A trafficker believed to be a key contact for the Sinaloa Cartel was arrested in Guatemala on Wednesday. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) considered Guatemalan Juan Alberto Ortiz Lopez, alias ‘Juan Chamale,’ to be one of the country’s top traffickers. But it is doubtful that his arrest will disrupt the Sinaloa Cartel’s operations in the north of the country, where Mexican factions have worked alongside local smugglers for years.
Ortiz was arrested in Guatemala’s second largest city, Quetzaltenango, about 40 miles from the Mexico border. This is in the department adjacent to his usual stronghold, San Marcos, a mountainous region where much of the country’s poppy is grown, and where Ortiz earned himself the nickname of Guatemala’s “Heroin King.” The Sinaloa Cartel is believed to have cells active in the area, working with Ortiz to traffic narcotics that arrive via Pacific routes.
There have been indications that the pressure on Ortiz was growing, ever since authorities arrested one of his suspected partners, Mauro Salomon Ramirez Barrios, in October 2010. Ortiz used to travel with a team of up to 30 bodyguards, reports elPeriodico, but recently has been reported to move with only three or four. Two of his bodyguards were also arrested Wednesday, according to Prensa Libre.
Ortiz was a well-known patrician in San Marcos, where he owned a cable company and several estates, and was involved in an evangelical church, reports elPeriodico. He relied on a powerful local support network, even inspiring his own narco-ballad sung by local folk singer and evangelical Christian Oscar Ovidio. The song, available in a video below, concerns an alleged failed assassination attempt against Ortiz. The lyrics hint at the extent of the personal mythology, and grassroots popular support, that Ortiz was able to build in San Marcos: “Ortiz never has and never will walk alone / that day as always he was accompanied by three bodyguards, who’ve never abandoned him / God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.”
The question now is how big a power void Ortiz will leave behind in northern Guatemala, an area long exploited by Mexican cartels such as the Zetas (who are based in the Alta Verapaz department). It is possible that Ortiz’s ability to operate effectively as a businessman was limited by his high profile. As Prensa Libre details, Ortiz was constantly on the move between at least five safe houses. And despite the apparent popular support that allowed Ortiz to operate with impunity in San Marcos — notably, locals protested for the release of his alleged associate Mauro Salomon Ramirez after he was arrested in October — it was apparently multiple female informants who gave police the intelligence that led to Ortiz’s arrest, says Prensa Libre. This suggests that his inner circle had begun to crack under pressure from the authorities.
It is also worth noting that the operation that resulted in Ortiz’s arrest was reportedly carried out 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. This is a reminder of the institutional weaknesses in the country, where drug smugglers like Ortiz buy off local law enforcement and are sometimes viewed as heroes by the poppy-growers and fishermen hired to smuggle drugs through to Mexico.
The government of Guatemala launched a raid in Alta Verapaz last year, intended to root out the Zetas in the department, but produced no results comparable to the arrest of Ortiz. That the successful raid against Ortiz was accomplished, in part, due to U.S. assistance, is another sign of the key role that the U.S. plays in supporting Guatemala’s struggle against drug trafficking. And while the capture of this “big fish,” as Guatemala’s interior minister dubbed Ortiz, means that the Sinaloa Cartel have possibly lost one of their key business contacts, this will likely be no more than a short-term disruption for the cartel’s Guatemalan operations.