In the Salvadoran town of Metapan one of the country’s most elusive drug trafficking groups, the Texis Cartel, has co-opted local politics. El Faro reports on an undercover investigation against the organization that may go deeper than it first appeared.
Undercover agents Samuel and Adriel entered the offices to have the first conversation with the man that they intended to deceive. They knew that Jesus Sanabria was a man with debts, but on Friday, November 11, 2011, when they went to see him in Santa Ana at the administrative offices of his water park, Apuzunga, they didn’t know that he would open his mouth so quickly. Let’s call that Friday -- November 11, 2011 -- day one.
That same morning, the Anti-Narcotics Division (DAN) of the national police had authorized the agents to make the first contact with their target. Samuel and Adriel were adept. They arrived with the alibi of wanting to know the prices of Apuzunga’s services.
Soon, the agents were taking the conversation in a direction that let Sanabria know that they were brothers involved in business. In the judicial record of the case, the word “business,” is put in quotation marks.
The supposed brothers explained to Sanabria that they were moneylenders, usurers that lent money at a 5 percent monthly interest rate as long as the debtor had property that could be used as collateral. Samuel and Adriel knew that Sanabria was a businessman in financial distress. Sanabria, who might have picked up on a wink, took the conversation in a new direction:
"If in the future we do business, I am the type of person who never gets burnt," he told them.
Sanabria seemed to take confidence in the strangers and kept talking. He revealed to them that for some time he had been faring poorly in a big deal that could have meant big profits for him. This was a green light for the agents, as the businessman was only confirming their impression of him.
Samuel and Adriel took advantage of the opportunity to shift the tone of the conversation. They responded that they also did another very profitable type of business, albeit dangerous. On that point, one of them told him, winking: “If you don’t do it well, you end up either in prison or in the cemetery.” Sanabria took the bait.
"Look, brother, we are talking about the same thing," he said to the agents.
Then Samuel got straight to the point:
"How capable are you of doing this type of business?" he asked the agent.
"Look, brother. Lately my capacity to do business is at a maximum of 20 kilos, but it’s good quality powder."
After saying that, Sanabria smiled at Samuel, according to records of the conversation in the court file on the case.
Sanabria -- known as "Chus" -- is a stout, bald man whose face boasts a large mustache that recalls that of Pancho Villa, the famous hero of the Mexican Revolution. In fact, Sanabria himself resembles Pancho Villa not only in his mustache, but also in his face. In Metapan (pictured) he is known as the owner of Apuzunga, but above all, Chus is known because he was holding public office at the time he fell for Samuel and Adriel’s trick. Since the 2006 elections, Sanabria had been a Metapan town councilor from the National Conciliation Party (PCN) -- now the National Coordination (CN). Now, after his arrest thanks to the investigations of agents Samuel and Adriel, Sanabria is being tried for trying to sell five kilos of cocaine. However, that is the ending to a story that, up until now, had not been told.
Day one closed as a success for the agents. A councilor of a municipality where public security officials had been saying for more than a decade that a drug trafficking structure was located, had just offered them a good amount of cocaine. However, the negotiation, which aimed to unveil the upper hierarchy of the structure, the infiltration of state institutions and an area where cocaine trafficking is proliferating, had just begun.
The agents and Sanabria agreed to meet each other outside the office another day, and keep talking.
Sanabria Sets the Price
Almost a month later, on the afternoon of December 9 -- also a Friday -- the agents and Sanabria met in a bakery in the Metrocentro mall on the southern road out of Santa Ana.
The meeting took place in [bakery store] Bam Bam, and by then the councilor had already demonstrated his diligence, having gone through the process of obtaining the cocaine. The court file states that in those four weeks, Sanabria traveled to Costa Rica and Panama. “They offered him good prices,” wrote agent Samuel. Sanabria did not mention the names of his contacts in those countries, but it was very clear that he was a man in need of help to resolve his financial problems. He took a copy of the deeds to Apuzunga with him, and invited the agents to verify the document with a notary. The councilor remained interested in a loan from the two men who he believed to be loan sharks.
Samuel and Adriel did not give further details regarding the promise of the loan. That meeting, according to the record, ended with a clearly-defined business deal: Sanabria offered the price of $12,000 for each kilo of cocaine. Or rather, for each "little animal." Those were the words that the councilor used to refer to the packets of the drug. Mathematically, the price means that Sanabria was a man capable of moving a maximum quantity of $240,000 worth of cocaine, although he would end up offering just 5 kilos, or $60,000. The operation continued at a brisk pace.
The Invisible Partners of Councilman Sanabria
Day one had been a success, and the meeting in the Bam Bam bakery promised further revelations from Sanabria. Some minutes after midday on that Friday -- December 9, 2011 -- the second chat between councilor Sanabria and the undercover agents revealed more important clues about the cocaine trafficking network in El Salvador’s northwest. As soon as the conversation about the price of the “little animals” ended, the then-city official told them that he was not only in the business of selling the white powder.
The chance of access to other parts of the structure that offered good quality cocaine was a revelation that the investigators set out in a report that day. The document stated: “Together with his brother and others from Metapan they are associated with, they can hand them over (the packets of drugs).” Sanabria did not give the names or descriptions of the people involved, but the thread of the investigation in the following two months went as far as involving contacts in Guatemala and in the Salvadoran police.
In the next two months, the investigators’ fieldwork allowed them to sketch a profile of Sanabria’s colleagues. In light of a third conversation between Sanabria and the undercover agents, the councilor’s associates emerge as the owners of mansions -- places of luxury where you can make cocaine deals without hitches.
That information came out in a meeting that took place at 11:15 in the morning of Saturday, January 7 -- almost two months on from day one. The undercover police were stationed two blocks from Los Roros, a restaurant located at the edge of the Santa Ana Metrocentro, in the Loma Linda neighborhood. Sanabria arrived in a Mitsubishi vehicle, accompanied by a big, dark man with black, curly hair: 32-year-old Edgar Aquileo Lopez Matute, alias “El Negro.”
“El Negro” is a resident of Conchagua, a small settlement made up of a handful of modest homes in the Las Piedras subdivision, in Metapan, where Sanabria has his Apuzunga water park. In front of the undercover agents the councilor presented “El Negro” as his right-hand man. He explained that the man would participate in the sale of a small sample of the drug, intended to convince the buyers that it was a good quality product. The councilor proposed to do the transaction in a private place, but Samuel responded cautiously, declining the proposition. He feared for his security.
"Don’t worry. It’s a mansion, my brother," responded Sanabria, trying to calm him.
Sanabria’s words did not convince the undercover cop, who insisted on looking for a more secure place for the deal because he was afraid of being ripped off.
"It doesn’t seem like a good idea because I don’t know who’s inside the house. What if you take my money?" was the agent’s excuse.
It was Sanabria who then proposed to carry out the transaction in a public place: the Los Arcos restaurant, about 2 kilometers from the town of Texistepeque.
"The place is appropriate and we won’t be noticed. I’ve already done this type of dealing in the restaurant," boasted Sanabria, and he added an advantage for his companion. "You will have more time to verify the product while I count the money."
Without further delays or preludes, the men agreed that the first transaction -- the sample of the good -- would be carried out four days later, on January 11. The undercover agents would bring $40 and Sanabria would give them a small baggie of cocaine. That would be the first step to a bigger deal. Sanabria was ready to sell, and the agents were ready to buy a few “little animals,” or “little cows” -- the terms that councilor Sanabria used to refer to kilos of the drug, according to police records.
"We are definitely going to do it, I already have the coke," announced Sanabria.
On the agreed day -- January 11, 2012 -- undercover agent Samuel received a phone call from “El Negro” at 11:00 in the morning. In that conversation, “El Negro” confirmed that they had the cocaine and were ready to present it in Los Arcos restaurant. Two months after day one, although they were still in the period of testing the product, the operation was showing how you can carry out a certain type of business in Metapan, how easy it is to get someone to move large quantities of drugs, how that municipality on the border with Guatemala is one of the country's trafficking Meccas.
They Fall into the Trap
At kilometer 85 of the highway toward the Anguiatu border with Guatemala, between the cities of Texistepeque and Metapan, there is a highway restaurant that beckons people to stop. It is called Los Arcos. Between the highway and restaurant there is a dirt path where about 20 cars can park. The little restaurant is just that: open with a couple of columns that hold up a roof, and wooden chairs and tables in three rows. At one end of the restaurant there is a small counter with three friendly women who attend to customers as fast as they can, distributing beers and small portions of meat or ceviche for a dollar. At the other end are a plasma television attached to the wall and a jukebox. In the area behind the restaurant, Los Arcos has a more private space. Between the restaurant and a solitary football field surrounded by mounds of dirt, Los Arcos has a small covered hallway. It’s simply pillars and a roof, a row of wooden tables and small palm trees that line the hallway. That was where the shootout occurred between the drug traffickers and the police.
On January 11 -- two months after day one -- undercover agents Samuel and Adriel confirmed that they were dealing with cocaine and not a scam. They had received a sample for $40. As the judicial record describes, Samuel and Adriel knew that they were dealing with dangerous people, and they wanted to minimize the risks. “They fear because their lives are in danger, because they already did business with active members of a drug trafficking network that operates on an international level,” states the document.
Twelve days passed. One of the agents had already received the call from El Negro Matute, Sanabria’s accomplice, but it wasn’t until midday when the councilor himself contacted the agent to confirm that that January 23 would be the day they would deal the “little animals.” Sanabria confirmed that he would send El Negro, and assured the agents that he was a man of complete confidence. “I will be in contact with him,” he said. Then insisted that all was ready -- the claim of a drug trafficker who hopes that a deal doesn’t fall through once again.
"The little cows are already in the corral. There are five cows. You aren’t going to fail me. You aren’t going to fail me, it’s high quality product," said Sanabria over the phone.
That afternoon, seven men led by El Negro arrived at Los Arcos in a green Land Cruiser truck, a gray Nissan pick up, a black Honda vehicle and a gray Honda motorcycle. They sat in the most private area of the restaurant. A black bag was produced from the red pick up. Minutes later it was proved to contain five rectangular packages. Shortly after, a police operation headed by Adriel and Samuel arrived with the call: “Stop! Police!”
One of the councilor’s accomplices, Carlos Amaya, was the first to react. The report only says that he took out a gun and shot directly at the two undercover agents carrying the bag. The agents had better aim and hit Amaya on the left leg. Another of the dealers, Alberto Barrios Mauris, was holding an Uzi submachine gun, but chose not to confront the dozens of policemen headed by Samuel and Adriel, and threw it in the back of one of the trucks.
The court file gives no further details about the shootout, but one witness states that the criminals put up a fight. It wasn't just Amaya’s attacking, but a prolonged exchange of fire. The drama continued even after the attack ended when, at sunset, the lights went out in the Los Arcos restaurant, and for a moment the police thought that they had lost control of the area. The source says that once they were able to subdue Sanabria’s seven men, the officers beat a hasty retreat. The police and prosecutors were afraid that reinforcements would arrive to back up the criminals.
When authorities verified the identities of the seven detainees, they found further proof that they were dealing with a criminal structure that had permeated state institutions. One of those arrested was police Sergeant Amaldis Alcindo Ramirez Vargas, who was posted in a key location: the border crossing at Anguiatu [to Guatemala]. “Migration controls are a line that we are investigating. It’s an important link in the case: establishing the ties between the exits and entries of these people (towards Guatemala) when the agent (Ramirez Vargas) was working, in order to determine whether he facilitated the inflow of substances or the movements of these criminals,” said Jorge Cortez, explaining the importance of the sergeant’s detention.
On January 24 -- the day after the shootout -- the content of the five packets that the arrested men were carrying in Los Arcos was tested with cobalt thiocyanate, a reactive chemical that goes blue in contact with cocaine. This time, it turned blue.
That same day, at 11:00 in the morning in the El Calvario neighborhood of Metapan, the police detained the leader of the operation, Councilor Jesus Sanabria. The police hadn’t stopped following him so that he wouldn’t have the chance to escape. Seventy-four days after day one, the man who the agents tricked in the Apuzunga offices was in handcuffs.
One part of the tangle was solved with the capture of the seven criminals on January 23 and the councilor’s capture on the following day. However, the Attorney General’s Office and the police know that the detained criminals are only a small piece of the network. That’s why they handle the investigation with high secrecy in order to determine who Sanabria’s associates were.
When at the end of May we asked the Sub-Director General of the police, Mauricio Ramirez Landaverde, if the police intended to continue the investigation, he would not give out any information. But he said that inquiry that ended in the operation was only “initial": “That I cannot answer, it would be a serious transgression. An initial investigation is reserved.”
The prosecution coordinator Alexis Alaya, minutes after giving a press conference about the captures, hinted at his institution’s intentions: “I can only give you details about those who have already been detained. With the rest, the investigation will continue, and the information will be made public in its own time.”
For obvious reasons, the authorities won’t comment on anything related to whether or not the investigations will continue, or if they will attempt to climb from Metapan’s mafia towards the leaders of the Texis Cartel. It is only known that Samuel and Adriel were taken off the case for their security. They completed their mission and they know that they’ve put their heads in the lion’s mouth. As the record states, and it is worth emphasizing: “They did business with active members of a drug trafficking organization that operates at the international level.”