Why did the seizure of a briefcase containing money on a secluded Costa Rican border cause so much concern to a Nicaraguan and a Salvadoran? The web of drug trafficking is so extensive that money found on a riverbank is the last link in a chain that leads to the murder of an Argentine troubadour. From the testimony of a self-confessed narco to wiretaps in Costa Rica, and an investigation that Panamanian prosecutors shared with their counterparts in El Salvador, this is an account of the links that connect Central American drug trafficking groups.
On the banks of the Sixaola River, on a narrow dusty road running through the middle of sugar cane fields, a purple pearl Toyota Corolla is parked. The police that patrol this sector, known as El Catracho Margarita, do not hesitate to pull over the car because they know this river, which empties into the Caribbean Sea and is on the border between Costa Rica and Panama, is a "hot route" for contraband and drug trafficking. The driver accelerates, trying to escape, but the Costa Rican police capture him and his companion. They handcuff them, check the vehicle and find on the back seat a briefcase containing five packets of money wrapped in duct tape. The police suspect that this wad of cash, $362,000 in total, was meant for the purchase of drugs and that they are looking at a money laundering case; what no one suspects at that moment is that just a few days earlier, part of this money had come from the fifth floor of a Salvadoran bank.
On June 15, 2008, at 11:20am, the two men travelling in the Toyota Corolla were arrested. One was a Nicaraguan named Gustavo Alvarez Lanza, alias "Tavo," and the other was Joel Hernandez Mora. At first glance, the arrest of these two men was just one more case on a long list of people detained for crossing the river by boat, taking money into Costa Rica and returning with drugs or merchandise from Panama. But in this case, there was something else. When the authorities searched the glove compartment of the car, they found a series of documents that provided them with a glimpse into the way various Central American drug traffickers work together -- some provided money, others rented out their ranches, a third party corrupted police officers so that hundreds of tons of cocaine could continue moving south to north.
The drug trafficking networks are so complex that the seizure of some cash on the banks of the river has a thread leading back to the accidental murder of an Argentine folk singer in Guatemala. But we will discuss that later.
For the moment, we will say that the 1999 Toyota Corolla had a direct connection with El Salvador. The vehicle was registered in the name of Fausto Antonio Valladares Ramos, who at the time was 45 years old. He was a mechanic who lived in the San Jose neighborhood in San Marcos; he ran a restaurant called Aguachila and was known in the underworld as "El Viejo Canoso" (The Old Gray-Haired Man). What was a vehicle belonging to a Salvadoran doing on that secluded Costa Rican border? How did it get there?
As the months passed, investigations suggested that in contrast to the vast Mexican territory, where various cartels fight over control of routes at gunpoint, Central America might as well be one country, where drug trafficking groups quietly coexist, without a clearly defined hierarchy, and with the money as a flag to prevent shootouts and mishaps.
The Loan that Was a Front to Buy Drugs
June 8, 2011. A blue Mitsubishi truck is parked at a gas station, on Kilometer 29 of the road that leads to Santa Ana. Two men say they have $110,000 to buy ten kilos of cocaine and take it to Guatemala. A third says yes, he can get hold of this amount, but at that moment he only has one kilo, of top quality, under one of the seats in the truck.
They talk, negotiate, and the seller invites the buyers to get in the truck to verify the quality of the cocaine.
"Come and try the merchandise," the narco offers.
"It's good stuff; we can do business," concludes the buyer.
The men discuss the fine details and then, all of a sudden, it all comes down on top of them. They are surrounded by ten anti-narcotics police. Five people are arrested and accused in court of trafficking illegal drugs. A judge sentences them to prison. One of the men arrested, accustomed to travelling to Costa Rica and Panama by plane, staying in hotels, and earning six times the minimum wage for making a simple trip to Nicaragua, cannot tolerate the hell that is prison. He wants his freedom back: he is willing to confess that he is a drug trafficker, and reveal who, on what dates, and how they moved tons of cocaine through Central America.
The statement made by this witness blew the dust off the case of the wad of cash seized at the Sixaola River. The self-confessed narco said that the head of his organization was named Jorge Ernesto Ulloa Sibrian, alias "Repollo," a Salvadoran businessman arrested this year in Zone 10 of Guatemala City, and accused of belonging to a Central American network that trafficked approximately 16 tons of cocaine to the United States.
The day of Repollo's arrest, March 16, 2013, Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla referred to him as "an important Salvadoran capo" and even what he called "the Salvadoran Chamale," in reference to the Guatemalan capo who was captured in March 2011, and controlled a large part of the Pacific coast departments in the country.
Repollo was expelled from Guatemala for violating the Immigration Act. In the records it appeared that he left the country by the Valle Nuevo border on February 19, 2013, but there was no record of his entry into Guatemala. For this irregularity, he was expelled, and on his arrival at the Ilopango airport in San Salvador, prosecutors were waiting for him with an arrest warrant for international cocaine trafficking. Ulloa Sibrian was detained in the maximum security prison in Zacatecoluca to await the hearing that would determine if there was enough evidence to try him.
Repollo is the owner of 35 properties in El Salvador that are registered in the name of his company, JE Inmobilaria, and his family. He presented himself as a builder, which allowed him to get credit from banks. The ex-employee of Repollo who could not tolerate the hell of prison had by now become a key witness, saying that these companies were a front and revealing, among other things, details about the origins of the money seized on the bank of the Sixaola River in Costa Rica.
The witnessed recalled that in May 2008, Repollo applied for a $70,000 loan from Banco Cuscatlan. The bank approved the loan and two of the businessman's employees, El Viejo Canoso and the witness, went to the fifth floor of the Cuscatlan tower, located on Los Proceres Boulevard in San Salvador, to cash the checks.
"We asked for the full amount in $100 bills, but the money wasn't for construction; it was for drugs, and he [Repollo] wanted it sent to Costa Rica. He did it like this because he used to say that if they investigated him he would say that he was working with bank loans."
The $70,000 bank loan was added to the rest of the cash for a total of $390,000. The Salvadoran narcos' job was to hide the money in a truck transporting molds and a machine for installing in a factory that made Mayan ornaments, and to take it to a ranch in the coastal zone of Sixaola. Once there, they handed over the money to Tavo -- the Nicaraguan with the contacts -- to cross the river by boat and meet with some Colombians in the Panamanian city of Changuinola to negotiate a cocaine shipment .
Tavo arrived at the bank of the Sixaola River in the Toyota Corolla. He parked on the dusty road, running through the middle of the sugar cane fields, and while he was waiting for the boat that would go to Panama, he was arrested by the police for the crime of laundering drug money. The news of his arrest spread like wildfire among members of the network. El Viejo Canoso, one of the Salvadorans that were near the border, made a call to San Jose, the Costa Rican capital. He said something serious had happened...
El Macho and his Friends
The pieces of drug trafficking in Central America are so well connected that the seizure of a vehicle on the bank of a river near Panama can worry a Salvadoran just as much as a Nicaraguan. This is what happened to Kalter Corea Velasquez, alias "El Macho," a policeman who was 547 kilometers from the place where the briefcase of cash was seized, but whose name appeared on a bill found in the glove box of the Toyota Corolla, raising suspicions that the six vehicles and the land he had bought in Santa Cecilia, Alajuela were the result of his adventures in the world of organized crime.
El Macho, of Nicaraguan origin, joined the Cost Rican police in 1999 and at the time of the seizure of the money was working as a border guard. Road surveillance and the certainty that there will not be any problems crossing the border is one of the goals aspired to by all drug trafficking organizations. This is why these structures spend a good part of their money on state officials, with the objective of having the path clear for their cocaine shipments. El Macho did not resist this temptation and was recruited by a businessman who had a farm right on the Costa Rican border with Nicaragua.
This businessman, who worked growing and transporting oranges, is called Allan Alvarez Roca, alias "El Negro." He is a dark man with a moustache and a round face, who for some time had a direct deal with the Colombian former guerrilla Libardo Parra, who would share good money with whoever helped him take shipments to the shore of Lake Nicaragua, where they were collected by a boat. To the Costa Rican policeman, the offer seemed irresistible: $2,000 for providing security for the cocaine loads and for leaking information about any anti-narcotics operations. This is how businessmen and police worked for several months -- trafficking drugs and even attending the area's bull fights and festivities together.
The calm with which they trafficked drugs and went to parties was broken on June 15, 2008. That day, investigators found a bill in the name of El Macho and also a voucher belonging to Claudio Rodriguez Roca, the father of the businessman that coordinated the cocaine trafficking, inside a Toyota Corolla. Over the course of several months, documents appeared confirming that the case was linked to a Central American group that trafficked cocaine.
On October 13, 2008, Costa Rican intelligence services wrote a report about El Macho: "He is an official from the northern command of La Cruz ... Confidential sources say he has property on the Costa Rican border, some 300 meters from Nicaragua. The aforementioned property is on the limits and is used as a path that goes to the main route to Cardenas, the southern shore of the Lake of Nicaragua.
The Costa Rican police then tapped the phones of El Negro and El Macho. The scene was set for drug seizures and arrests...
The Death of El Borracho
August 13 2009. Several months have passed since the operation on the Sixaola River. Joel Cantillano Bustos, a habitual drinker, is driving a truck towards the village of Santa Elena, on the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, and in a case he is carrying 78 packets of cocaine. The police arrest him and this, for the group of narcos he belongs to, is like stirring up a hornets' nest. One, two, three ... ten phone calls between them.
The police have spent a year and a half listening to phone calls and they believe they have managed to decode the narco-language. They believe "El Borracho," (the drunk) is Joel; they believe the phrase "the kids are here," means the cocaine is already in the storehouses; they believe "move the posts and the wire," is to transport loads; and they also believe that when someone says "the bill is ready," it means they have already been paid for transporting the white powder to Nicaragua. And this belief is based on one fact: the seizure of the 78 packets.
Hours after the detention of El Borracho, the police intercept a call between one of El Macho's lieutenants -- the policeman who couldn't resist a bribe -- and El Negro -- the businessman who coordinated the movement of cocaine.
"I was calling him and I never got hold of the big asshole," says El Negro.
"No, no, he wasn't there, he was by the river."
"Man, don't you see he died, the old drunk!"
"And ... son of a bitch!"
"I went to the wake yesterday, and the burial is today."
"Imagine that, son of a bitch, was it the booze?"
"The booze ... he started drinking Wednesday, he died yesterday."
"What an old fool."
"They told him he was going to die fucked up and he didn't pay attention."
"But, but ... it was true, then?" interrupts the police officer, Corea.
"Yes, it was true."
"Ok, well, we'll be in touch then."
"What do I say to the old drunk?" asks El Negro, before finishing the call.
"What are you going to say? God be with you..."
"Ha, ha, ha."
"Give him a bottle of booze, so he'll wake up with it on the other side."
The phone calls with El Borracho implicate the rest of the gang. There is a trail of phone calls and documents linking police and businessmen. The ties were so obvious that even the US anti-narcotics agency asked to investigate the case. In August 2009, a report by Special Agent Joseph Maccaffey noted the names of the people who, without any problems, trafficked drugs between Santa Cruz de Guanacaste and Upala, in Alajuela. The names of El Negro and El Macho were mentioned repeatedly. Their days are numbered...
El Palidejo Appears
There was a day when the negotiations between El Negro and the Colombian Libardo -- an ex-guerrilla from the M-19 organization -- broke down, and the criminal group had to look for a new ally. It began in 2009 when the police and the businessmen from Santa Cecilia decided to do business with "Tony," a man who prided himself on being a heavyweight in the world of drug trafficking because of his grand friendships with high-ranking military men, police, and politicians in Nicaragua -- which is what the ex-police officer Kalter Corea wrote in his confession on April 1, 2012.
Tony's real name was Alejandro Jimenez, alias "El Palidejo." In 2009, the name of Alejandro Jimenez was unknown, and the public only discovered his existence after July 9, 2011 -- the day the Argentine folk singer Facundo Cabral was assassinated in Guatemala City.
SEE ALSO: Nicaragua: A Paradise Lost?
In 2009, El Palidejo moved freely though Central America, because he had not yet faced the accusation that he was the intellectual author of the attack in which Cabral died -- an attack targetting old associates of his who had wanted to steal parts of his drug trafficking business, including businessman Henry Fariñas, who was the host and sponsor of the concert that Cabral had recently played in Guatemala. El Palidejo used a false Nicaraguan ID and rented a house in Managua, which had a pool and a large garage, where he kept various cars with hidden compartments for transporting cocaine; among them a single cab Toyota Hilux.
El Palidejo proposed to El Negro that he take charge of moving the shipments to Liberia in Costa Rica, and that once inside Nicaraguan territory, he would be in charge of transporting them to Managua, where he would hide them in vans to later take them to Honduras, leaving from the municipality of Jalapa in northern Nicaragua. This deal, though, did not cut the lines of communication with El Salvador. Instead, the men that worked for El Negro continued working as Repollo's principal agents in Costa Rica.
Both El Palidejo and Repollo were clients of the same corrupt men. The Salvadoran prosecutors' key witness recalled, for example, that El Macho -- the policeman that accepted bribes to facilitate the movement of shipments from Costa Rica to Nicaragua -- used a blue Hyundai Porter pick-up to move a load. The operation was a failure. The 78 kilos were seized and one of the organization's men -- El Borracho -- was captured.
El Macho has confessed that his organization was one of the pieces of the same puzzle. During about seven months, until July 2009, the group of narcos that El Negro led was the hinge that opened the door for cocaine to pass from Costa Rica to Nicaragua. Both were clients of the same corrupt men, until the day that El Palidejo decided it was the moment to look for a new alliance because he needed to move more tons of cocaine.
El Palidejo is not mentioned any more than this in El Negro's confession before the Court of Cassation of Guanacaste in Costa Rica. El Negro, for his part, looked for a new contact to traffic cocaine and he found it in Alexander Leudo Nieves, a Colombian that ended up in San Sebastian prison in Costa Rica in 2011. The ex-policeman's confession ended with this phrase: "If this is not the whole truth, I don't know the rest. Judge for yourselves."
The Panamanian Narco that Visited San Salvador
Sometimes, drug traffickers in countries like Costa Rica, Nicaragua or Honduras are a bridge by which you can find a shortcut. In the drug business, there is no monopoly, there is no blind loyalty, and local drug trafficking groups are not useful for every side of the business. For example, in Costa Rica, one of the most consistent associates of Repollo was the group led by El Negro, but it was not the only one.
According to information in the hands of Salvadoran authorities, Repollo began to traffic cocaine around 1998. Using a contact, Jorge Salazar, he would buy one or two kilos in Nicaragua. As his business grew, so did his list of contacts. After Nicaragua, he met his first Costa Rican contacts and, finally, made deals with a fat Panamanian with black wavy hair, who is called Carlos Ivan Gomez Figueroa but is known by his associates as "El Chombo."
El Chombo's organization was the group that was going to receive the $362,000 the police seized on the shores of the Sixaola River. One witness said in his declaration that Repollo bypassed the intermediaries led by El Negro and went to negotiate directly in Panama. As a result of these negotiations, El Chombo visited San Salvador.
Lacsa Flight 622 arrived at the El Salvador International Airport in Comalapa from Costa Rica on December 30, 2010. One of the passengers that got off the plane was El Chombo. When a Salvadoran immigration official asked what the reason for his visit was, he said he had come for tourism, but in reality it was business -- to hash out the details for an illegal business called cocaine trafficking.
El Salvador was not a strange place for El Chombo. A year before, in 2009, the General Directorate of Immigration reported that this Panamanian had entered the country three times for tourism. El Chombo stayed in the Hotel Alameda, on the Alameda Roosevelt in San Salvador and waited for the next day to come so he could claim that a Salvadoran narco had not paid him for the transport of 745 packets of cocaine. The claim was directed at Repollo, who far from showing his authority as a Central American capo -- as he was described by police at the time of his capture -- accepted the debt and agreed to negotiate its payment, according to the prosecutors' key witness.
The visit of El Chombo to El Salvador shows that drug trafficking groups move in distinct orbits and occasionally they meet. There were moments in which Repollo moved money to Costa Rica, so El Negro's group sent them merchandise, but there were also moments in which Repollo preferred to move his employees to Panama and negotiate directly with El Chombo, as he did in February 2010, when he moved 275 kilos of cocaine through the city of Paso Canoas.
Based on these transactions, we can say that there is not a monopoly on cocaine in Central America. Every group, in each country, takes care of its own backyard. El Chombo, for example, saw the necessity of contracting the drug transport services offered by the police officer Kalter Corea -- he contracted his pickup to take packets of cocaine from a Costa Rican beach. He did not need threats, or guns to move his merchandise, the only indispensible thing was money, and that came from the leader of each group. This was what was described by the Costa Rican police in a report, which stated: "It is unarguable that divisions exist between collaborators from each group, which are only linked by the leaders."
After charging him for the transport of 745 packets of cocaine, El Chombo spent New Year's Eve in the company of Repollo. The next day, he went to the beach. The Panamanian left the country on the night of January 7, 2011, and went on working and enjoying himself for his last 11 months of freedom.
On November 18, 2011, El Chombo and two others were arrested in the city of La Chorrera in Panama. The police caught them red-handed: they were hiding 27 packets of cocaine in the gas tank of a white Toyota Hilux pickup. One of the arrested men said in his defense that he was going to Puerto Camito, and he found the sacks of cocaine lying in the road. They did not believe him. El Chombo was sent to court, but not before officials confiscated a Digicel cell phone chip from El Salvador ... the drug trafficking ecosystems need to remain in contact.