Hector Silva Avalos, Salvadoran journalist and current resident fellow at American University's Center for Latin American and Latino Studies (CLALS), tells the story of a botched attempt to capture a local drug lord known as "El Burro," a high-ranking figure in the Texis Cartel. The failure points to the local and international obstacles faced by El Salvador's police, even after a suspect has been identified and detained.
In 2011, El Salvador’s Center for Police Intelligence detained Texis Cartel leader Robert Antonio Herrera Hernandez, alias “El Burro," for a few hours. The police were relying on an old Interpol notice that ordered the alleged drug trafficker’s arrest based on charges filed in the United States. What follows is the story of what happened that day, based on police reports and on interviews with three Salvadoran agents who worked on the operation, whose names have been omitted for security reasons.
February 17, 2011
“Look after the boy and sell everything we have,” said the man to his wife on his cell phone. His voice sounded “frightened” and “resigned," according to one of the police agents (Agent 1) in charge of the National Civil Police (PNC) center in San Salvador. It was past 3:30 in the afternoon on the day that Roberto Antonio Herrera Hernandez, alias “El Burro,” used his phone to alert his wife that he had been detained and that the police were checking his fingerprints to confirm that he was the same person that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was seeking for various crimes.
“He knew where he was going, and he knew that if we sent him up north [to the US], he wasn't going to get out of it," a second agent (Agent 2) explained. "It’s one thing here, in El Salvador, where he had already bought off a ton of police and politicians at the highest levels. It’s another thing entirely up north."
The operation started at one of Herrera Hernandez’s houses -- Number 12 Avenida 7 Norte in Santa Ana -- a province in western El Salvador. Early in the day, a surveillance unit located a moss green Toyota pickup with license plate number P235-804, property of El Burro, parked in front of the white house with red doors and a brick facade. Four agents from police intelligence -- three men and a woman -- were waiting some 50 meters from the building. That day, according to the plan, they would capture El Burro, one of the main figures in Salvadoran drug trafficking, who the PNC had been following for at least a year and who was wanted in the United States for crimes committed in Los Angeles and Houston.
They followed him almost the entire morning. First, Herrera Hernandez went to a locksmith, La Industrial, located on the Avenida Independencia of Santa Ana, where he spoke to someone inside. Then he stopped at Lacteos de Texis, where he left his green pickup and loaded livestock feed into a white Hyundai truck with license plate P545-380, which he then used to go toward the capital San Salvador via the Metrocentro circle. The intelligence agents followed him closely, as can be seen in the photographs they took from their vehicle to document the operation.
In a September 2009, in a PNC document entitled “Strategic Report on the Drug Trafficking Threat in El Salvador,” (on it is stamped the number 0009-12-2009; it was distributed by the PNC General Directorate under Commissioner Jose Luis Tobar Prieto) there are various references to El Burro. The document refers to El Burro as “a rancher by profession."
It goes on:
"He is the second in command of the drug trafficking structure, only below Ortega, alias 'El Chele.' He has been designated as the one in charge of the areas of Santa Ana and Ahuachapan...He has his own people that make the contacts to move the drugs, his principal connections are in Jutiapa and Jalapagua in Guatemala...
“It is known that a photo of him has previously appeared...on television programs...that identify him as one of the FBI’s most wanted for arms trafficking and homicide. At that time the subject was in hiding, but eventually he resumed his illegal activities.”
The Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro was the first media outlet to profile Herrera Hernandez, citing three police intelligence reports. In a far-reaching investigation on the Texis Cartel, one of El Salvador’s drug trafficking and money laundering networks, El Faro paints a portrait of El Burro, one of the organization’s leaders along with Jose Adan Salazar Umaña, alias "Chepe Diablo," as a man with important connections in the underworld, the police, and political parties.
El Burro, El Faro reports, participated in a meeting on June 12, 2010, in which he talked about “taking out” a police official who had become “stupid.” Other Salvadoran state intelligence documents in which Herrera Hernandez appears speak of his role as a leader of small scale, local drug trafficking in Santa Ana, but also of his possible participation in homicides as a means of settling scores within his organization.
Halfway through the morning on that day in February 2011, the white Hyundai, with Herrera Hernandez at the wheel and two other men inside, left the Santa Ana-San Salvador highway and took the road to Zapotitan above the town of Agua Caliente. Minutes after, two cars met on the dirt and gravel road: the Hyundai and a gray all-terrain Toyota bearing license plate number P4346. El Burro got out to exchange some words with the driver of the Toyota, who just a few seconds later set out on the road again. From another car -- a Hyundai sedan, also gray -- the police agents watched the exchange.
A little after noon, just minutes after the meeting with the gray Toyota, El Burro Herrera watched as the sedan overtook him on the dirt road and stopped short in front of him, forcing him to brake abruptly. The four plainclothes agents then identified themselves to El Burro, announcing that he was under arrest and would be taken to San Salvador to see if his fingerprints matched those of the suspect wanted by the FBI and the DEA for crimes committed in the United States.
“He knew what was going to happen; he knew that if we turned him over to the 'cheles' (US authorities), there would be no way to escape,” says one of the agents. “He didn’t try and resist. He told us he was a friend and was willing to cooperate.”
When Herrera Hernandez was detained, there were various calls made to San Salvador from the dusty road in Zapotitan. The coordinator of the capture called his commanding officers to finalize the details on what would happen after the police laboratory confirmed that the fingerprints of the man they had just detained -- with graying dark hair, a trimmed goatee and dressed in a dark green T-shirt, light blue canvas pants, brown belt and shoes -- were those of the kingpin who had come to control drug dealing in Santa Ana's San Lorenzo neighborhood and later named the lieutenant in one of the biggest drug trafficking organizations in El Salvador -- a capo who was also under investigation for the murder of accomplices for unpaid debts.
A prosecutor’s document from August 14, 2009, details the murder of a drug dealer in San Lorenzo that police investigators, in a September 2009 report, attribute to El Burro. That night, the agents of the Santa Ana public prosecutor’s homicide unit arrived at the scene of the crime at 9:30 p.m. There they found the body of a man later identified as 36 year-old Abel Jose Rogelio Padilla. This is what the agents reported: at 8:40, two men got out of a gray vehicle at the intersection of Avenida 9 Norte and Calle 12 Oriente in the Santa Ana neighborhood of Santa Barbara and opened fire on Rogelio Padilla, who died of multiple gun wounds to the chest.
Hours earlier, El Burro, according to the intelligence report, had ordered the death of Padilla, an area drug dealer, as punishment for unpaid debt. This is the working narrative of the murder, reconstructed with what is written in the police dossier: Padilla, deported from the United States, worked for the drug trafficking structure run by Herrera Hernandez. As an experienced and trusted drug dealer, Padilla began receiving up to a kilo of cocaine to supply markets in Santa Ana, the west, and other areas of the country. But he had made the worst of all possible mistakes in the drug world: he’d sold a kilo on credit to another distributor, and he’d lost another two kilos, an error his boss could not forgive.
El Burro’s hitmen, led by someone who the police identified only as Aminton de Jesus, received a “large sum of money” from a car with license plate number P284-421 the same day that Abel Padilla was murdered.
Looking back on the February 7, 2011 operation, Agent 1 remembered the optimism generated by the possibility of taking El Burro out of the game.
“We knew that this was a golden opportunity to take him out and really hit the organization. And we talked it over with the Americans. The Interpol order existed...it seemed like we had something here,” he explained. The Americans’ response, he says, wasn’t entirely supportive, but it wasn’t discouraging either.
A little after three in the afternoon, the car in which the Salvadoran agents and El Burro were travelling stopped on a side street off Santa Elena Boulevard, near the US Embassy. There, the police in charge of the operation received, from an FBI attaché, a document that contained the fingerprints of the man wanted in the United States.
“With this we’re going to go to the laboratory to confirm that they’re your fingerprints,” the agent told Herrera Hernandez. “That was the explanation that I gave him, that he was detained for the purpose of identification; that was the legal procedure.”
In the police laboratory, while El Burro waited handcuffed in a holding room, the agents started to get troubling phone calls.
“They told me that the warrant wasn’t sufficient, that it was old...that it wouldn’t suffice...that they weren’t going to take him," one agent recounted. "I responded to one of them: ‘You know what this man does is work here to poison young people in the United States with the drugs he sells. We get screwed here, but you all are screwed too...’ But it didn’t matter. It wasn’t El Burro’s time.”
When the agent told Herrera Hernandez he was free, El Burro smiled, a smile of relief.
“We took him to the station in Santa Ana, and then we turned him over to his wife,” the agent said.
Another Salvadoran agent, Agent 3, corroborated what happened during the February 2011 operation. Agent 3 was a consultant for the PNC and now works with the US Drug Enforcement Administration. He responded to questions via Blackberry (“It’s more difficult for them to access, to listen in,” he explained).
HSA: Do you remember that operation?
Agent 3: Yes, it was a detention, but El Burro came out fine.
HSA: What happened? Why didn’t the DEA or the FBI take him?
Agent 3: The warrant was expired, by then it wasn't enough to arrest him. The day of the failed operation, as he was saying goodbye to the police who had detained him, Roberto Antonio Herrera Hernandez just said: “Whatever you all need, just come and find me, I’m at your service.”
*Translated and published with permission from Hector Silva Avalos. See original Spanish version and other stories by Silva on his blog. CLALS, where Silva is a fellow, is a sponsor of InSight Crime's work.