A US investigation has shed light on the alleged participation of Guatemalan soldiers in a cocaine smuggling network linked to Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel, a reminder of the pivotal role the armed forces can play in the international drug trade.
The allegations stem from a diplomatic note purportedly sent by US authorities to Guatemala's Attorney General's Office requesting the extradition of alleged drug trafficker Kevin Giordano Ortiz López, the nephew of former Guatemalan kingpin Juan Ortiz, alias "Juan Chamalé."
Details of that request were dictated during Ortiz López's extradition hearing July 2, an audio recording of which was obtained by Prensa Libre and reviewed by InSight Crime.
The note contained witness testimony provided by Guatemalan police agents and drug traffickers allegedly active in the Chamalé family drug clan, one of whom claims the group used soldiers to protect its drug shipments after they arrived by sea.
The witness, referred to as TC1 by US authorities and who testified to participating in various drug shipments, reportedly said that upon receiving cocaine, "soldiers would arrive and load the cocaine into a pickup truck before transporting it to a different location, closely followed by another pickup truck with soldiers providing security for the convoy."
The same witness also alleged that Ortiz López and other family members would travel with the soldiers in cargo trucks or security cars as cocaine was being transported through Guatemala.
Juan Chamalé's brother, Rony Alexander Ortiz López, allegedly paid between $400,000 and $1 million in cash for the military escorts, according to the same testimony.
In light of the allegations, the Guatemala Attorney General's Office has announced plans to investigate the officers' alleged participation in the drug network, while a spokesperson for the military expressed the Defense Ministry's willingness to cooperate in any related investigation, local media reported.
The explosive accusations hark back to the days when the so-called Chamalé drug ring controlled smuggling routes connecting Guatemala's Pacific Coast department of San Marcos to the neighboring Mexican state of Chiapas.
For many years, the clan was considered one of the Sinaloa Cartel's main cocaine suppliers, up until the 2011 arrest of Juan Chamalé and his subsequent extradition to the United States three years later.
InSight Crime Analysis
The alleged recruitment of military officials by the Chamalé is indicative of how influential drug groups seek to hijack state security forces for their own gain.
For drug traffickers, infiltrating the armed forces promises an array of benefits, from the use of armored vehicles for protection to using military contacts to bypass security checkpoints.
In Guatemala, the military is a powerful political institution with historically strong connections to customs agents. In the country's border zones, many pivotal to drug trafficking and where state presence is typically weak, drug rings actively seek to co-opt military officials and the police to facilitate their illicit business.
In San Marcos, once the Chamalé's stronghold, the suspected heirs to the family's drug enterprise, known as the Pochos, have also used "corrupt local law enforcement officials" to assist with illicit activities, according to the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).
To be sure, it is not the first time Guatemala's military has been linked to drug trafficking, though formal accusations against soldiers are few and far between.
Back in 2016, Guatemala authorities arrested a retired army officer turned drug kingpin who purportedly used his military contacts to ship drugs from South America to Guatemala, and from there to Mexico. Just under a year later, an active colonel allegedly part of the same network was also arrested on suspicion of trafficking cocaine to the United States.
Both individuals were believed to be among Guatemala's most powerful drug traffickers and were wanted for extradition to the United States, but neither faced formal charges in the Central American nation at the time of their arrest, potentially pointing to the military's domestic clout.
More recently, in April 2020, a soldier was arrested for allegedly pocketing a kilogram of cocaine following a seizure in the northern department of Petén. And in March 2017, another military official was arrested for suspected links to a narco-jet carrying 433 kilograms of cocaine that was intercepted in the Escuintla department on Guatemala's Pacific Coast.