The stories of the captures of Walter Montejo, Elio Lorenzana, and Walther Overdick -- three of Guatemala's criminal capos wanted by the US -- shed light on the degree of mistrust, corruption and absurdity that marks the fight against drug trafficking in Central America.
"You're asking why haven't they killed me yet?" a Guatemalan police official responded to the interview question with his own question.
It's the same old dilemma. This gentleman, who talks as fast as a rapper and wears the formal suits of a businessman, is a key police official in the recent history of Guatemala's fight against organized crime. He's among the most important, I would say. Along with a team of police specially trained and financed by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), he's participated in the investigation and capture of at least of five of the most important Guatemalan crime lords of this century.
This official, who seems incapable of making a joke, accepted my requests to sit down on several occasions and talk about how these capos were arrested. The few sources that I trust in this country -- two officials and a colleague -- have described him with an adjective that's rarely used when talking about a Guatemalan cop: honest. He said there was only one condition for talking, the same one as always: anonymity. I accepted it. From now on, let's call him the Official. At his side sat a former prosecutor who participated in many of the same cases and who demanded the same conditions for talking. He'll be known as the Ex-Prosecutor.
A version of this article originally appeared in El Faro's Sala Negra. It was translated and reprinted with permission. See Spanish original here.
"Exactly. Why haven't they killed you?" So went the conversation at a table in McDonald's in Guatemala City.
"Because I didn't have any links with any of them. Most officials -- those who are cops or from the Public Ministry [Guatemala's Attorney General's Office] -- are linked to them. They think like this: 'If you give me $100,000, I'll tip you off if there's anyone looking into you.' The capos say, 'Yes, take it, I'll give it to you.' The problem comes later when we catch the guy, and he says to that person, 'You son of a bitch, you didn't warn me.' That's when they kill you."
Over two lunches -- one consisting solely of French fries and Coca Cola, and the other of tacos, soup, and beer -- the Official told three true tales, backed up by the Ex-Prosecutor. As in all stories, within these tales are lessons that go beyond the story itself.
Walter Arelio Montejo Merida: "May your mother protect you."
"We were tapping phones in that case," the Official began with his first tale. "And I had already decided I wasn't leaving there without taking that son of a bitch with me. I'd been stuck for 14 days in Huehuetenango, a very troubled department, very troubled?"
Walter Arelio Montejo Merida is known as "El Zope." At that time, the US had been requesting his extradition from Guatemala since 2010, in order to try him in a Washington DC court on charges of conspiring to manufacture and distribute illegal drugs. On June 10, 2012, he was captured in a Huehuetenango neighborhood known as Zone 3, and on March 7, 2013, he was extradited to the US.
El Zope had inherited much of his power and many of his bad habits from Otto Herrera, a Guatemalan capo who bought off politicians in El Salvador, a man who generated a lot of expectations for little end result. Herrera was captured in Mexico in 2004, escaped from jail in 2005, was recaptured in Colombia in 2007, was extradited to the US in 2008, was sentenced in 2009, and was freed in 2013. Today he's a free man, and the godfather to El Zope. Both Huehuetenango and the Peten province, located along Mexico's border, are recognized as hubs of organized crime in Guatemala. In these places, words like mansions, horses, millions, massacres, drug shipment robberies ("tumbes"), and corruption are some of the keywords that can easily be found in a Google search.
At the McDonald's, the table where we talked felt like the island furthest from an archipelago. Apparently when someone talks about these things, you make certain facial expressions and gestures that repel others. Without us realizing it, the other guests had moved away from us and taken other tables.
"The issue was that one of his women had just given birth to a boy," the Official continued. "So he talks on the phone with another woman and tells her, 'I'd love for you to come sleep with me now, but I just can't, I'm going to go see my woman, she's just had a son.' Then we hear him talk to someone else and he says, 'get the armored black pick-up ready because we're heading out early tomorrow to Huehue [the departmental capital]." El Zope was based in Agua Zarca then.
Agua Zarca is the Huehuetenango village where a big massacre took place, when the Zetas and the Guatemalan gang controlled by Aler Samayoa, alias "El Chicharra" -- who's still a free man -- shot at each other for over five hours over the course of 15 kilometers in December 2008, leaving 17 cadavers strewn about. The official theory is that the operation was meant to kill El Zope, who controlled all movement throughout that village: he owned farms all over the place; he basically owned a piece of the Guatemala-Mexico border. After that, El Zope's gang grew, said the Official. He had 100 armed men following his orders, although he would only move with very few accompanying him.
"The thing is that we had been watching him since 5 in the morning," the Official continued. "He appeared around 10. And then we got him. He asked something from behind the window: 'You know this is an armored car and that bullets can't go through?' 'Then they can't come out either,' I told him.
"And he said, 'I'm never going to mess with a cop who's just doing his job: fallen is fallen. But if you try to rob me, you're messing with someone who's worse than the devil.'
"We were in just two vehicles, police and prosecutors. When he was getting in he said, 'I'm not going to be a mule, I'm heading out, I'm heading out of here [referring to extradition]. But I am going to make some serious trouble for a few big-time sons of bitches around here. Several poli.' I imagine he meant politicians?"
At that point, the Ex-Prosecutor interrupts.
"What gets my attention is the fact that the DEA never goes after those sons of bitches. The ones who are really controlling the business. These guys [like El Zope] are just the operatives. They wouldn't be anyone if they didn't have a structure behind them. They get taken away and [the DEA] doesn't go after anyone else in their network, everyone who protects them. They just jump over to the next department and pick another one to take away. Nothing ever happens to the other ones, nobody touches them."
This isn't just a theory espoused by a guy eating French fries at our little table. While eating breakfast at a hotel in Guatemala City with me in June, Guatemala's Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla acknowledged that the ending point of organized crime is not a mustachioed man with many lovers like El Zope.
"The capos are going to co-opt and intimidate local authorities," the minister said. "But there's also those in charge of administering justice. The targets are police, prosecutors. What I think is that even some of those elected to Congress have been co-opted. We've had representatives who have been linked to drug trafficking."
By Bonilla's logic, the fact that Guatemala's fight against organized crime is merely scratching the surface of the problem isn't an issue exclusive to Guatemala -- or Central America, for that matter.
"When has a big capo fallen [in the US]?" he asked. "I'm going to give you an example: the case of Wachovia bank. They found them guilty of money laundering. If this had been a Guatemalan bank, they would have gone completely broke." Wachovia, one of the biggest banks in the US, was found guilty of accepting deposits from Mexican exchange houses ["casas de cambio"] beginning in 2004, at least $100 million of which came from Mexican cartels. The bank was accused of not implementing mandatory control measures, and ultimately had to pay a multi-million dollar fine. One deposit -- made via Wachovia -- concerned four people who within two days sent money to a bankrupt company that sold airplanes. One of the airplanes bought in this transaction was found in Mexico carrying two tons of cocaine. This is the bank that Minister Bonilla was referring to.
Back at McDonald's, the Official wrapped up his tale of El Zope's capture.
"Right before we left him, he told us, 'Since those sons of bitches didn't protect me, may their mother protect them. I'm going to crush them.'"
El Zope was taken aboard a helicopter, and at 11.46 a.m. on June 10, 2012, Walter Arelio Montejo Merida landed at the Air Force headquarters in the capital, and was taken to the Torre de Tribunales to begin his extradition process. Now he's in a US jail, and up until now -- assuming that he was referring to politicians when he said he was going to "make some trouble for a few big-time sons of bitches" -- he apparently hasn't caused any public inconveniences for any of them.
Elio Lorenzana Cordon: "God listened to you before listening to me."
"The thing is that an informant stepped forward in [the neighborhood of] Zone 10 in the capital. To the gringo embassy, that is," the Official said in the fast food restaurant. "The issue was this: this informant said that he lived on the ranch where Elio lived. And the problem was never finding Elio, but getting to this place. La Reforma [where the ranch was located] was something like 150 kilometers down the road. And they've got teams watching everything starting at the 60 kilometer mark. And they're telling him: 'Boss, there's three patrols traveling together; boss, there's a police truck coming.' And from the time they warn him, he's still got an hour to take a bath and go hide out in the mountains."
[La Reforma is a village in the municipality of Huite, in the Zacapa province, on the Guatemalan border with Honduras. It is the bastion of the Lorenzana clan, where they kept a farm with an enormous yellow house in the middle]. Elio Lorenzana -- who's called Eliu -- is one of the two younger sons in the infamous and internationally pursued Lorenzana family. They are the Sinaloa Cartel's lieutenants in Central America. The head of the family is Waldemar, known as "The Patriarch" -- the capo of all Guatemalan capos. He is currently a prisoner in the US. The 76-year-old Patriarch was extradited on March 19, 2014, in order to stand trial in a New York court. He has already pled guilty to drug trafficking and everyone predicts he'll receive a small sentence for more than a decade of trafficking drugs.
SEE ALSO: Lorenzanas Profile
Five of his children are wanted by the US for the same crime. Two of them have been arrested in Guatemala and are awaiting extradition; one of them is Elio, who was arrested on November 8, 2011, in an operation that the Official participated in. Three others -- two men and a woman -- remain at large. All of them are wanted by the US. Elio's extradition has already been approved. His brother -- also called Waldemar -- has requested that the process be speeded up, so that he may be sent to New York, alongside his father. The US wants the Lorenzanas and, for some reason, they themselves also prefer to be extradited.
Our table in the fast food restaurant remained an island. At this point in the Official's tale, the authorities already had what they most needed: an infiltrator.
"The issue is that we had an order to carry out a raid on a certain farm," the Official continued. "If he moved to another, we would no longer be able to enter. We needed to be very effective.
"'We need to stay in touch with you,' we told the informant. 'And how do you think you're going to get there without anyone seeing you?' he asked. We told him that we would take care of it, and that he needed to stay alert?"
During breakfast with Minister Bonilla, he shared a theory that the extradition of people like the Lorenzanas only spawned more criminal groups. "Atomization," the minister called it. According to him, once "the heads" were taken to the US, those who were second-in-command no longer wanted to be number two -- they wanted to lead. And hence the groups atomized, via a process that was hardly peaceful.
In the days following Elio's capture, many newspapers -- and especially many television news shows -- shared images of residents of La Reforma who lamented the capo's arrest. "It's just that he gave work to everyone here in the village and in other villages around here," said a gray-haired woman during one news report.
The image of the terrible narco who is also a benefactor didn't end with Colombian drug trafficker Pablo Escobar, or the Mexican capo Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo. There are drug traffickers who understand that violence is something reserved only for their enemies in the business. They understand that it's best to keep bullets inside their guns for the longest time possible, and save them only for those who steal drug shipments, snitches or corrupt authorities. There are drug traffickers who understand that the best neighbors are happy neighbors, and that the best towns are those inhabited by their employees. The Official isn't the only one who knows this.
"In some places [the capos] generate jobs and agricultural production; they hire people. They don't involve everyone in the drug trade. They work in legitimate things in order to cover up illegitimate things," Minister Bonilla told me during our breakfast.
The Official put it more bluntly. "Ninety percent of the big Guatemalan capos will tell you, 'How much do you owe for electricity? Give me your bill. Here you go, here's enough so you don't have to pay for the next three months.' Or they'll ask you, 'What do you need? A car? Let's go find one.' Then they'll ask for your name in order to register businesses or buy houses, or the day will come when they say your pretty little girl is going to go on a little trip with the boss this weekend and he'll bring her back Monday."
The "good capos" create a parallel government in the places where the state government has no presence. They give and they demand. They fill a void. They are what the official authorities haven't managed to be.
If anyone knows how to create this image of the "good capos," it's the Lorenzana family. The Patriarch, for example, was captured while exiting a melon shop, after paying his employees.
This is the general complaint that some ministers have dared to voice in Guatemala. Even President Otto Perez Molina has echoed it, although in a much more subdued manner: the US goes after the leaders, the "good capos," because they're the ones with the most experience and who are the best at moving drugs towards more than 20 million US consumers. Once extradited, those who proliferate are "the animals" -- this was how Minister Bonilla described Guayo Cano, a drug trafficker who rose to power in the last seven years, and who in 2013 killed eight police and cut up another one in the rural municipality of Salcaja, because he thought they'd stolen $740,000 from him.
Back at McDonald's, the Official finished the tale.
"We rented a livestock truck. We found it in the local paper. In the back we put a bunch of police and we covered them with a canvas. We had people we trusted among them, in order to make sure that none of them tried to call anyone with some secret apparatus. Before entering the village we called our contact and he told us, 'He doesn't suspect anything, the guy's sleeping.'
"Elio got up and went to the bathroom, took a piss, then returned to his room. He thought he was a real Christian, so he started praying. We had him surrounded, we were five police and three of us [were part of the special team collaborating with the DEA]. At that moment, Elio said to his wife, 'Just a minute, love,' and he called someone named Pascual. He asked him who the truck belonged to -- the truck that was carrying us. Pascual said, 'Come down, boss,' because he was already on our side. When he came down and opened the door, he stopped inside.
"'Get changed, because now you're coming with us,' we told him. He said, 'I asked God to not let me get caught, but he listened to you before listening to me.'
"We took him away, but we had a bad feeling. When we were heading towards Tecolutan, past a big market area, we told our support team to land the helicopter. We told them, 'Land the helicopter however you can, you sons of bitches, they're going to set him free here.' So they did. I guess when [Lorenzana's allies] saw that the helicopter took him away, they thought, what the hell is the point of following."
Three sources from Guatemala's judiciary have said that they heard an audio recording in which the youngest of the Lorenzanas, Marta Julia, offered a million dollars to whoever would take her alive to those who captured her brother Elio.
Horst Walther Overdick Mejia: "I'm going peacefully."
"We watched him for like 25 to 30 days," the Official said. "We tracked one of his girlfriends who went from Coban to the capital, who would bring him information. We had an informant."
It was another day, another time, another restaurant. We were at a taco place in Zone 10 of the capital.
Overdick is known as "The Tiger." His area of operations was Alta Verapaz, a department in northern Guatemala that borders Peten. The Tiger mainly operated in Coban municipality. I went there in 2011, when the military declared a state of siege in the area, due to the incursion of the Zetas. A quekchi indigenous woman -- indignant over the brutality of this Mexican gang -- bad-mouthed them while we talked. When I told her that in any case, they lived under the domain of another great capo, Overdick, her irritated answer was, "No! Don Overdick never acted like that. I don't know what they're involved in, but they're respectful people who love the people here and help them."
Overdick -- who is nearly 50 -- was known as a ruthless man among his enemies. Guatemala's former attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, recalled one story involving Overdick, when his wife and son were detained in Coban circa 2009. Overdick took over the local radio station, and said that if his family wasn't released, he would kill the municipal judge. That time, his son and wife were set free.
Overdick was an enemy to the Zetas at first. Later, he was their main ally. In 2012, a video was circulated that showed Overdick at a party along the shores of Lake Peten Itza during March that year. The video shows Overdick in an embrace with "Commander W," a man identified as the head of the gang Zeta 200, the Zetas faction in charge of Guatemala.
Overdick was captured in April 2012 in San Lucas, Sacatepequez, a province that borders the capital to the west and which is home to the tourist hotspot Antigua. He was extradited to New York on December 10, 2012, to stand trial for trafficking 1.2 tons of cocaine in 2002. Overdick has pled innocent, and little else is known about the case.
SEE ALSO: Walther Overdick Profile
In the Mexican restaurant in Zone 10, the tacos had been served and the conversation continued with the Official's tale.
"We were following this girl of Overdick's from Guatemala City; we began watching her at the entrance of the highway that leads to the Atlantic. We followed her [to San Lucas], we looked at her license plates and we looked at what residence she visited. The problem was we didn't know for sure that he was there?"
"It sounds like all the investigations started after the US asked for these people," I interrupted the Official's story.
"Of course -- nobody had anything against them here. The anti-drug prosecutors don't do shit in this country. It's the special forces [groups made up of police and prosecutors] that bring results," said the Ex-Prosecutor.
One might think the Ex-Prosecutor was exaggerating, speaking out of resentment, maybe -- a verbal attack protected by the anonymity that he demanded. Nevertheless, there are higher-ranking officials who will confirm on the record that the state was not so on top of things.
Carlos Menocal was Interior Minister in Guatemala during President Alvaro Colom's administration, from January 2008 to January 2012. We met around the middle of this year in a restaurant in Zone 1 of the capital. According to his recollections, the landscape he encountered when he assumed his post as minister was absurd.
"When I arrived at the ministry, the first that I did was go to the anti-drug section. 'Show me the investigations that you have on the capos who are well known.' The answer was, 'There aren't any.' 'Shit, what do you mean there aren't any?' I said. There weren't any, nothing, not one damn piece of paper, just a map that was drawn up based on gossip."
There were some moments in which that absence of a single damn piece of paper prompted the US to doubt the new Guatemalan authorities. As the former minister said, "When the gringos are in a hurry, they're in a hurry."
"As interior minister, I had an incident with the DEA, because they didn't trust us, and they said that our government was giving benefits to the Lorenzanas. They asked me if we really had the will to catch him. It was in front of Attorney General Paz y Paz. We got in an argument with the chief of the DEA. After [Lorenzana] was captured, we showed them that they weren't right."
According to the former minister, there is an exaggerated amount of US pressure when it comes to drug trafficking. He knows that there's other priorities. "It [drug trafficking] is one artery of crime," he said. "But in Central America there are many other crimes that perhaps affect us more."
In the Mexican restaurant, the Official resumed his story.
"The thing is that around the house, there was land for sale. We talked to the estate manager and we said that we wanted to see the property, that we were interested. They were very close to the house that the woman had visited. We took videos and photographs. And we found a little hill. So we lay down and watched through binoculars. But we could only see the patio, the house garden, we couldn't see inside. Until one day he came out in the morning. He stretched, because he was going to do some exercises with some weights that he kept outside. I ordered the raid."
"How many people did you take [with you on the raid]?" I asked.
"Some 60 people," the Official said.
"And how do you find 60 honest people in the institution?"
"We prefer to be cautious. We don't tell them where we're going or what they're going to do. We get them all together before heading out. We take away all their phones and put their names on them, on little pieces of tape. We keep them in a sealed bag that no one opens until the operation is over. Once we have taken the target into the city, we return their phones."
Thus is the trust between colleagues in Guatemala.
The Official had one last thing to say about Overdick's capture.
"We surrounded the house and entered quietly, side by side outside the house. We found him sleeping next to the girl we were following. He offered no resistance. 'Stay calm,' he told us.
"'Horst Walther Overdick?' we asked.
"'That's right,' he answered. 'May I take a shower?' he asked.
"'Yes, but two officers have to watch,' we told him.
"He took a shower, put on a button-down shirt, and before leaving the house, he told his mother, 'I'm going peacefully.'"
*A version of this article originally appeared in El Faro's Sala Negra. It was translated and reprinted with permission. See Spanish original here.