In anticipation of Guatemala’s upcoming elections, the following story vividly details the nature of local politics in a Guatemalan border region where drug trafficking is prevalent, and the lengths people will go to in order to seize and keep power.
Marixa Ethelinda Lemus Perez, a former mayoral candidate for the municipality of Moyuta, in the department of Jutiapa, spends her days in the VIP section of the Saint Teresa Preventative Detention Center for Women. Here, the inmates don't sleep on sheets of concrete, but rather on beds left over from the clinic that previously occupied this space. Marixa is serving a 94-year prison sentence for running a criminal organization.
The 45-year old woman, known by her alias "Patrona," compliments her perfectly plucked eyebrows with a thick black outline above her eyelids. Her long hair and two rings -- made of three types of gold -- frame her somewhat hardened face, which they say is caused by the pain of losing friends and family members.
“They killed my sister, who was more than just a sister, she was like my mother; they killed my daughter, my uncle, the people who were with me in the party,” she says with a frown.
Her sister, Mayra Veronica Lemus Perez, used to be part of a political alliance between the National Unity of Hope (UNE) and the Grand National Alliance (Gana) parties. According to Marixa, Mayra was killed for having challenged Carlos Roberto Marroquin Fuentes -- the current mayor of Moytuta and member of the Lider party -- for the mayor's office during the general elections in 2011. “He wanted to remove all of the competition in order to control the territory,” Marixa says.
"He wanted to remove all the competition in order to control the territory."
Beyond municipal politics, Marroquin's objective, according to Marixa, is to control the territory in order to pass cocaine shipments that are received on the beaches of Moyuta and sent on to Mexico. There are no complaints or open investigations against Marroquin for drug trafficking, much less for homicide, and the mayor denies all accusations against him.
Nonetheless, a police investigator concurs with Marixa that the dispute between the Lemus Perez and Marroquin families is over the chance to monopolize control over the municipality on the border with El Salvador.
Confusion, contradictions, and violence characterize this border town and many other places in Guatemala. A place where the bullets are substituted for words and votes, and where a mother of two children can form a criminal group in order to avenge her dead family members.
A Political Family
Before she entered the political world and became involved in the crimes for which she was sentenced, Marixa ran two restaurants from her residence in Ciudad Pedro de Alvarado. But politics were never far. The youngest of three siblings, Marixa says her parents were always politically active in Moyuta, where she is from, and that other family members dreamed of participating in local politics.
SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profiles
Her oldest brother, Magno Marcel, was the first to run for political office. In 2005 he revealed his intention to occupy the mayor's office in Moyuta. In the 2007 elections, he competed with the Unionist Party, and during his rallies he always stated that he didn't desire to run the municipality in order to gain personal wealth, and that his only objective was to help the people.
However, members of a neighboring municipality told a different story, saying that Magno was involved in drug trafficking and wanted to become mayor in order to facilitate his criminal operations and enjoy immunity. Which is why it wasn't a surprise when in June 2006 Magno's pick-up truck, when leading a caravan heading to a political rally, was sprayed with gunfire. Marixa's oldest daughter, Jenniffer, died in the attack. Magno survived and became mayor in 2008, following a close election in which he won by just 17 votes.
With Magno in power, rumors swirling around his family continued. That the Lemuz Perez family always rode in armored trucks and with an entourage of armed bodyguards drew the attention of locals. Marixa explains that this was in order to protect the family following the attack against her brother, in which her daughter was killed.
Marixa Lemus, along with one of her criminal associates, during a hearing. Source: elPeriodico
In October 2009, Magno died of a heart attack. The neighbors murmured he had been poisoned by his own siblings, and one of his former collaborators indicated that during his last days the mayor was very nervous about rumors of corruption. The Auditor General had leveled several objections to the use of the budget within the municipality, but they did not result in penal action since Magno, like all mayors, enjoyed immunity.
In Magno's absence, the Councilman Lauro Mendez, assumed the position of mayor. People with knowledge of the situation say that Marixa and Mayra were seeking to interfere in municipal decisions.
The influence enjoyed by Mayra and Marixa within the public administration enabled them to gain popularity in Moyuta. This was particularly the case for Mayra, who participated in the inauguration of muncipal projects and presented herself as the manager of these public works. At the end of 2010, Mayra nominated herself as a candidate for mayor. Marixa always accompanied her during rallies and took charge of the logistical aspects of the campaign.
Mayra inherited from her brother not only the help of his supporters but also the accusations of drug trafficking. After having led an equestrian parade during a celebration in Ciudad Pedro de Alvarado, Mayra was killed in a restaurant. It was a major blow, Marixa says, since Mayra “was more than a sister, she was like a mother.” And Marixa blames her death on Marroquin, Mayra's principal contender at the time.
Mayra's assassination was not the first murder of that year. In January 2011 the delegate for Jutiapa, Hilario Antonio Lopez Contreras, was killed, and since then a wave of political violence has visited the department, including mayors and mayoral candidates.
In another published video, he poses with women in bikinis advertising “Red Summer,” a free event on Palm Sunday held at Playa La Barrona that offers a "show for men" and a "show for women."
The current delegate for the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) in Jutiapa, Henry Morales, says that the electoral violence is a reflection of what is happening across the country, and that his region is a focal point because of its geographic location. Jutiapa shares borders with El Salvador and Honduras, as well as beaches that open up to the Pacific Ocean, which he says is coveted by organized crime for the “smuggling of merchandise, people, and contraband,” and possibly drugs.
Following the killing of her sister, Marixa decided to run as a mayoral candidate in Moyuta. She says she was compelled by the insistence of her followers and her desire to bring development to the forgotten communities in Moyuta. “We knew that we could find financing and build roads so that people could go to work and increase commerce,” Marixa says. Her rival was Carlos Roberto Marroquin.
A Businessman Made Mayor
Marroquin is 37 years old, and is a businessman and rancher. He says he inherited this activity from his paternal grandfather, Francisco Marroquin Corado. However, he does not specify how many heads of cattle nor the size and location of the land his grandfather gave to him.
Marroquin entered politics without political patronage, only the support of the people of Playa La Barrona, where he is from. Marroquin notes that, in 2008, he was elected president of the Community Development Council (COCODE) of this area -- which is located in Jutiapa along the Pacific coast and border with El Salvador. He was also a member of the Board of the Green Mountain Association and vice president of the Pacific Community. Both of these organizations are in charge of negotiating the sale of land between neighbors, as well as promoting the Interoceanic Corridor project (this is a dry canal that aimed to unite the Atlantic with the Pacific in order to facilitate trade).
This was his springboard into politics, Marroquin explained. In 2011, he ran for mayor with the Unity of Nationalist Change (UCN) party, while Marixa ran with the UNE-Gana alliance. UCN is the oldest party in the country, with its support base concentrated in Jalapa, the department next to Jutiapa. This was after Mario Estrada, the current presidential candidate, became the party's leader in 2006.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime
Marixa and Marroquin were not always arch-rivals. Marixa remembers how Marroquin, approximately eight years ago, arrived at one of the restaurants in Ciudad Pedro de Alvarado and, "Talked to my husband like any other customer."
In those days, Marroquin was seen driving a “junker.” But after the 2008 campaign neighbors began to see him in double cabin pick-up trucks and guarded by bodyguards. The rivalry grew with the murder of her sister Mayra, along with other friends and relatives, which Marixa accused Marroquin of committing.
After the dispute, Marixa disappeared, and her supporters and friends would not see her again until April 2014, when her capture was announced on the news. It was not Marixa, however, but la Patrona.
Marroquin: Contradictory Images
Marroquin’s managing has occurred far from the eyes of the national press, except for three attacks against him and the purchase of an armored truck with community funds. Marroquin assures he has never had problems with anyone except Marixa, who he points to as behind the attacks against him. He supposes the attacks were motivated by his appointment as mayor, which interrupted the continuity of municipal power of the Lemus Perez family. "I denounced threats from 2009 to 2011, but I did not have support because they were from the governing UNE-Gana party,” he asserts.
Moreover, Marroquin said when he became mayor mayor he discovered the Lemus Perez brothers had appropriated six municipal properties, which he "is still recovering."
Marroquin dismisses accusations of drug trafficking, which he blames on his former political opponent, and assures he is ignorant of any drug trafficking that occurs in his city. "In my life’s journey I have been a politician, but the issue of security is the responsibility of the Ministry of Defense and Minister of Interior. I ask the Minister for patrols, and nothing, " he says.
It's as hard to believe Marroquin as it is to establish his guilt. A local source said Marroquin contributes to “Los Temerarios” -- a criminal structure that works with the Texis Cartel from El Salvador -- in the movement of drugs collected on the beaches of Moyuta. But to date there have been no indictments or investigations.
After discarding Marixa’s accusations, Marroquin denies that financing for his two election campaign came from drug trafficking, and ensures the money spent is legitimate and was acquired through his work as a rancher.
Beyond the accusations, Marroquin projects contradictory images. During a mayorial forum he wore a pair of black pants, a white shirt with black stripes -- which concealed four gold chains -- and a brown belt and shoes. The attire was contrary to what one sees in videos published on YouTube, where he appears with canvas trousers, boots, a wide-brimmed hat, and a leather belt from which a pistol and bullets hang. These videos are closer to his personality on his ranch. For instance, a video from December 2012 shows him during a rodeo, dancing with a Tex-Mex music singer and wearing this type of clothing.
"La Patrona" Marixa Lemus during her trial. Source: elPeriodico
In another published video, he poses with women in bikinis advertising “Red Summer,” a free event on Palm Sunday held at Playa La Barrona that offers a "show for men" and a "show for women." In that video, Marroquin is on his yacht wearing white shorts and a red hat -- the color representing the political party Lider. The speaker announces that in all the communities of Moyuta free transportation will be provided to attend a summertime activity; which could easily be considered an early political campaign. The event cost the community around $13,000, according to Guatecompras.
The mayor of Moyuta is well-known for this type of event. During Holy Week 2012, he made available to summer vacationers his speedboats so that those attending Playa La Barrona could go for a joy ride.
The Fight For The Corridor
Apparently, the dispute between the mayor and Marixa has been over more than just municipal power. The study “Criminal Organizations and Illicit Trafficking in Guatemala’s Border Communities,” published in 2011 by CNA -- a research organization based in Arlington, Virginia -- argues that drug trafficking networks operate with greater intensity in communities on or near smuggling routes, many of which are located in border regions.
One of the authors of the CNA report, Miguel Castillo, said the border with Honduras is the main route for drug trafficking from the south. While the route through El Salvador is less important, land transfers are made with vehicles traveling from Panama and Costa Rica. "In El Salvador, that small part of the business is handled by the cartel in Textistepeque, a town near the Guatemala border. For those reasons, they have counterparts in the Jutiapa area that were, until recently, Manuel de Jesus Castillo, known as Manolito,” said the researcher.
After Manolito left, others took control, especially those living in Ciudad Pedro de Alvarado, a suburb of Moyuta. This battle for territory has resulted in the death of numerous people, including a candidate for mayor, while many others have been attacked. Now there is a boy called the Niño del Mar, or “Boy of the Sea,” who wants to be mayor. He has apparently forced the other candidates to withdraw, and it seems he is the only person left, according to Castillo.
"He owns the territory; information indicates that drugs enter through La Barrona."
"The territory is desirable because the attention of the security forces is focused on the borders with Honduras and Mexico, which account for the largest movement of drugs from south to north. On the Pacific coast, the movement of narco-submarines has been recorded, and Niño del Mar has a wide variety of fast boats to use when needed," added Castillo.
Prosecutors and government officials consulted for this report were unaware of a Guatemalan criminal nicknamed Niño del Mar. However, an official from the Attorney General’s office noted that what they do hear a lot about is the Mayor Roberto Marroquin collaborating with organized crime groups along the border.
The official agrees with the police investigator in stating that the struggle between the mayor and Marixa is for the drug trafficking territory of Moyuta. According to unconfirmed information, the official from the Attorney General’s office explained that Marroquin is the Guatemalan representative for the Texis Cartel. "He owns the territory; information indicates that drugs enter through La Barrona,” said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
In the same border area is Asuncion Mita, a one hour drive from Moyuta -- the epicenter of the struggle between Marixa and Roberto Marroquin -- and where an intricate money laundering network was uncovered in mid-July by the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and Attorney General. The structure was led by Francisco Morales, alias “Chico Dolar,” a businessman who directed a remittance operation that moved at least $117 million of money orginating from organized crime, according to investigations.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Money Laundering
Moreover, Chico Dollar financed political campaigns. Wiretaps and financial reports show that, in 2011, Morales gave around $182,000 to the campaigns of deputies Manuel Barquin and Jaime Martinez when they were seeking re-election with the UNE-Gana alliance -- the same political banner brandished by Marixa Lemus in a Jutiapa community.
Marixa recalls that one of her campaign contributors spoke of Chico Dolar’s intention to meet her during the 2011 campaign, but she says she refused because she suspected he wanted to exchange his support for sexual favors.
"La Patrona's" criminal links. Source: elPeriodico
From Candidate to “La Patrona”
Marixa was arrested on April 16, 2014 after the Anti-Kidnapping Task Force’s investigation implicated her in the kidnapping and ultimate death of Amanda Lemus Contreras. The incident occurred on November 27, 2013, in the town of Garrobo, in the municipality of Pasaco, Jutiapa. According to reports from the investigation, Marixa committed the crime together with Zonia Elizabeth Lemus Vasquez and her brother, Oscar Isaac Lemuz Vasquez, a police officer. On December 6, 2013 Lemus Contreras’ family paid a ransom of just under $3,250 in exchange for her freedom. Lemus Contreras’ body was found a day later in the nearby village of Las Pilas.
The anti-kidnapping investigators intercepted Marixa’s communications and established that she led a criminal organization made up of at least five police officers, including the chief of the police sub-station in Moyuta. The investigation determined that the police officers were collaborators in a variety of different ways, from providing information about the movements of the mayor and police operatives in the region, to providing weapons and ammunition.
The intercepted communications from Marixa also helped investigators identify her as the coordinator of two attacks against Mayor Marroquin. According to the calls, Marixa’s criminal organization plotted and carried out a plan to detonate three explosive devices under a bridge the mayor had to cross en route to his house. In these communications she is named as La Patrona, or the patron.
Most of her family has been killed and her friends have distanced themselves to avoid problems with Mayor Marroquin.
The bomb attack that would take place on December 13, 2013 also called for an armed ambush after the explosives had detonated. It is unclear if the plan failed to kill Marroquin because he accelerated his vehicle to avoid the worst of the blast, or because the impact of the blast was somehow thwarted. The men who had planned to ambush Marroquin left behind a duffel bag of weapons at the bridge, which contained an AK-47 and a grenade. The investigator’s also found three signs in the bag, one of which read: “Asshole, you didn’t share the $2,000,000; you son of a bitch, sincerely LOS Z.”
A phone call from Marixa the same day of the failed attack let members of her group know that she wanted to carry out a second follow-up attack. In one of her communications with her contacts in the police sub-station in Moyuta, Chief Pedro Lopez assured Marixa that he would provide armed men to conduct the second attack. According to court documents, Oscar Isaac Vasquez Lemus, another of the police officers linked to the attack, suggested they use a sniper to make sure Marroquin would not survive this second attack. They ultimately did not follow through with the plot, but the report does not indicate why.
From the VIP area of the Saint Teresa Preventive Detention Center for Women, Marixa forcefully denies that she coordinated or participated in the attacks she is accused of, and for which she is serving a 94-year sentence. “There wasn’t even one call in which you can hear my voice, and there wasn’t a single witness who identified me,” said Marixa.
When investigators questioned Marixa about the coincidence of her seized telephone being the same one used to make the calls that were intercepted, she denies that they were the same. “The only possible way to link me to the calls is that once I used Zonia’s phone, but how would I have known what she was wrapped up in?” said Marixa.
The calls also established that the brothers Erick and Samuel Estrada Lopez -- both still at large -- were the intellectual authors of the attacks and the ones who financed the operation to take out Marroquin, according to one of the anti-kidnapping investigators.
In the end, eight members of Marixa’s organization were sentenced for their roles in the assassination attempt against Marroquin as well as their roles in the murder of Marixa’s husband, Alvaro Alfonso Mejia Estrada, who was also a member of his wife’s criminal operation. An investigator confirmed that Marixa plotted to have her husband murdered for inheritance and insurance purposes.
The Mayor Consolidates Power
While Marixa was putting together her criminal enterprise, Marroquin was building his political base. The mayor supported the Patriot Party in the runoff election for the 2011 presidential race. The mayor says the decision did not pay off for him or the community. “We gave them 7,200 votes and they left us abandoned, without any support from the central government for farmworkers, for coffee cultivators, for our urban areas, or for the rural areas,” said Marroquin. That slight opened the door to seeing what other political offers might be on the table in the lead up to September’s elections.
According to Marroquin, Armando Escriba, the departmental secretary of the Lider party, came to Marroquin with a portfolio of development projects for Moyuta that he could promise if Manuel Baldizon -- Lider’s presidential candidate -- was elected. “I decided to take up the Lider flag because they had good proposals, and because we believe that Dr. Baldizon will govern well at the national level,” said Marroquin.
The head of the town council had only seen Manuel Baldizon once, and “the doctor,” as Baldizon is known, still has not made it to Moyuta on one of his campaign stops. But that didn’t stop the council member from publicly using a catchphrase of Baldizon’s in a town forum: “only the people can save the nation.” The Lider party has been at the center of a political maelstrom for the past few weeks, with eight representatives and the vice presidential candidate implicated in a corruption scandal by the CICIG. Lider’s vice presidential candidate Edgar Barquin, and representatives Manuel Barquin and Jaime Martinez Lohayza, are all accused of supporting a money laundering ring run by Francisco Morales, alias "Chico Dolar," and for using the ring as a financing mechanism to put on assemblies for the UNE-Gana political alliance.
Impunity for some, not for others
Today, 45-year old Marixa is serving a sentence for kidnapping a woman and her role in an attempted assassination attempt against Mayor Marroquin.
Even for a woman identified as the leader of a criminal organization, you can see the tenderness in Marixa’s eyes when she talks about her two young children, who she has not seen very much since she began serving her sentence. The Santa Teresa prison allows inmates to receive visitors twice a week.
Marixa says she gets a visitor maybe once a month now that most of her family has been killed and her friends have distanced themselves to avoid problems with Mayor Marroquin.
“They killed all of my people, and even though the Attorney General has proof, they haven't done anything,” complains Marixa.
The mayor continues operating as before. Marixa says he has purchased or terrified all of the authorities. The convictions Marixa is currently serving time for do not include the murder of her husband, or any of the other possible crimes she and her criminal organization may have committed. Marixa will face trial for the murder of her husband some time next year. Meanwhile, Marroquin aspires to a second term as mayor.