The arrest in El Salvador of a mayor suspected of drug trafficking has raised new questions about politicians' complicity with organized crime groups in the Central American country.
José Carlos Ramírez Umanzor, mayor of the small eastern town of Pasaquina and member of the opposition party ARENA, was arrested by Salvadoran authorities on May 31, reported La Prensa Gráfica.
Ramírez Umanzor has been accused by the country's Attorney General's Office of leading a drug trafficking network in the eastern part of the country close to the border with Honduras and Nicaragua, through the Gulf of Fonseca.
According to anti-drug police, the criminal group included another municipal official from Pasaquina as well as Santos Ernesto Luna, brother of the late drug trafficker José Natividad Luna Pereira, also known as Chepe Luna, who was one of the key leaders of the Perrones drug trafficking group by the beginning of the 2000s.
During the last decade Pasaquina served as a key center of operations for the Perrones, one of two criminal organizations that a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said flourished in El Salvador thanks to the complicity and support of local politicians.
Pasaquina is connected to blind spots along the border with Honduras through a highway and rural paths, to the Gulf of Fonseca's mangroves and to the Panamerican Highway through the neighboring cities of Santa Rosa de Lima and San Miguel. Thus, it has long been a perfect crossroads for the smuggling of cocaine by go-fast boats leaving South America for El Salvador.
Already by the mid-2000s, police and news reports had linked another ARENA mayor from Pasaquina, Héctor Odir Ramírez, with Chepe Luna. During his time in office, authorities believe Ramírez provided Luna with some allegedly irregular birth certificates.
One of the key advisors to former President Antonio Saca González (ARENA, 2004-2009) and Mauricio Funes (2009-2014), Herbert Saca Vides, has also been linked to the Perrones. Saca Vides shared the same lawyer with one of the gang's leaders, and also received money transfers from another member of the criminal group who came under investigation for drug trafficking in the 1990s.
Several high-level police chiefs were also investigated by the police internal affairs unit in 2010 for their alleged links with Luna and the Perrones, but the investigations were halted under the Funes administration.
InSight Crime Analysis
Pasaquina, Luna and the Perrones gang are legendary names in El Salvador's underworld. The arrest of the mayor of Pasaquina, one of the crucial centers of operation for the gang, and that of Chepe Luna's brother raise several questions about the ability of Salvadoran drug traffickers to recycle themselves and take up arms, thanks largely to the protection guaranteed by political elites.
In January 2012, Salvadoran authorities sentenced Reynerio Flores Lazo, another leader of the Perrones, to 80 years in prison for four counts of drug trafficking. According to police reports carried out in those years, Flores Lazo and the Perrones smuggled at least 2.4 tons of cocaine between Costa Rica and El Salvador in 2004 alone.
SEE ALSO: Profile of the Perrones
Following his capture, the arrest of other leaders and the assassination of Chepe Luna in Honduras, it was widely assumed that the Perrones had disappeared from El Salvador. However, after 2011, new evidence emerged suggesting drug traffickers in the eastern regions of the country were still smuggling drugs. That year, intelligence reports by the police showed that former members of the group were purchasing land in El Salvador and Honduras, and were still trafficking cocaine.
According to police sources quoted by La Prensa Gráfica, the organization led by the arrested Mayor Ramírez Umanzor also smuggled cocaine from Costa Rica. Another individual captured during the operation was Darwin Rodríguez Estrada, a Guatemalan national whom authorities have linked with two kilograms of cocaine smuggled from Costa Rica.
On the same day of Mayor Ramírez Umanzor's arrest, authorities captured Jorge Mario Marroquín Fuentes and four other people in a boat carrying 840 kilograms of cocaine on Salvadoran waters. Marroquín is the brother of Carlos Alberto Marroquín, mayor of Moyuta, a city in Guatemala's southern department of Jutiapa, another city the Perrones have used for their drug trafficking operations.
The capture of Pasaquina's mayor, Chepe Luna's brother and the Guatemalan nationals linked with Jutiapa highlight how old criminal transport groups, aided by the authorities' complicity, are still active and continue to manage the region's drug trafficking routes.