Authorities identified him as one of the main drug traffickers in the department of Chiquimula, a trafficking corridor of large amounts of cocaine moving by land through Guatemala. In Virginia, he is accused of moving tons of cocaine and millions of dollars in the same case that led to the the downfall of Honduras' Valle Valle brothers. Now, "Ché Manuel" is in custody in Miami, where he is facing another trial on drug trafficking charges. And it's still a mystery where he was captured.
In May 2017, some residents of Chiquimula started to whisper about José Manuel López Morales, also known as "Ché Manuel." They didn't think that three months later he would be seated in a prison cell in Miami facing drug trafficking charges. By October, his capture was still a well-kept secret, and they attributed his absence to a desire to keep a low profile.
On September 27, 2014, Ché Manuel escaped authorities who had launched an operation to capture him in San Juan Ermita and other towns in Chiquimula. On May 27, 2014, a grand jury in the Southern District of Florida had found sufficient evidence to indict him on drug charges. On June 23, prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia had also charged him for his role as an associate of the Honduras' Valle Valle brothers, who were also being pursued by Florida prosecutors. Both courts had requested Ché Manuel's capture and extradition.
*This story was translated, edited for clarity and length, and published with permission from Plaza Pública. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.
The September operation lasted eight hours and involved 50 police who were backed up by army soldiers and four helicopters, one belonging to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). But authorities were only able to capture Ché Manuel's wife, Deidy Nufio Franco de López, and her bodyguards. (As of 2017, she is not in custody.)
But Ché Manuel would be caught three years later in complete anonymity.
News of his capture didn't appear anywhere, even though the Guatemalan Attorney General's Office identified him as one of the main drug traffickers in Chiquimula. However, in court documents from the Southern District of Florida, which were reviewed by Plaza Pública, the date and location of his detention was recorded as August 17, 2017, in an unidentified country. The date was registered one day later in Virginia.
In Guatemala, national police spokesman Pablo Castillo said that the force divulges all high-profile arrests, and that no one by that name had been arrested on those dates or any days close to those dates. There were no press reports about the capture in Belize, Honduras or El Salvador, where other high-profile Guatemalan drug traffickers have been captured and sent to the United States.
Normally, US court files consider the date of arrest as the day that the suspect reaches the United States (when US officials formally take custody of the individual) because the United States does not have jurisdiction in other countries. If the records include the date of a suspect's capture abroad, they also usually name the location. The documents in the Ché Manuel case indicate that he was extradited to the United States, but they don't reveal from where he was extradited.
What they do reveal is that on August 30, in a two-minute hearing, Ché Manuel arrived in a Miami court to plead not guilty. On October 26, his defense team asked for a hearing so that the defendant could change his plea. They were also awaiting a written proposal from prosecutors about the conditions of their client's cooperation with authorities, suggesting that Ché Manuel planned to plead guilty as part of a deal.
The Evidence That Sunk Him
Prosecutors in Florida say Ché Manuel conspired since at least February 2013 to traffic cocaine in Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico, knowing that the drugs would be sent to the United States. These conclusions allowed the court to ask Guatemala for Ché Manuel's capture and extradition. But his arrest was part of a larger strategy.
In 2014, the United States coordinated with Honduras and Guatemala to take down the Valle Valle brothers' criminal organization as well as to arrest Ché Manuel. The DEA had evidence that the Valles sent cocaine to Ché Manuel in Chiquimula, and that Ché Manuel had sent millions of dollars to them in Honduras. According to investigations by elPeriódico and InSight Crime, Ché Manuel also sent the Valles shipments of high-caliber weapons.
In the Eastern District of Virginia, Ché Manuel is accused of trafficking drugs with three Valle brothers and 11 other individuals. Prosecutors there trace this conspiracy back to 2005, eight years before the start of the conspiracy identified by their counterparts in Florida.
(Excerpt of US indictment against Ché Manuel)
The Virginia indictment, dated June 2014, describes Ché Manuel as "a Guatemalan drug trafficker who receives loads of cocaine from the Valle [drug trafficking organization], and facilitates their transport across the Guatemalan border." Prosecutors also allege that Ché Manuel and the Valles conspired to ship cocaine through Mexico to the United States, and that drugs that passed through their hands had been found in California, Arizona, Texas, Illinois, New York and Virginia.
Additionally, the Virginia court file contains accusations that the Valles and others conspired to murder a group of individuals that entered their territory without authorization.
The Lorenzanas and Their Dangerous Associates
Evidence suggests that Ché Manuel followed in the footsteps of brothers Eliú and Waldemar Lorenzana, who were captured in 2011 and 2013, respectively. According to Guatemalan drug trafficker Sebastiana Cottón Vásquez, the Lorenzana brothers bought cocaine from the Valles between 2000 and 2001, sending the drugs to the department of San Marcos, from where Cottón would ship it to Mexico.
The website Personas de Interés has also linked Cottón with Ché Manuel. Like the Valles, however, Cottón was captured in October 2014. She was detained in Mexico, returned to Guatemala, and extradited to the United States, where she testified against the Lorenzanas and expressed her willingness to cooperate in other cases in order to reduce her sentence. (Her release is currently scheduled for 2029.)
After the fall of the Valles in October 2014, the trafficking logistics were left to Víctor Hugo Díaz Morales, alias "El Rojo" -- that is, until his March 4, 2017 capture in Guatemala City. Díaz Morales, who lived in Esquipluas, Chiquimula, was also arrested because the United States had requested is extradition on drug charges to New York, which was one of the alleged destinations for cocaine moved by the Valles and Ché Manuel.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of the Lorenzanas
It wasn't a coincidence that El Rojo lived in Chiquimula. The geographic proximity allowed him to keep in contact with Ché Manuel in nearby San Juan Ermita. The town's mayor, Mayor Mario Rolando Lemus Martínez, who also served as governor of Chiquimula, is Ché Manuel's uncle, according to Personas de Interés, and the municipal stadium bears the name of the now-extradited suspect.
Despite the fact that no evidence links violence in San Juan Ermita to drug trafficking, the town's homicide rate has risen since the failed 2014 operation to capture Ché Manuel. In 2016, San Juan Ermita recorded the second-highest murder rate of any town in Chiquimula, which is the department with the fourth-highest homicide rate in the nation.
Personas de Interés indicates that Ché Manuel also had ties to Juan Vanegas, who was re-elected as mayor of Concepción Las Minas, a town in Chiquimula on the border with El Salvador. In September 2017, a month after the capture of Ché Manuel, Vanegas was attacked, two years after another murder plot against him in El Salvador failed. Authorities have not linked these attacks to drug trafficking.
A Hide-and-Seek Robin Hood
During the three years prior to his capture, Ché Manuel refined the art of escaping. But he also played Robin Hood in order to assure loyalties that would protect him in Chiquimula.
In October 2014, media reports revealed that while many residents of the department believed Ché Manuel was involved in drug trafficking, they also said that he had helped members of the community. In May 2017, one witness said that for Christmas, Ché Manuel had given away basic products to various families, and that he had also included envelopes with cash in them.
On his first visit to a US courtroom, Ché Manuel was represented by attorney Daniela Posada, of the firm Posada, Taddeo and Dietker, as well as Robert Feitel. Posada previously worked on a case of a Mexican citizen accused of drug trafficking, in which she obtained a significant sentencing reduction. Feitel, a former US Justice Department prosecutor, was once investigated by the DEA because his firm received a suspicious $50,000 payment linked to his defense of an accused drug trafficker, though no wrongdoing was found. In January 2016, he appeared as a defense attorney for Miguel Arnulfo Valle, one of Ché Manuel's former associates.
The Valle brothers, on the advice of their lawyers, including Feitel, pleaded guilty last year in Florida court, which suggests they agreed to cooperate and testify against their former partners. Nevertheless, the court sentenced them in September 2017, to 23 years in prison.
SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profile
Court documents indicate that Ché Manuel's defense team had him plead not guilty while he was attempting to negotiate a plea deal. It would not be unusual if his legal team urged him to plead guilty, considering that one of the prosecutors in the case, Walter Norkin, has won long sentences against other drug traffickers.
Norkin led the case against Honduran trafficker Juan Carlos Arvizú Hernández, who was captured in February 2016, extradited to the United States in June of that year, and sentenced to 30 years in prison in a Miami court on September 29, 2017. In 2013 Arvizú was also linked to the Valles, as well as the Cachiros and other drug traffickers in Honduras.
Some extradited Guatemalans who pleaded guilty, like Otto Herrera García and Byron Linares Cordón, received sentences shorter sentences -- six and three years, respectively, in their cases.
If he pleads guilty, Ché Manuel would have to promise to provide information that could lead to seizures and arrests, and to testify in judicial proceedings, as did Herrera García and Linares Cordón, who provided testimony against the Lorenzanas. As he weighs his decision, this possibility could be causing some in tremors in the Chiquimula underworld.