On July 21, 2021, prosecutors from Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office and agents of the National Civil Police (Policía Nacional Civil - PNC) were walking along the banks of the crystal-clear Azul River.
Their destination was the village of San Marcos Huista in the far northwestern department of Huehuetenango, along the Mexican border. They did not want to walk, but the only bridge that provided access to this rural town by car had collapsed.
The investigators were from the migrant smuggling unit of the Attorney General's Office, but they were targeting a human trafficking network allegedly led by Francisco Román Ramírez, alias "La Ardilla,” or the Squirrel.
After traversing the cold, desolate, and mountainous terrain during a 45-minute trek, authorities arrived at San Marcos Huista. Through the dense fog that dimmed the town that morning, the townspeople watched the line of police officers approaching Ramírez’s home.
Most knew who he was. He had operated in the region for over two decades as a coyote, or someone who guides migrants to the United States. The investigators knocked on his door. No answer. They knocked again. Still, no answer.
Ramírez, it turned out, was out of town.
But authorities did find and arrest one alleged accomplice: Luisa Odilia Ramírez, his assistant.
The operation that brought police and investigators to the highlands of Huehuetenango that July morning was driven by one woman’s desire to flee Guatemala. The victim was a 21-year-old Popti’ Indigenous woman who, for security and legal reasons, we will identify as Valeria.
She became a mother at the age of 17, but the father of her son, Juan Luis, abandoned them while she was still pregnant. She raised her son with the support of her mother, who had also been abandoned by her partner. Both women worked as domestic cleaners and earned around 50 quetzales per day (about $6).
Her hometown of San Marcos Huista sits 414 kilometers from Guatemala City, within the valleys that mark the beginning of the Sierra Madre mountain range in Guatemala’s northwestern highlands. This region, known as "Las Huistas," comprises the towns and municipalities dotting the roads that lead to the border with Mexico.
These areas are plagued by intense fighting due to territorial disputes among drug trafficking groups. The Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG), one of Mexico’s most formidable crime groups, is engaged in conflicts with tumbadores, locals who steal drug shipments in the region. The tumbadores, locals say, are mostly police officers. There is nothing to prove this theory, but previous cases over the years have pointed to police involvement.
According to social media linked to the CJNG, the group has established "order" in the area, but the prevalence of armed attacks and shootings has terrified the local population. The constant threat of violence between drug traffickers has severely restricted commercial activities, some of which involve crossing the border.
Without an education or a decent job and abandoned by her son's father, Valeria yearned to go to the United States. There are plenty of people to help. Human smuggling specialists like Ramírez aggressively seek clients in Huehuetenango, long an epicenter of migration. They visit small villages like the one where Valeria lives and offer their services.
However, in early 2021, Ramírez contacted her directly through Facebook. Valeria trusted him -- she had known him since childhood, she later told prosecutors. In their chat over Facebook, Ramírez offered to transport her and her four-year-old son to the United States for a mere 28,000 quetzales (around $3,500), with no payment upfront. The only condition was that she couldn’t tell her family members about her plan to go to the United States.
Ramírez’s offer was unusual. In Guatemala, coyotes typically charge an average of 110,000 quetzales (about $14,000) to smuggle an adult and a minor into the United States, according to reports from migrants and investigations conducted by the Attorney General’s Office.
Still, the offer was too good to refuse. She accepted.
A Coyote Named 'Squirrel'
Valeria had always known Ramírez by his hometown nickname, Squirrel, which he had acquired because of his short stature. Everyone knew him as a coyote. But there was nothing to indicate he was involved in human trafficking.
Locals said that Ramírez first started guiding migrants to the United States in the late 1980s when he was around 18 years old. Not long thereafter, they said his house -- a large concrete construction along the road leading to San Marcos Huista -- stood out for its size and architecture. It was rare to see such a home at that time, but there was good money to be made transporting migrants.
The trips made him intimately familiar with the irregular routes to take, how to avoid getting captured, and the dangers involved. After a time, he made it a serious business. At first, he acted merely as a guide. But as the roads and borders became more challenging to navigate, Ramírez's business evolved. By the mid-1990s, he was a coyote. He no longer personally directed the trips but had a network that provided guides, food, lodging, and transportation to cross Mexico and reach the United States.
Ramírez soon bought land in Huehuetenango and Mexico and built large homes at the entrance of San Marcos Huista. It is hard to establish just how much land he owns, but rumors swirl about other houses in Huehuetenango, as well as houses in San Cristobal de la Casas, in southern Mexico, and in Tijuana, along the US-Mexico border.
On March 19, 2021, Valeria left San Marcos Huista for San Antonio Huista. Ramírez’s assistant, Odilia, accompanied her on this short trip. She also took Valeria's cell phone and replaced it with another one.
The next day, the two women traveled to the tiny village of La Mesilla, where Valeria said she and her son crossed into Chiapas, Mexico, at an official border crossing.
It was 7 a.m., according to Valeria’s account, but the security cameras at the border did not capture them going through the checkpoint. She said she and her son had been walking for about 20 minutes along a dirt road that hugs the Guatemala-Mexico border when two people on a motorcycle intercepted them. The passenger got off and grabbed her son. She said she fought, but they wrestled him away and drove off.
Crying and confused, Valeria returned and crossed back at La Mesilla where Odilia was there waiting. It's unclear why, but the cameras did not capture her return either. Guatemalan prosecutors said the cameras were present and working, but the images did not exist.
Valeria said Odilia assured her she would get her son back if she followed her instructions. Odilia then took Valeria to a cheap hotel in Huehuetenango, the capital city of the department. After leading her to a room, she told Valeria to wait.
Soon after, Valeria received a call on the cell phone Odilia had given her. It was Ramírez. According to Valeria, he told her she had to engage in sexual acts with the men who were going to show up at her room or risk never seeing her son again. Valeria pleaded, but he threatened her.
It was around this time when a man knocked at the door. He was there to have sex with her.
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Over the next several days, Valeria remained in that room. In addition to forcing her to have sex with the men who arrived, Ramírez made her take nude photographs of herself and record videos of herself engaging in sexual acts. After two days, he told her to return to La Mesilla where he would be waiting. But when she arrived, Odilia was the only one there to greet her. She told Valeria to put on a short skirt and gave her two bottles containing a light blue liquid, then she told her to go to the border crossing again.
There, Valeria received a video call. Ramírez instructed her to cross the border like she had before and go to the same deserted area where her son was taken from her. He reassured her that he would return Juan Luis.
After she had walked for an hour, Ramírez called again, this time to instruct her to consume the light blue liquid Odilia had given to her. If she didn’t drink it, he said she would never see her son again. He also threatened to publish the photos and videos she had sent to him.
Crying, Valeria reluctantly consumed the bitter liquid. Then everything faded to black. The next thing she remembers is waking up in severe pain with bruises on her legs and arms. Prosecutors are not sure exactly what happened but believe she was sexually abused.
Injured and traumatized, Valeria returned to La Mesilla where Ramírez called her and told her to go to a hotel. In the hours that followed, she was sexually abused again, still under the illusion that her torture and assault would be rewarded with the return of her son.
After two more days of abuse, Valeria left the hotel, contacted her mother, and begged her to retrieve her. Her family arrived the same day to rescue her and bring her back home to San Marcos Huista.
Once home, the threats from Ramírez continued. He used the explicit videos he had coerced her into taking as leverage while providing no clear answer regarding her son's return. Finally, on March 31, 12 days after her ordeal had begun, Valeria mustered the courage to report her harrowing experience to the police.
In a surreal turn of events, the authorities contacted Ramírez directly in an attempt to negotiate the safe return of the child. Over the phone and with Valeria present, the agents implored him to reunite them. Ramírez confessed to the abuses he had inflicted upon Valeria and admitted to holding young Juan Luis against his will. But he was undaunted by the implications of his actions and issued one final threat: Valeria would never lay eyes on her son again.
The Long Wait
The investigation into everything Valeria disclosed took about four months. Investigators accompanied her to the border, searched for security camera footage, and identified all the properties owned by Ramírez in Guatemala. But the greatest challenge was locating her kidnapped child. Since Juan Luis had been abducted in Mexico, the first step was to review reports about deceased children in southern Mexico.
During this process, a particular image of a child's body found in a garbage dump in Chiapas near the border crossing at La Mesilla drew the attention of prosecutors. Given the location and the date that Valeria recalled her son being kidnapped, they decided to show her the image. It was painful, but after looking, Valeria said the physical features of the child matched those of her son.
Authorities said the child in the photo was murdered on March 28, just days before Valeria reported Ramírez to the police. As of July 2022, Guatemalan prosecutors had not been able to get the DNA from Mexican authorities to verify the body is indeed Juan Luis. Further attempts to contact Guatemalan authorities to see whether this had changed have been unsuccessful.
The legal attaché for Central America and the Caribbean for Mexico’s Attorney General's Office, Keyla Román Villegas, said Mexican experts are examining the DNA and looking for a possible match with Juan Luis. She did not provide any further details because the case falls under the jurisdiction of Guatemalan prosecutors.
Near the end of 2021, a judge ruled there was not enough evidence to support the kidnapping charges against Odilia in connection to the disappearance of Juan Luis. She was recaptured the following year, but Ramírez has not yet been detained.
In the meantime, Valeria has rejected the security measures offered to her following the horrific experience. Prosecutors believe she declined the support because she is considering trying to migrate to the United States again. They say she is just waiting for her son's body to finally be returned to her first.