The United States government has taken major actions against one of Guatemala’s most enduring drug clans – the “Huistas” – whose leaders have spent years evading authorities from both countries.
On March 18, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions against the group and seven of its core members, while the State Department offered a $10 million reward for information leading to the arrest of top Huistas leader, Darío Molina López.
The Huistas are a drug trafficking clan based in Guatemala’s western province of Huehuetenango. The group has been active in the narcotics trade since the late 1990s and its members have been targeted by United States and Guatemala authorities since the late 2010s.
The Treasury Department sanctioned Molina López and fellow Huistas leader, Aler Samayoa Recinos, for allegedly engaging in drug trafficking over several years. According to a press statement outlining the measures, Molina López oversees all of the Huistas drug trafficking operations and Samayoa Recinos manages a cocaine-smuggling operation connecting western Guatemala to Mexico.
Other Huistas members targeted by the sanctions included Molina López’s son, a purported business aide for the group, and his son-in-law, an alleged drug runner indicted by US prosecutors in 2017, according to Treasury Department statement.
The US governement also sanctioned a Guatemalan representative of the Central American Parliament (Parlacen), Freddy Aronoldo Salazar Flores. Salazar Flores – Samayoa Recinos’ son-in-law – is responsible for “transporting and storing cocaine on behalf of the Huistas,” the Treasury Department alleged.
The sanctions also targeted Samayoa Recinos’ son – one of the group’s alleged lieutenants – along with an accountant and a coffee company linked to Molina López.
The measures freeze any US-based assets linked to group and its leaders and also prohibit individuals in the United States from doing business with the group.
The Huistas have long dominated drug trafficking along Guatemala’s western border with Mexico, fostering ties with major Mexican criminal groups such as the Sinaloa Cartel and now the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG), according to US authorities.
The group smuggles “cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin, from Guatemala through Mexico for distribution in multiple US cities,” according to the Treasury Department.
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The Huistas have long weathered pressure from authorities and it remains to be seen whether the new measures will translate to significant arrests.
So far, the group has avoided the fate suffered by once-powerful Guatemalan drug clans whose leaderships were decimated by arrests and extraditions in the 2010s – most notably the Mendozas and Lorenzanas in eastern Guatemala. Instead, the Huistas have doubled down on a number of self-perseveration strategies that have aided the group’s longevity and shielded its members from prosecution.
Part of these efforts have focused on establishing and maintaining a sophisticated security apparatus designed to protect the group’s leadership in municipalities under its control in the Huehuetenango province. There, the Huistas have established a safety zone, patrolled by lookouts who monitor the main roads around towns they control and report back on suspicious movements, according to a 2016 investigation by InSight Crime.
In the past, this security system has successfully repelled attacks from powerful Mexican groups such as the Zetas. More recently, in June 2019, Huistas leader López Molina evaded a series of raids in Huehuetenango aimed capturing him, sources within the Guatemala Attorney General’s Office told InSight Crime.
The group has also relied on a network of informants among local police and prosecutors to source information on potential raids and impending criminal charges. The Huistas’ influence network also extends to national politics, where the group has enjoyed alleged ties to prominent members of congress and members of the executive branch.
Early last year, InSight Crime documented connections between the Huistas and relatives of then-congress vice-president, Sofía Hernández. Hernández’s brother Henry was arrested in January 2021 on charges related to a money-laundering coverup allegedly orchestrated by the Huistas. Henry Hernández and another brother are also linked to companies tied to the Huistas, according to elPeriódico.
Congress representative Sofía Hernández has denied any links to the group.
Some attempts to prosecute the Huistas have brought success. A 2018 investigation into the alleged money-laundering coverup led to the arrest on six people linked to the group and exposed how the group faked documents to free one its members.
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