Guatemalan authorities captured a top lieutenant of the country's most powerful organized criminal gang, continuing an impressive offensive against the group and its Mexican Zetas allies, launched after the brutal 2011 massacre of 27 farmhands.
ElPeriodico reported that Alvaro Gomez Sanchez, alias "El Sapo Gomez," was captured in Salama, Baja Verapaz, a known center of recruitment and operations for these traffickers. Guatemala's President Otto Perez Molina said the government had been investigating Gomez for two years, and labeled him as the head of the Zetas in Guatemala.
More accurately, Gomez is a top lieutenant for Horst Walther Overdick, alias "El Tigre," (pictured above to the right) a Guatemalan national who is arguably the country's largest suspected drug trafficker.[See InSight Crime's Profile of Overdick]
Overdick, who is not formally charged with a crime in Guatemala, is the son of a former mayor and officially a local purchaser and purveyor of cardamom.
But as InSight Crime illustrated in a 2011 report, Guatemalan and US authorities believe that Overdick works closely with the Zetas criminal organization, providing logistical support, weapons and drugs that he obtains through his own channels.[See Part I, II, and III of Zetas in Guatemala report]
Gomez has been charged with "illicit association," according to elPeriodico. He was arrested in 2008, along with Overdick, and charged with illegal possession of a weapon. He and Overdick were both released and the charges dropped. According to numerous local and international sources consulted by InSight Crime, Gomez's role in the organization centered around providing weapons for both the Zetas and Overdick's military cells.
The Overdick-Zetas organization should be able to replace Gomez with ease. It has high level contacts in the military, from which it obtains most of its weaponry. These connections were illustrated by a video, obtained by InSight Crime, showing two high-ranking military officials cavorting with the top echelons of the organization at an informal horse racing event in an airport in central Guatemala.
In October, the Guatemalan army sanctioned the two, identified as Colonel Edgar Ernesto Muralles Solorzano and Lt. Colonel Edwin Herminio Rivas Morales, for attending the event without permission. Each received 40 demerits, an army spokesman told InSight Crime.
The Overdick-Zetas group has been on the offensive against their Guatemalan and Mexican rivals since at least 2010, when a combative Zeta known only as "200" arrived from Mexico. This offensive peaked last May, when a large caravan entered the farm of a suspected rival in the northern province of Peten and killed 27 farmhands, and then murdered a prosecutor who worked in their home base, the Alta Verapaz province.
The Guatemalan government has since engaged in an unprecedented effort to corral this group. The Attorney General's office told InSight Crime that it had arrested 75 suspected members of the Overdick-Zetas organization, not including Gomez. The suspects are mostly Mexican and Guatemalans and range from low to high-level ranks within the group, reaching to the level of financial manager, a critical post in the Zetas (as in any criminal organization).
The top members of the Overdick-Zetas group, however, remain at large, including Walther Overdick and alias "W," (pictured with Overdick above) the top member of the financial wing of the Zetas. These two mysteriously escaped a dragnet in July, even while numerous others, including Overdick's son, were arrested.
The Perez Molina government has indicated that it will use a new "Joint Task Force" to go after these and other Guatemalan groups, and the president said this arrest showed better intelligence gathering was already producing results.
For its part, the United States has indicated that Overdick is its top target. The fact that Overdick has no charges against him in Guatemala helps the US cause. If the US builds a case against him, and he is arrested, Overdick will face the immediate prospect of being extradited to face charges in the US.
It will be harder for the US to get their hands on Gomez. Guatemalan law prohibits extraditing suspects until they have settled their cases in country. In an odd twist, there are some who think this was Gomez's strategy: shield himself from extradition to the US by getting arrested and tried in Guatemala.