In two separate cases in El Salvador, mayors are accused of heading migrant smuggling rings, a crime that, like drug trafficking, local officials in border regions are well positioned to facilitate.
Former mayor José Narciso Ramírez Ventura appeared before a judge August 2 to face charges that he led a ring that smuggled Central American migrants to the United States, La Prensa Grafica reported. He was the mayor of San Francisco Menéndez, a municipality located on El Salvador's western border with Guatemala, from 2006 to 2018.
Prosecutors accused Ramírez Ventura and two other people, Pedro Aguirre Rivas and Wilfredo Castro Morán, of heading a group of coyotes that charged migrants up to $12,000 to be smuggled across unmonitored crossing points. The group moved at least 40 people from El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua who sought to reach the United States, a state prosecutor told El Diario de Hoy.
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Meanwhile, another mayor in El Salvador was convicted last month of leading a separate migrant-smuggling ring. Benjamín Romeo Machuca Díaz, mayor of Concepción Batres in southeastern El Salvador, was sentenced to six years in prison.
Machuca Díaz's network charged between $3,000 and $4,000 to smuggle migrants to the United States, working with contacts in Guatemala and Mexico to ensure their passage over each border, according to a statement. The Attorney General's Office identified three to five cases in which the network had smuggled migrants out of El Salvador.
Both mayors had prior run-ins with the law. Ramírez Ventura reportedly paid over $90,000 in fines after the Attorney General's Office accused him of environmental crimes in 2016. He was cleared of the charges two years later.
Meanwhile, Machuca Díaz was arrested in 2018 on suspicion of paying $2,500 to an MS13 street gang cell to support his candidacy for mayor.
InSight Crime Analysis
Given the history of El Salvador's mayors being tied to criminals, it was never going to be a stretch for them to move into human smuggling – an illegal service increasingly in demand.
As Washington has long pressed El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to stem the flow of migrants to the US border, the business of smuggling migrants has only become more lucrative.
During field investigations to El Salvador's border regions, InSight Crime researchers found human smuggling to be highly profitable, possibly bringing in tens of millions of dollars.
With their power and access to privileged information from border officials and local authorities, mayors can easily profit from people-smuggling rings – and have done so in the past.
In 2020, Lucio Edwin Ayala Flores, the former mayor of San Antonio de La Cruz, in northern El Salvador, was sentenced to 45 years in jail for human smuggling and drug trafficking. In 2017, a mayor in the southern La Paz department received four years in prison for smuggling a migrant to the United States.
El Salvador's mayors are no strangers to criminal activity in general.
At least nine have faced charges for suspected gang ties between 2016 and 2020, including small-town mayors like Machuca Díaz.
Other mayors have been found connected to high-level drug traffickers. Most notably, Juan Umaña Samayoa, the former mayor of northwestern Metapán, was accused of being among the founders of El Salvador's Texis Cartel.
Another mayor in eastern El Salvador, José Carlos Ramírez Umanzor, was tried on drug trafficking charges after being arrested in 2017 for allegedly leading a drug ring in the Gulf of Fonseca. Ramírez Umanzor was linked to the Perrones, another powerful drug group in El Salvador.