Last week’s extradition to the United States of Juan Alberto “Chamale” Ortiz marked the end of a three-year legal battle during which U.S. authorities requested that Guatemala relinquish custody of the aforementioned Guatemalan citizen, who is accused of shipping more than 40 tons of cocaine to the United States between 1998 and 2010.
Chamale’s extradition shows that, in spite of an evolving inter-American system, Washington still has allies among Central American government officials who are willing to extradite their citizen-criminals. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether the arrests (and extradition) of high-profile leaders will actually impact drug trafficking in Central America.
“Juan Chamale” Extradited
The Guatemalan daily “Diario Digital” has published a series of photos documentingChamale’s exit from Guatemala. This past Thursday, he was transported via helicopter from the Matamoros military prison to the La Aurora airport. From there, he was handed over to DEA agents and promptly flown to Florida.
In March 2011, Chamale and two of his lieutenants were arrested in a rustic house in Quetzaltenango. A press release by the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency explains that he was captured thanks to information obtained from the Operation Panama Express Task Force, a multi-agency effort to combat large scale drug trafficking organizations that smuggle narcotics into the United States.
On February 2012, the Guatemalan judiciary approved a U.S. request to have Chamale extradited. Nevertheless, Chamale’s lawyers managed to delay the move for over two years, though they eventually ran out of excuses to put off the extradition.
Chamale was reportedly known in the narco underworld as the “Master of the Pacific” due to the vast cocaine-smuggling operations that he carried out for years. The Guatemalan drug lord received shipments of cocaine from South America and stored them in his ranches in the San Marcos province (which borders Mexico). From there, his partners in the Sinaloa Cartel moved the drugs to Mexico and eventually into the U.S.
U.S. initiatives against drug lords
Chamale’s extradition can be added to a growing list of Central American criminals who have been sent to the U.S. for trial.
During its coverage of Chamale’s extradition, the Guatemalan daily “Prensa Libre” pointed out that several Guatemalans have ended up in the hands of U.S. law enforcement agencies. These extradited criminals include Waldemar Lorenzana and a father-son duo, both named Erick Leonel Estrada.
Moreover, Guatemalans are not the only Central Americans being flown to the U.S. for trial. In early May, the Honduran drug lord Carlos Arnoldo “El Negro” Lobo was also extradited to the U.S. on drug trafficking charges. This marked an important milestone as he was the first Honduran to be extradited to the U.S. Before his arrest this past March, Lobo oversaw marine drug trafficking for a variety of narco-organizations. According to the Treasury Department, he has ties with “the reputed leader of theSinaloa CartelJoaquin ‘Chapo’ Guzman […] and the Honduran drug trafficking organization Los Cachiros.”
The extradition of high-profile criminals from Central America to the U.S. can be analyzed from various points of view.
First of all, these arrests are a domestic victory for the Guatemalan and Honduran governments and their security forces. This is particularly important for Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, who came to power this past January after an electoral campaign during which he promised to crack down on crime and improve citizen security.
Additionally, these extraditions demonstrate the generally good relations between the governments in Guatemala City and Tegucigalpa with Washington. Cooperation betweenU.S. law enforcement agenciesand their Central American counterparts seems to be increasing; case in point; Washington donated six helicopters to Guatemala in 2013 to combat drug trafficking. Diplomatic relations also seem to be improving, as exemplified by an April visit of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to Mexico and Guatemala.
One must also question whether this wave of extraditions will continue. “Prensa Libre” explains that there are other Guatemalan criminals whom the U.S. wants to have extradited. However, it will be interesting to see whether there could be a high-profile individual that a Latin American government chooses not to extradite, in spite of pressure from Washington.
The future of drug trafficking in Central America remains questionable without the aforementioned high-profile criminals. Interestingly, Guatemala’s Chamale and Honduras’ El Negro were affiliated with the Sinaloa Cartel, which lost its own leader, El Chapo, in February.
In other words, Sinaloa’s leadership has taken a hit over the past years, since even its allies in other regions have been arrested. This is an important development that reinforces the view that Sinaloa will experience irreversible change in the near future.
As for Chamale himself it is likely that his lawyers will be unsuccessful in keeping him from serving a life sentence in a Floridian prison, since they were unable to prevent his extradition to the U.S.