find Handal Saybe, Banegas Ciles, and Guatemalan citizen Garcia Urbina responsible.
SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profiles
As a result of the bust, Honduras' Anti-Narcotics Directorate (DLCN) seized 13 LAW rocket launchers with the serial number RAN-87B001-013; one with the serial number RAN-85F-001-006; nine others with their own serial number; 15 without a serial number and one that had already been used; eight AK-47 rifles; seven R-15 rifles (six with serial numbers and one without); 11 RPG-7 grenades, the Russian version of the LAW rocket launcher; four pistols; one mini Uzi machine gun; one M203 grenade launcher; one 22 caliber rifle; 652 magazines, including 625 for M-16 rifles and 23 for AK-47s; and 410 bullets for various caliber weaponry.
On the warehouse property in the neighborhood of Rio Bermejo, the DLCN also found 10 trucks, the majority of which had Guatemalan license plates and were linked to a transportation company in that country, and one sedan. Authorities also found seven containers, which upon inspection were found to have traces of drugs. In addition, authorities found 991 pounds of phenylpropanolamine, which is a precursor chemical for the production of synthetic drugs.
Authorities also found a Mexican flag and a walkie-talkie, in addition to a map of Central America, Colombia, and Venezuela, as well as nine pieces of wood in the shape of kilos of cocaine. The police also found a telescope with a tripod and meters upon meters of extension cords that prosecutors said were used for lights to illuminate clandestine landing strips for drug planes.
Everything a drug trafficking organization would need -- from the production and transport of drugs to weapons to defend the entire operation -- were found in that warehouse. Handal Saybe was found guilty in November 2014, and still is waiting to receive a sentence.
The Milenio Cartel's Presence in Honduras
During the trial against Banegas Ciles and Handal Saybe, an anti-money laundering investigator in Honduras testified that everything began when Colombian citizen Gino Brunetti was arrested in Mexico in 2001 and later deported to the United States to face drug trafficking charges. Brunetti sought to reduce his sentence by offering information on several Mexican cartels.
According to court documents from the Southern District of New York, Brunetti implicated several drug traffickers, including members of the Nava Valencia cartel, even though US authorities never offered him a reduced sentence.
The Nava Valencia structure, also known as the Milenio Cartel, was considered to be an ally of Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel in the states of Michoacan, Jalisco, and Nayarit. The Sinaloa Cartel leaders included Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel and Joaquin Archivaldo Guzman Loera, "El Chapo," the world's most famous drug trafficker, who was arrested in February 2014 by Mexican marines.
Anti-money laundering investigators in Honduras had been able to confirm that Juan Carlos Nava Valencia, alias "El Tigre," was the head of the Milenio Cartel in 2010, following the arrest of his brother Oscar Orlando Nava Valencia, alias "El Lobo." Citing migration records, prosecutors said Nava Valencia had entered Honduras using his own name in 2005.
Nava Valencia had found his niche in Honduras. He acquired false documents that allowed him to gain Honduran citizenship. His new name was Marco Antonio Ortiz Morales although he also had three other false identities.
Nava Valencia felt so comfortable in Honduras that he founded a business in San Pedro Sula at the same public notary where he had falsified documents for Handal Saybe. The business was called Empresas Gastronomicas de Honduras, and was registered on July 7, 2004 by Nava Valencia and the businessman Carlos Alberto Yacaman Meza through a legal representative. Investigations into a separate money laundering case revealed that Handal Saybe had authorization over a bank account filed under the name of Nava Valencia's business.
This business would end up with 14 LAW rocket launchers that had belonged to the Salvadoran army. Thirteen had the serial number RAN-87B001-013 and one had the number RAN-85F-001-006. They had all belonged to a military brigade in the province of San Miguel.
Official documents in San Pedro Sula and documents from trials against Salvadoran military members in the province of La Paz, some of which are confidential and to which La Prensa Grafica was permitted access, verify the origins of the rocket launchers.
More Weapons Discoveries Bring Arrests of Soldiers
One month and 10 days after the seizure of the weapons in the warehouse, there was another discovery roughly 400 kilometers from San Pedro Sula in El Salvador. On an estate in the city of Tapalhuaca, La Paz, soldiers found bags and boxes that contained 1,812 M-67 hand grenades.
El Salvador's Defense Ministry identified and arrested seven soldiers it believed were responsible for the diverted weapons. However, the arrests were not made public for another month.
The only information known about this investigation is what then Defense Minister David Munguia Payes said in May 2011, when he confirmed that "a cell" of soldiers had been detected "trying to traffic grenades" to Mexican drug cartel the Zetas in Guatemala. He energetically said that military law would be applied to the soldiers. However, a military tribunal absolved the soldiers of any wrongdoing. The soldiers were later given minimal penalties in two distinct trials once the first ruling had been annulled.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Arms Trafficking
The soldiers' trial began in 2012, and since then the case has been under "total reserve" because of a request by the Attorney General's Office. Nonetheless, a trial associated with the case has revealed additional evidence, information, and potential suspects that have not been made known to the public.
During an interview with La Prensa Grafica in December 2014, the regional delegate of the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to Central America's Northern Triangle, Harry Peñate, said the ATF can access the US Defense Department's database on the production, sale, and donation of weapons of war. Investigators in the seized grenades case said the ATF has confirmed that the rocket launchers found in Honduras are part of the inventory of the Salvadoran Armed Forces, and that there is no possibility other than that they went from military storage units into the hands of Honduran drug traffickers.
Peñate also explained something that people involved with weapons of war know all too well: M-67 grenades or LAW rocket launchers do not have a specific serial number, but rather a batch number. This means there could be 300 grenades with the same batch number.
Defense Minister Denies Arms Trafficking Allegations
Although official documents certified that the rocket launchers found in Honduras belonged to the Salvadoran Armed Forces, months later Munguia Payes denied this during the trial against the accused soldiers. Munguia Payes claimed it was impossible to verify that the rocket launchers had been trafficked to the Milenio Cartel from within the very institution he was running.
This is what Mungui Payes said on October 1, 2013, during the first trial against the soldiers: "I knew that in Honduras they had found some LAW [rocket launchers] with the same batch number that we had, but not necessarily that they were from our batch. I got in contact with the Honduran authorities to verify that they were the same batches, and I found out that they did in fact share the same number, but that didn't mean they came from our stockpile, since the rocket [launchers] did not have an individual number, only batch numbers. They also had rocket [launchers] with the same batch number as ours because they were distributed [as donations, in El Salvador's case] throughout Central America by the United States during the war period."
However, in no part of the judicial process against Banegas Ciles did the Honduran authorities prove that the rocket launchers had the same batch number as those that Honduras received during the 1970s or 1980s. What's more, an analysis was never done to verify under what name the batch number was registered. The weapons were only examined to find out if they still worked or not, and it was found that they did.
The Soldiers' Alleged Arms Trafficking Confession
El Salvador's Military Intelligence Department is known simply as "the CII." During the arms trafficking trial, a military official from the CII revealed that he had interviewed several detained soldiers between 24 and 48 hours after the grenades had been found in Tapalhuaca.
The official said that three of the soldiers admitted to having taken weaponry in December 2010, as well as in January and April 2011, and that they had each received between $500 and $900 in exchange. Among the weapons they admitted to having taken were "15 LAW rocket launchers." This testimony can be found in a official court document.
Nevertheless, the judge declared that "it had not been proven" that the batches were the same as those found in another country, and that during the war era "various countries were receiving the same batches." The only person who had claimed that this was true during the trial was Munguia Payes. There was not a single witness who had backed up that statement.
Various military officials who were consulted and who are not involved in this case have come to precisely the opposite conclusion. "This is the first time I have heard of that. The batches almost always went to only one country, it is strange that several countries would have the same batch," one military official who had experience with these types of weapons said.
*This article was originally published by La Prensa Grafica, in partnership with CONNECTAS as part of an investigative project supported by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ). It was translated and reprinted with permission. See the Spanish original here.