With the arrest of alleged drug kingpin Waldemar Lorenzana, organized crime in Guatemala seems to have taken a hit. However, a closer examination of the circumstances leading up to the capture reveals heavy U.S. involvement, suggesting a lack of political will on the part of Guatemalan officials to seriously tackle drug trafficking in the country.
As Guatemala’s Prensa Libre reports, Waldemar Lorenzana Lima was captured by Guatemalan police on April 26, while driving on a dirt road in the municipality of El Jicaro, located in the eastern state of El Progreso. Although authorities have long accused Lorenzana of being the patriarch of a powerful drug trafficking family, he has proven difficult for them to pin down.
In December 2008, the 71-year-old was arrested on charges of illegally possessing an AK-47 rifle. However, Lorenzana was released almost immediately after being taken into custody.
Since then, the Lorenzana family has enjoyed relative immunity from law enforcement officials in the country, allowing them to develop into a large-scale criminal enterprise. In just a few years, the group significantly strengthened its control of illicit activities in the eastern Guatemalan states of Izapal and Zacapa, and even extended their sphere of influence to stretches of the Pacific coast, including the western city of La Reforma.
The Lorenzanas have used this influence to become crucial players in the cocaine trade, acting as middlemen between Colombian producers to the south and Mexican distributors to the north. Once shipments of cocaine arrive in Guatemala, the Lorenzanas reportedly work with the Sinaloa Cartel to move the drugs into Mexico and, from there, to the United States.
Lorenzana’s criminal empire became so powerful, in fact, that it developed a kind of grassroots following. According to the Prensa Libre, when U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officials raided La Reforma in July 2009 in an effort to locate Lorenzana, hundreds of protesters staged a massive rally in the city to support the family. The protests succeeded in partially interfering with the operation, allowing the kingpin and his family to escape.
This period of expansion finally came to an end in April 2010, when the U.S. Treasury designated the drug boss and his three sons (Eliu Lorenzana Cordon, Haroldo Lorenzana Cordon, and Waldemar Lorenzana Cordon) as Specially Designated Narcotics Traffickers (SDNTs). This move allowed officials to freeze the Lorenzana’s assets, and increased the pressure on Guatemalan authorities to arrest him.
Ultimately, pressure from U.S. authorities may have been the sole reason behind Lorenzana’s capture. According to Guatemalan Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, the charges against Lorenzana by American officials were key motivators in the arrest.
“He could be accused of committing crimes in Guatemala, but he was captured on the basis of a U.S. extradition request,” Paz y Paz told the local elPeriodico newspaper. The prosecutor admitted that there was some U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) involvement in the operation, but she was vague about the specifics.
This evasion is likely due to official embarrassment over the country’s weak judicial system. The fact that Guatemalan police are incapable of effectively addressing corruption and drug trafficking unassisted does not bode well for future anti-drug efforts in the country.
Indeed, heel-dragging on the part of Guatemalan authorities seems to be a trend in the country. In late March officials arrested another top drug trafficker in the country, Juan Alberto Ortiz Lopez, alias “Juan Chamale,” also with substantial support from U.S. agencies, including the DEA. While Ortiz is facing an extradition order in the U.S., he is not technically wanted on any charges in Guatemala, reflecting the entrenched level of impunity there.
Like Ortiz, Lorenzana now sits in a maximum security prison, waiting for a court ruling on his extradition order. His sons remain at large, although the U.S. Treasury has offered $200,000 for information leading to each of their arrests.