In contrast to other territorial criminal organizations, El Salvador's drug trafficking groups do not resort to violence because they can count on the protection of corrupt state officials, says the United Nations.
A report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) confirms that two drug trafficking groups operate in El Salvador and that, in addition to transporting cocaine, are involved in "a wide range of organized crime activities and have manipulated local politics."
The Perrones and the Texis Cartel are able to operate so effectively thanks to the protection they have received from the state, and due to a lack of investigation into their activities, says the report, titled "Transnational Organized Crime in Central America and the Caribbean: A Threat Assessment."
"This flow [of cocaine], protected by high-level corruption... may have been tolerated for years, and there does not appear to be an active investigation today," says the 82-page report, in a section dedicated to El Salvador. The first version of the report was published last September by the UNODC, and has recently been the subject of discussion in Washington.
When referring to El Salvador and its international drug trafficking organizations (DTOs), the UN identifies the Perrones and the Texis Cartel as the country's two primary criminal groups, although it clarifies that other, smaller drug trafficking groups could exist.
Journalistic investigations exposed ties between the leaders of these criminal organizations and mayors, judges, government officials, police, and prosecutors. In the case of the Perrones, San Miguel Specialized Judge Jorge Gonzalez ordered the Attorney General's Office to investigate four police posts on the country's eastern beaches, based on suspicions that they were allowing cocaine shipments to be unloaded there. However, there are not currently -- nor were there ever -- investigations against police for those cases.
When consulted about the report, Salvadoran security officials said that they could not provide information about ongoing cases.
When describing Salvadoran drug trafficking routes and the criminal groups that use them, the UNODC calls El Salvador a "puzzle." This is partly because of the contradiction between official discourse and the activities that the drug traffickers are known to engage in, but also because of the lack of drug seizures.
In essence, the UN questions how authorities can insist that the "hormiga" trafficking system [in which drugs are moved in very small amounts] is the only one that operates in El Salvador, and that only shipments no larger than two kilos are trafficked, when information available from public sources indicates otherwise. Even the Salvadoran justice system indicates that the Perrones, for example, moved drugs for Mexico's Pacific Cartel [an alliance of the Sinaloa Cartel and the Gulf Cartel] and that one of their prominent members, Juan Maria Medrano, alias "Juan Colorado," was one of the few contemporary Central American traffickers capable of directly moving cocaine to the US East Coast market.
"Authorities claim that very little cocaine transits their country... [but] it seems likely that more cocaine passes through the country than is sometimes claimed," the UN report states on page 35. "The Perrones network ran cocaine from one end of the country to the other, with separate groups handling trafficking in the east and west... it is unlikely [they] dealt in quantities of less than two kilograms."
In a report written by the US State Department in 2011 -- which La Prensa Grafica has a copy of -- the US says that between two and 11 tons of cocaine entered El Salvador by land and between one and 11 tons left the country via Guatemala in that year.
A lack of violence
The UNODC categorizes the two Salvadoran groups as "transportistas" (transporters), groups whose principal interest is not territorial control, but rather guaranteeing financial gains through the shipment of merchandise. The report differentiates the "transportistias" from another type, called "territorial" groups, characterized by their desire to control territory, such as the family clans of traffickers in Guatemala.
In September 2012, Antonio Mazzitelli, the UNODC's Mexico and Central America representative, explained that the transporters function more as federations, without defined leaders, so that if one member goes missing -- after being arrested, for example --operations can rapidly resume.
"They are, in essence, criminal transport companies that move all kinds of contraband, including drugs," said the official, who added that the principal tool of these groups is official corruption, which permits them to operate for years "under the radar."
According to the UNODC, El Salvador is a "rare example of high-level corruption preceding the trafficking." It's the other way round in Guatemala: once the territorial groups gained the power and capacity to substitute the state, they resorted to bribery and violence to support their operations.
In another part of the report that discusses trafficking and violence, the UNODC explains that -- unlike in Guatemala -- in El Salvador there is no direct relationship between the most violent municipalities and large-scale drug trafficking. This is, in part, due to the fact that "where crime is well organized, drugs can flow through a transit region without incident... facilitated by high-level corruption."
Another characteristic worth noting about Salvadoran groups is their capacity to launder money. The Perrones and the Texis Cartel are described as money launderers, something confirmed by at least two state officials who have investigated these groups in the past 10 years.
*This article was originally published in La Prensa Grafica and was reprinted and translated with permission. The author is an investigator at American University's Latin American Studies Center in Washington DC.