A New Kingdom Of Cocaine: For Colombia’s Powerful Cali Cartel, the Crucial Connection Is Guatemala

The ignominious end of cocaine baron Pablo Escobar obscured the fact that his Medellin cartel had long since been eclipsed by another network of cocaine traffickers based in the Colombian city of Cali. The Cali cartel, led by the Rodriguez Orejuela family, is now said to control up to 85 percent of the world trade in the illicit drug. Two reasons for Cali’s success are clear: It has a reputation for eschewing violence and for distributing its profits widely. A third less often noted reason is that the cartel has established operations in Guatemala, a new safe haven for large cocaine shipments headed north.

Guatemala has become the largest warehouse for cocaine in Central America, according to Colombian and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration experts. Analysts at the DEA and the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics Matters now estimate that Guatemala serves as the trans-shipment point for 50 to 75 tons of cocaine a year. That’s a substantial portion of the 300 to 400 tons that reach the United States every year.

“The vast majority of cocaine trafficking in Guatemala is Cali cartel-related,” Lee McCIenny, U.S. Embassy press attaché, says. In July 1992, authorities found 2.8 metric tons of cocaine in a house near the Guatemalan town of Antigua. (A metric ton is equivalent of 2,200 pounds.) Three months earlier, in April 1992, drug enforcement authorities in Miami had searched a load of frozen broccoli that had been shipped from Guatemala. They found 6.7 tons of cocaine, enough to supply every user in the United States for a week. It was one of the five largest drug seizures in U.S. history. The seizure resulted in the arrest of Francisco Guzman, the brother-in-law of one of the cartel’s top leaders, and Harold Ackerman, whom the DEA describes as “the Cali cartel’s ambassador to Miami” and the highest-ranking Cali member ever arrested.

The cartel is more violent than its reputation suggests. According to Siglo Veintiuno, Guatemala’s most respected daily newspaper, the cartel was also responsible for the recent assassination of Rony Sagastume, a Guatemalan national police detective. Sagastume had just been assigned to investigate the cartel’s activities in Guatemala in September 1992 when he was shot while he sat in a car with two other passengers. Siglo Veintiuno reported that sources close to the police said that Sagastume had been terminated by a death squad of the Cali cartel that had arrived in Guatemala one day before.

Members of the Guatemalan officer corps have been implicated in the cocaine trade. The 2.8 tons seized in Antigua were found in a house owned, but not occupied, by a retired Air Force captain. In December 1990 Col. Carlos Ochoa Ruiz was arrested by Guatemalan authorities working with the U.S. DEA. He was later indicted by prosecutors in Tampa, Fla., for smuggling half a ton of cocaine into that city. DEA agents say that Ochoa was working for the Cali cartel.

Guatemala’s officer corps is a relative newcomer to the drug business. The Guatemalan military was previously known, not just in Central America but also around the world, for its record of massacres, torture, disappearances and assassinations. The killing reached its peak in 1982 when a campaign of unprecedented savagery in the Guatemalan countryside effectively crushed the country’s left-wing insurgency. The resulting political stability was one feature that attracted the Colombian cocaine cartels. They chose Guatemala, according to a Latin American drug enforcement official, “because it is near Mexico, which its an obvious entrance point to the U.S., and because the Mexicans have a long-established mafia. It is also a better transit and storage country than El Salvador because it offers more stability and was easier to control.”

The signs of drug trafficking are visible in the Guatemalan economy. “The traffickers have begun to buy property and invest large sums of money for the construction of runways and warehouses for the storage of drugs,” according to an assessment of the Colombian activity in Guatemala done by one country in the region. In the capital, the construction industry has been growing at least four times faster than the rest of the economy.

Some Guatemalan officials suggest that stable policies and a healthy investment climate are behind the boom. But legitimate business leaders say the stampede of cocaine profits threatens either to crowd them out or draw them in. The problem became so pervasive that a year ago a group of exporters organized a conference around an unprecedented theme: how to detect whether their products were being used to run drugs.

Guatemalan newspapers have reported the presence of the Cali cartel in the country but have printed hardly a word about the cartel’s local confederates. A group of Mayan peasants say they had the misfortune to stumble across Guatemalan drug trafficking first-hand. The peasants were farmers living in the village of Los Amates in eastern Guatemala. They allege that, beginning in November 1990, soldiers from a local military base tried to drive them off their land. The soldiers took three men to the base where, the peasants claim, they were beaten and tortured. One of the men filed a complaint with the country’s human rights ombudsman, including a doctor’s medical report on his injuries and photos of a pencil-thin laceration around the entire base of his neck.

Five more peasants from Los Amates filed a second complaint in March 1992. It alleges that nine people from their community were murdered by the local soldiers and provides the dates, times, circumstances, names and titles or military ranks of those allegedly responsible. Some of the statements charge that the killers were protecting a drug trafficking operation.

“On April 18, 1991, they [the soldiers] assassinated Mr. Daniel Melgar, a tractor driver. Since this man had worked on [and knew about] the construction of the clandestine runway owned by Francisco Villafuerte, these narcotraffickers paid assassins to kill him. [When not in use] the runway is camouflaged with logs strewn over it.”

The surviving peasants claim the army has built so many runways in and around Los Amates that it has “converted its five hamlets into warehouses for drugs.” The complaint names a total of 67 individuals as being responsible. They include four army colonels, a major, a captain and 20 military-appointed civilian commissioners.

Local army officers denied any involvement; the country’s minister of defense also denied any knowledge of human rights violations or cocaine trafficking in the area.

How credible were the peasants’ complaints? One suspect named in their complaints was Arnoldo Vargas Estrada, one of the military commissioners who later became the mayor of the nearby town of Zacapa. Apparently unbeknownst to the peasant witnesses, Vargas had already been indicted on drug charges in New York in 1991. A joint DEA-Guatemalan police operation had confiscated 1.8 tons of cocaine in Guatemala which led to the arrest of Vargas and nine other people. The suspects were charged with smuggling several tons per month by tractor-trailer through Mexico to the United States. Vargas was extradited to Brooklyn in May 1992 and is expected to come to trial next year.

There is no known link between the U.S. indictment of Vargas and the peasants’ complaints against him and local army officers. Likewise, the murders of nine peasants in Los Amates remain unsolved. And Lt. Col. Ochoa, still under indictment in Tampa, is a free man. The military court that dishonorably discharged him from the army also ordered that no further action be taken against him, due to “insufficient evidence.”

The Cali cartel is in no danger of being driven out of Guatemala.