Corruption seems to be the common denominator in Guatemalan politics, particularly in an election year. One particularly egregious case involves Otoniel Lima Recinos, the mayor of Nueva Concepción who investigators say used his office to run a criminal enterprise that benefited a notorious drug trafficking group. The Attorney General’s Office wants him prosecuted but Lima is running for reelection. This is his story.

Investigators have dozens of wiretapped calls of Mayor Otoniel Lima Recina but one particular conversation stands out above all. In that call, the man identified as the mayor by Guatemalan prosecutors speaks of using his power and resources to protect a cocaine shipment.

*This article was originally created by Training Cycles for Journalists (Ciclos de Actualización para Periodistas – CAP) and published in El Periódico. It was edited and reprinted with permission but does not necessarily represent the opinions of InSight Crime. Read the original here.  

These wiretapped calls and other conversations are part of an investigation into a criminal structure in Escuintla, the southern department where the mayor’s town of Nueva Concepción is located.

Lima, using the alias of “Otto,” mentions in a September 26, 2017 call that he moves around in state vehicles and requests the help of a departmental governor anytime he’s in trouble.

He speaks to José Eduardo García Rodríguez, alias “Guagua.” García is a member of Los Marroco, a drug trafficking organization operating in Escuintla and other departments of Guatemala.

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On December 2018, authorities captured five people involved with the organization and the Attorney General’s Office asked that Lima be prosecuted.

A month later, in court, prosecutors told a story that is increasingly frequent in Guatemala: a local politician using his power and state resources to pact with drug traffickers.

The Animals and the Government Vehicles

On the evening prior to the infamous September 26, 2017 call, Lima drove to a beach in Nueva Concepción.

Along for the ride were five vehicles, including two from the National Disaster Management Agency (Coordinadora Nacional para la Reducción de Desastres – Conred) and an ambulance. The vehicles were parked, waiting for the Corvina I, a ship en route to Mexico with more than half a ton of cocaine onboard. But the plan didn’t go off as expected.

The vessel was intercepted. Police and prosecutors, which had been tracking the group through the wiretapped calls, detained almost all the vehicles while on their return.

The only vehicle that wasn’t stopped was Lima’s.

“Yesterday, we went to leave groceries at the beach. And on our way back two of Conred’s vehicles got detained. They let me go through and when I looked back I didn’t see any cars coming…the ambulance and the two of Conred’s cars got stopped. I spoke to the governor.…and no one was able to help us. They only got released now at 7 in the morning,” said the man identified as Lima in one of the audios.

“What’s going on there? Some were saying they lost 14 animals,” he asks Guagua, which the collaborator confirms.

“Animals” is code for 14 packages with 660 kilograms of cocaine that were being transported by the Corvina I.

Guatemala and Cocaine

The complicity between political power and drug trafficking in Guatemala is not a small matter, nor unusual.

The US State Department estimates that 1,400 metric tons of cocaine were moved throughout the Central American country during 2017, and the numbers are increasing.

During the first three years of President Jimmy Morales’ time in office, 43,3 tons of cocaine were seized, 300 percent more than during the same period in the previous presidential term,  according to official figures.

Experts say the cocaine is coming from South America by sea. Afterwards, local networks receive, store and transport the drugs to Mexico and ultimately the United States.

Guatemala has a strategic location in the drug trafficking market. And the Escuintla department even more, with its access to the ocean, the capital and land routes.

Corruption along with the collaboration of public institutions — as with the Lima case — are crucial for these criminal networks to function.

The Powerful Man of Nueva Concepción

The mayor is not a discreet man. His public countenance, seen in campaign posters and videos posted on social media, reflects the aesthetic of the strong man. In addition, he is also popular, indicated by the votes he earned when he won the mayor’s office in Nueva Concepción in 2015.

After taking office, Lima established a criminal network operating under his command that involved officials of the Transit Municipal Police. César Gustavo Méndez Valdez, an agent of that institution, was said to be the link between Lima and Los Marrocos, a criminal organization involved in killings, drug trafficking and land theft through fake court orders.

Mendéz, named as “Checha” in the wiretapped calls, was also suspected by some members of Los Marrocos and even Lima himself, of being the snitch who informed on the 660 kilograms of cocaine traveling to Nueva Concepción aboard the Corvina I.

Checha was arrested in December 2018 and charged with several crimes including drug trafficking.

‘False Alarm’

Lima seems to be unbothered by the legal case he faces, being seemingly focused only on the next election.

Despite a request by the Attorney General him to be prosecuted as well as the criminal history of some of his collaborators, Lima has enrolled once again as a candidate for mayor in this year’s upcoming elections.

“It’s a false alarm, they want to sabotage me,” Lima stated on his social networks.

Lima is not the only mayor accused of drug trafficking in Guatemala.

Arnoldo Vargas Estrada, running in the department of Zacapa, was convicted of drug trafficking in the United States and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Jorge Alberto Rizzo, San José’s mayor, was acquitted for drug trafficking but his wife and brothers-in-law were convicted of laundering money linked to the Mexican drug trafficker Manuel Antonio Yañes.

It‘s still too soon to predict Lima’s future, but he does not seem overly worried.

“They [the authorities] are ruining everything in our town,” Lima said on the day his alleged accomplices working were arrested. Perhaps the magnitude of the Guatemalan corruption is what makes him feel calm.

*This article was originally created by Training Cycles for Journalists (Ciclos de Actualización para Periodistas – CAP) and published in El Periódico. It was edited and reprinted with permission but does not necessarily represent the opinions of InSight Crime. Read the original here.