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Familial Fiefdom: Ocós, Guatemala and the Preciado Navarijo Legacy

COCAINE / 12 MAR 2021 BY SHANE SULLIVAN EN

The extradition of a mayor threatens to topple his family’s decades-long political control of a coastal Pacific town -- a region where local officials have a history of drug trafficking.

Carlos Preciado Navarijo, the mayor of Ocós, a small town on Guatemala’s Pacific coast, was extradited to the United States in late February, where he will face trial in the District Court of East Texas on charges of conspiring to distribute drugs in the United States. Carlos was arrested on January 19 at Panama’s Tocumen International Airport, pursuant to an Interpol red alert.

Carlos Preciado Navarijo’s family has controlled the politics of Ocós since 2004, when his mother, Edilma Navarijo de Léon, was first elected mayor -- a position she would maintain until 2016. The daughter of the family, Vivian Preciado Navarijo entered the family business in 2015, securing her first political appointment at the age of 26, as a congressional representative for the department of San Marcos.

In 2015, Edilma stepped aside in Ocós, instead mounting a campaign for the mayorship of La Blanca, a neighboring town, which had been split from Ocós in 2014. With his mother out of the race, Carlos launched his third mayoral campaign in Ocós, having previously lost to his mother in 2007 and 2011. However, he was again unsuccessful, as was Edilma in the town of La Blanca.

In the elections of 2019, the Preciado Navarijo family found success, with Vivian maintaining her seat in congress, Edilma securing the mayorship of La Blanca and Carlos winning the mayoral race in Ocós, after his main contender was disqualified for campaigning outside of election season.

Carlos’ extradition to the United States, less than a year into his first term, marks yet another scandal for the Previado Navarijo family, who has faced various controversies over the past two decades.

In 2010, Vivian Preciado Navarijo was captured and released after being accused of manufacturing a coverup for Victor Hugo Soto Diéguez, a former member of the Department of Criminal Investigation (Departamento de Investigación Criminal – DINC), who was convicted of carrying out extrajudicial killings during the raid of La Granja Prison Pavón in 2006.

On June 28, 2008, Víctor Hugo Soto Diéguez was injured in a shootout, which resulted in the death of José Luis Preciado, Edilma’s son. Carlos Humberto Preciado, the father of the family, was assassinated the same day in a separate incident.

In 2011, Carlos and Vivian’s aunt, Alma Lucrecia Hernandez-Preciado, alias "La Tia,” was arrested and later sentenced to 30 years in prison in the United State for drug trafficking. According to prosecutors, she organized a series of maritime cocaine shipments from Ecuador to Guatemala using go-fast boats -- a common tactic to transport drug shipments in the Pacific.

InSight Crime Analysis

Located on the northwestern tip of Guatemala, the town of Ocós is a strategic location for drug trafficking in the department of San Marcos, given its proximity to Mexico and the Pacific coast, where the majority of drugs arriving from South America are unloaded.

Until his arrest in 2011, Juan Alberto Ortiz López, alias “Juan Chamalé,” pioneered a system for trafficking drugs in the department of San Marcos. Chamalé created semi-submersible vessels and used local fishmen to traffic cocaine along the Pacific coast, where his criminal organization, Los Chamalés, received multi-ton cocaine shipments, which would then be transported to Mexico and the United States.

Los Chamalés began operating in San Marcos in the 1990s and, despite the arrest of several high-ranking members in 2011, including Juan Chamalé, the criminal organization continued to thrive, with Los Chamalés considered one of the Sinaloa Cartel’s main drug transporters in Guatemala, according to a report from the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime published in 2012.

Among the high-ranking members arrested in 2011 was Alma Lucrecia Hernandez-Preciado.

Following the extradition of Chamalé in 2014, a power vacuum formed in San Marcos, with Chamalé’s friends, family and former security chiefs reportedly vying for control of his drug trafficking structure. Ultimately, Erik Salvador Súñiga Rodriguez, a longstanding associate of Chamalé, and then-mayor of Ayuntla, San Marcos, took over drug trafficking in San Marcos, according to documents from the District Court of East Texas published by the newspaper El Periódico.

Súñiga’s criminal network, known as “Los Pochos,” operated out of Ayuntla, San Marcos, where as mayor, Súñiga could leverage his local authority to procure protection from law enforcement officials and facilitate the transport of cocaine along the Guatemala-Mexico border for Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, according to the US Treasury Department.

In an interview with InSight Crime, Edwin Escobar, a former mayor of Villa Nueva and ex-presidential candidate, explained how Súñiga perpetuated his drug trafficking and money laundering operation by cultivating a system of political corruption, which stretched from Guatemala’s southern border with Honduras and El Salvador, up the Pacific coast to the department of San Marcos, and across the northern border with Mexico.

According to Escobar, Súñiga provided illicit financing to complicit mayoral candidates along Guatemala’s southern, Pacific and northern borders. Once elected, these mayors would award public works contracts to construction companies associated with Súñiga, allowing him to wash drug money through the purchase of project supplies, while using the clean money acquired through government contracts to continue fueling his system of corruption, which facilitated his drug trafficking operation for the Sinaloa Cartel.

And Súñiga was not the only Guatemalan politician with ties to the Sinaloa Cartel. In February 2020, Mario Estrada, the founder of the National Change Union party (Unión del Cambio Nacionalista — UCN) was sentenced to 15-years in prison in the United States for conspiring to solicit Sinaloa Cartel money to finance a corrupt scheme to get him elected president of Guatemala in the 2019 elections.

Estrada’s UCN party has been deemed the “narco-party” by Guatemala’s press -- a reference to the numerous party members who have been implicated in corruption networks and linked to drug trafficking groups, which now includes Vivian and Carlos Preciado Navarijo, as well as Edilma Navarijo de Léon, who won the mayorship of La Blanca with the UCN.

In December 2019, Erik Súñiga surrendered to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and was extradited to the United States on charges of drug trafficking and money laundering. His surrender came after eight months of negotiation with the DEA, which began in April 2019. Yet, even as Suñiga faced government scrutiny while negotiating his surrender, drug shipments continued to flow through San Marcos, in particular, through Ocós.

In May 2019, members of the Guatemalan Army seized 2.3 tons of cocaine in the Manchón Guamuchal National Reserve in El Chico Tilapa, Ocós, San Marcos. According to reports, the cocaine was found hidden among mangrove trees in a rural stretch of land, after authorities tracked the arrival of a plane to the interior of the National Reserve. A few days later, authorities also located M-16 assault rifles and motorboat engines stashed near the site of the cocaine seizure, indicating that the drugs were destined to travel up Ocós’ pacific coast towards Mexico.

During the 2019 presidential campaign in Guatemala, presidential candidates campaigning across the country found it particularly difficult to campaign in the department of San Marcos, as entrenched political coalitions made it nearly impossible for outside candidates to access permits to conduct public events or access community leaders.

According to one former presidential candidate, who spoke with InSight Crime on the condition of anonymity, accessing territories along the Pacific coast and northern border with Mexico required permission, a blessing from the region’s political powerbroker. As such, an acquaintance familiar with the regional dynamics of San Marco offered to arrange a meeting for the candidate -- a meeting which brought them to the small, northwestern town of Ocós, where, in an uncharacteristically large house near the banks of the Naranjo River, Edilma Navarijo de Léon came out to greet them.

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