An anti-narcotics operation in western Guatemala has shed more light on how families involved in local politics can play a pivotal role in the regional cocaine trade.
The Attorney General's Office raided a series of properties and a government building in late July in the municipality of Esquipulas Palo Gordo, in the department of San Marcos, where they suspect the town's mayor and his family of being involved in the drug trade.
Investigators identified mayor Exadillas Dionel Ramos Aguilar as a possible member of an alleged drug ring that moved small batches of cocaine from western Guatemala into Mexico, using a network of companies and goods to conceal their profits, according to a statement and details of the investigation provided to InSight Crime by Alan Ajiatas, sub-director of the Attorney General's Office anti-narcotics unit.
The mayor's wife, Lucinda Esperanza Aguilar Pérez, is also alleged to be the group's main money launderer, managing a network of companies used to simulate profits and acquire assets in the town and elsewhere.
"All of those companies and many suspicious transactions appear in her name," Ajiatas told InSight Crime.
Investigators also discovered that an accountant for the businesses registered in Aguilar Pérez's name was working in the Esquipulas Palo Gordo municipal treasury, leading authorities to raid the municipal offices in search of other potential assets linked to the network.
The group's suspicious assets included a mansion allegedly owned by the mayor and his family, in addition to multiple luxury cars seized by authorities. Since 2019, prosecutors estimate seizures have cost the group approximately 18.4 million quetzales ($2.4 million).
Guatemalan authorities detained a total of 11 suspects during the July 22 raids, including the mayor's son, accused of money laundering and illicit association. Other relatives, including the mayor's brother and a different son, are also alleged to be part of the criminal ring, Ajiatas told InSight Crime.
The Attorney General's Office has asked for the mayor's immunity to be stripped to allow investigations against him to proceed. Meanwhile, Aguilar Pérez is at large, according to Ajiatas.
InSight Crime Analysis
The allegations against the Ramos Aguilar family are a stark reminder of the links between family, politics and criminal activity in some of Guatemala's more isolated regions.
In San Marcos and other remote departments on Guatemala's Pacific Coast, multiple families have sought municipal power to facilitate criminal activity.
"The advantage is obviously control," Ajiatas told InSight Crime, adding that drugs groups use the "tools provided by municipalities to manage their [illicit] business" and that the confidence stemming from family ties can help prevent potentially damaging information leaks.
In the case of Esquipulas Palo Gordo, the Attorney General's Office investigations point to the potential use of the town as a center for money laundering and acquiring assets. But other family clans in San Marcos and elsewhere have adopted bolder strategies to pursue illicit profits and territorial control.
This includes a drug trafficking ring allegedly led by Erick Salvador Súñiga Rodríguez, the former mayor of Ayutla, a small town in San Marcos bordering Mexico. Súñiga worked with his brothers and other relatives to smuggle cocaine shipments on behalf of the Sinaloa Cartel with the help of corrupt local law enforcement officials, according to the US Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).
Súñiga's network also relied on municipal police to consolidate power in the town. Police cameras were used to surveil the local population, Ajiatas told InSight Crime.
Prior to Súñiga, former Guatemalan kingpin Juan Ortiz, alias "Juan Chamalé" maintained strong ties to the mayor's office and reportedly used military officials to protect drug shipments, according to Nómada and a US judicial investigation.
San Marcos also encompasses the Pacific Coast town of Ocós, a hotspot for cocaine trafficking that was for years governed by the family of Carlos Preciado Navarijo, the former mayor who in late February was extradited to the United States on drug trafficking charges. Back in 2011, Preciado Navarijo's aunt was arrested and later found guilty of drug trafficking in the United States.
The family is no stranger to politics. Preciado Navarijo's mother spent over a decade as mayor of Ocós and now holds the same position in the nearby town of La Blanca. The daughter of the family, Vivian Preciado Navarijo, is a congresswoman for San Marcos.
Further south, in the coastal municipality of Moyuta, Jutiapa department, turf wars between family clans seeking control of local politics – some with links to the drug trade – have ended in brutal assassination attempts, sometimes assisted by local security forces.