Guatemala courts have recently approved sending major drug traffickers to face criminal charges in the US, but legal delays or violence could still jeopardize the extraditions. InSight Crime examines the bloody history of extradition in Guatemala.
US counter-drug officials set a trap. It was 2005 and the top three officers in Guatemala’s new, US-trained anti-narcotics force were themselves wanted in the United States for drug trafficking. But US officials knew Guatemalan courts were unreliable. So they invited the three top cops to travel to Virginia for special training, and arrested them after they landed on US soil.
The ruse was part of a policy in the 2000s, said US officials. US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) special agents worked to lure Guatemalans wanted on US drug charges out of Guatemala to other nations including El Salvador and Mexico where they could be more easily apprehended and extradited to US courts to face trial.
But times have changed. In recent months, for the first time in decades, Guatemalan courts have approved extraditions of several alleged kingpins. The trend began in February when courts approved the extraditions of two men, one of whom was Juan Alberto Ortiz Lopez, alias “Juan Chamale” (pictured above), whom the DEA identifies as Guatemala’s top drug trafficker. In June a court approved the extradition of another major suspect, Horst Walther Overdick, alias “the Tiger,” who is accused of collaborating with the Mexican Zetas drug cartel.
These are big steps for Guatemala, a nation that has among the worst records in the hemisphere for either prosecuting or extraditing major drug suspects. The last time Guatemala extradited one of its own drug lords was nearly 20 years ago. And the complications faced by US agencies back then have continued to plague US efforts through six administrations led by four different American presidents.
The recent extradition rulings could finally threaten Guatemalan traffickers, nearly all of whom have long enjoyed impunity as long as they have remained within Guatemala. At least one suspect, an ex-president, is tied to a powerful military clique. Both US and UN officials fear the extraditions could still be jeopardized through either legal delays or targeted violence.
Back in 2007 Guatemala extradited two of its own citizens wanted on drug charges for the first time in more than a decade. But they were only mid-level smugglers who, along with a Colombian extradited from Guatemala a year later, hid at least five kilograms of heroin in a car driven from Guatemala to New York City.
Before then, the last time a Guatemalan was extradited on drug charges was back in the early 1990s. Arnoldo Vargas Estrada, alias “Archie,” was the mayor of the eastern town of Zacapa when he was arrested in 1990 with DEA help. A US embassy cable at the time described Vargas as a “major league hood.” The cable, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the George Washington University-based National Security Archive, added: “It is important to get Vargas, who is apparently both wealthy and inclined to violence, out of Guatemala quickly.”
But the town mayor’s extradition was anything but quick. One judge ruled the evidence was insufficient, even though it included a then record for Guatemala of 4,000 pounds of seized cocaine (exceeded two years later by 2.8 metric tons of cocaine found in a house rented to a Colombian by a retired Guatemalan Air Force captain). It took US State Department attorneys three more years filing in various Guatemalan courts to finally extradite the town mayor and two others by 1993.
The three suspects were convicted in a New York federal court of trafficking cocaine. Prosecutors told jurors that Vargas was receiving small planes loaded with drugs at his private ranch in Zacapa. But dozens of local farmers, in a signed petition to the DEA, told a slightly different story. Vargas and local military commanders began displacing small farmers from a nearby rural area, torturing three men, one month before Vargas’ DEA-assisted arrest. After his arrest, the same local military commanders displaced hundreds of families, and murdered at least nine more people including a mother and son, to build what the farmers in the petition claimed were clandestine runways for planes carrying drugs.
One of the same men named by the farmers, Byron Berganza, was finally arrested more than a decade later in El Salvador in 2004. By then the owner of a trucking business based in Zacapa, Otto Herrera, was considered by US agencies to be one of Central America’s biggest drug traffickers. He arrested in Mexico the same year. (He later escaped and was captured again in Colombia in 2007.)
Back in 1990, in Guatemala, DEA special agents had another operation under surveillance. DEA later seized a half metric ton of cocaine inside a small plan near Tampa that had been tracked from Escuintla in western Guatemala. The alleged ringleader indicted with others in a Florida federal court was Army lieutenant Carlos Ochoa Ruiz, alias “Charlie.”
The case took even longer since he was a military officer. At one point, a military tribunal intervened to claim jurisdiction, ruling to dismiss all charges. But US attorneys fought to keep the case in Guatemalan civilian courts. It went all the way to the Constitutional Court, the nation’s top judicial body, led by Judge Epaminondas Gonzalez Dubon, who was well-respected for his integrity.
On March 23, 1994, the Constitutional Court led by Judge Gonzalez Dubon quietly ruled in a closed session four-to-three to extradite Lt. Col. Ochoa. Nine days later, on April 1, gunmen shot and killed the chief justice in front of his surviving wife and child. On April 12, the same Constitutional Court with a new chief justice again quietly ruled seven-to-one not to extradite Ochoa. It took the State Department, prompted by the press, no less than four years to finally admit the facts in a few lines buried in a thick report to Congress.
Over the years since, several Guatemalans were extradited to the United States to face trial for individual crimes like rape that had no international connection. But no Guatemalans were extradited on any drug charges for 14 years.
The DEA began building another big case in 2003. Guatemalan agents assisted by US officials seized over $14 million in local currency from a house in Guatemala City leading to major suspects. One was Elio Lorenzano, the youngest son of a reputed organized crime family, who was arrested in Zacapa in November 2011. His extradition was among those recently approved. His family was allegedly working for the regional kingpin Herrera.
Today more than nine Guatemalan suspects wanted in the United States have US extradition cases pending against them in Guatemala. But most of their defense lawyers have wielded a seemingly interminable writ of "amparo" claiming that their clients’ constitutional rights are being somehow violated.
One suspect awaiting extradition is former President Alfonso Portillo who faces US money-laundering charges. He has ties to a powerful Guatemalan group of retired Army intelligence officers known as “The Brotherhood” or "La Cofradia.” At first, after his New York indictment was announced in January 2010, US officials also hoped to secure his extradition quickly.
“[Ex-]President Portillo has already demonstrated his ability to manipulate Guatemala’s courts, so we think his quick extradition to face money laundering charges in the US makes good sense,” reads one US embassy cable obtained through irregular channels by WikiLeaks. Guatemala’s Constitutional Court approved his extradition in August 2011. Yet ongoing legal proceedings in Guatemala continue to delay his transfer.
Violence remains another concern. “The powerful group of former military officers known as 'La Cofradia' will certainly feel threatened by Portillo’s arrest,” reads another US cable obtained by WikiLeaks. “We agree with [UN officials] that they might violently retaliate against a high-profile target or targets, such as the Guatemalan prosecutor handling the case (Eunice Mendizabal), or [UN] staff.”
Francisco Dall’Anese is the director of a UN anti-impunity commission in Guatemala. “Extradition orders are processed here like they were in the 19th century,” he said in June.