Therise and fall of Los Cachiros cartel
President Obama’s labelling of Los Cachiros as
one of the most dangerous drug-trafficking mafias
in Central American and Mexico
was the beginning of this cartel’s end.
But what will come next after its leaders
turned themselves in to the DEA in January 2015?
Ismael Moreno, SJ
Honduras has been described as the most violent country in the world, and its criminality is closely linked to drug-trafficking. It’s situation has gotten out of hand for the United States, which has begun implementing a Honduran version of Plan Colombia. The original included militarizing the country and negotiating with its big drug barons. The United States presents it as one of its great foreign policy successes.
The US government’s Alliance for Prosperity in Central America’s Northern Triangle, the countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, ties in with the Honduran version of Plan Colombia. But because Honduran society is so infested by organized crime, its causes and effects may mean that these plans have arrived too late.
The first step of the plan as applied to Honduras came in 2013, when President Barack Obama called Los Cachiros a dangerous Central American mafia. September 2014 saw the initiation of a process to hunt down and capture several of the most notorious mafiosos as part of US attempts to eliminate mafia groups from the drugs trade. This January the two heads of Los Cachiros surrendered, given the choice between turning themselves in or being captured and killed. Leonel Rivera Maradiaga negotiated his surrender in the Bahamas and his brother Javier turned himself in to the United States in Miami.
Don Isidro the patriarchLet’s take a look at the history of the Rivera Maradiaga family, from where Los Cachiros originally sprang forth.
The family patriarch, Isidro Rivera Cardona, is a religious man who attends Sunday Mass. Every Sunday at 7 pm, always in the same place and always standing, don Isidro can be seen attending Mass in Tocoa, the department of Colón. His wife, Esperanza Maradiaga, is also a devout Catholic. She was always an active member of the Bible circles in Tocoa city’s La Esperanza barrio.
Don Isidro is also a fervent devotee of Saint Isidro the Worker. Every year up to and including 2014, on the eve of May 14, that saint’s day, he unfailingly participates in setting up a jacalito, a small arbor where devotees leave fruits and animals as offerings to the saint for the favors they’ve received from him. Then don Isidro bears the saint’s image from the church to the jacalito and takes it back the next day, San Isidro’s day, lighting dozens of candles to him amid an explosion of fireworks.
Don Isidro’s family comes from Gualaco, in the extensive department of Olancho, a land of tough workingmen loyal to the death to their friends and vengeful—also to the death—if they are wronged; no pardon is possible for betrayal and conflicts are settled only by death… Don Isidro’s family emigrated from Gualaco to Colón some 70 years ago, before he was born, fleeing such a vendetta. The Rivera Maradiaga family remained on the alert Isidro’s whole life against a possible reprisal attack for the affront that led them to leave their lands.
Also a devout cattle thief In Olancho nobody with the name Isidro is actually called Isidro; they’re all called “Cachiro.” DonCachiro Rivera’s father was also donCachiro, and so was his grandfather. And because that’s just how things are, one of donCachiro Rivera’s sons is Cachiro as well, as are three or four grandsons, who were all christened with the name Isidro and therefore became the latest in the long line of Cachiros.
DonCachiro Rivera is now 67 with a health resistant to arthritis, indigestion and high blood pressure. He’s recognized for his pure devotion to San Isidro and also to stealing cattle. It’s something everyone knows but nobody dares say out loud. He’s a cattle rustler. It is said that even after fame, money and power had taken don Isidro and his children, the Cachiros, to heights he could never have dreamed of, he was travelling one day in one of the dozens of Toyota Prado SUVs he owned, driven by his son Javier, when a cow crossed the highway and he yelled at Javier to hit the brakes. “Stop, there’s a cow there,” he insisted, “and I want it!”
How it all began:Although it’s impossible to know whether such stories are true or myths, it’s also said that his cattle rustling began when he wanted a heifer belonging to his close friend, don Manuel.
Thieving thy neighbor’s heifer
Their properties were next to each other and one daydon Manuel’s heifer went missing. He searched his whole farm until he finally spotted it among donCachiro’s cattle. Don Manuel went to ask for it back. “What heifer?” donCachiro replied with a straight face. “That one, compadre,” replied don Manuel, pointing to the animal. “No, compadre, no… you’re wrong; that heifer’s mine. If you want it, name a price and we’ll start negotiating,” said donCachiro.
Don Manuel reported the case to the justice of the peace, who turned up at donCachiro’s farm. Unsure which of the two was telling the truth, the justice wisely decided to place the two men at an equal distance from the heifer and asked each of them to call it. The real owner would be the one the heifer went to. The test didn’t last very long, because as soon as don Manuel clapped his hands and called the heifer it started walking towards him. But a few days later the heifer disappeared from don Manuel’s pasture for good. And that’s how donCachiro started out as a cattle rustler.
The empire’s foundations:In the late 1980s, along the Aguán River in the extensive and uninhabited hills of Colón, donCachiro and several of his Olancho friends started sowing marihuana, a crop easily concealed among the corn and bean fields. It was by transporting that marihuana that donCachiro’s three sons started getting involved in drug trafficking.
Cattle and marihuana
Javier, Leonel and Isidro—the latter, who was the youngest of the three, was known as Cachirito, the diminutive form of Cachiro—graduated from collaborating with their father’s cattle rustling activities to growing marihuana and distributing it in the corridor running from the Aguán area to San Pedro Sula. Soon that corridor had extended to the border with Guatemala through western Honduras’ departments of Santa Bárbara and Copán. In these new areas, Los Cachiros established alliances with local cattle ranchers, taking cattle there that they had stolen from pastureland in Colón and Olancho.
Later they allied with other cattle ranchers in Guatemala’s department of Izabal, where they took both their contraband cattle and marihuana, thus establishing the foundations of a lucrative business. As cattle rustlers Los Cachiros were peerless. As drug traffickers they had to start as apprentices.
The Colombian connectionIn those comings and goings they came into contact with the world of the Colombian cartels, almost certainly while subordinated to their liaisons in Honduras, probably those linked to Ramón Matta Ballesteros, also from Olancho. Matta Ballesteros—the doyen and most conspicuous of the drug chiefs in Honduras—was captured in April 1988 by the DEA with help from Honduran military and politicians after being accused of murdering Kiki Camarena. He was extradited to the US and sentenced to life in a maximum security prison in Colorado.
Although Honduras was being used to move Colombian drugs since the 1970s, trafficking through the country didn’t consolidate itself until two decades later, when the Colombian drug barons redefined their routes following the US elimination of Pablo Escobar in 1993. By the mid-nineties the Mosquitia, Colón and Olancho had become strategic areas for transporting cocaine to Mexico and the United States.
The strategic Honduran corridorsof highly experienced drug lords. Their contacts with the Colombian cartels had been made through the Mosquitia, that vast and uninhabited no-man’s land whose coast was free of any controls as far as Nicaragua and out to the world beyond. The Colombians sent their drugs there by both sea and air, from whence they were transported to the Bay Islands and on to Guatemala, Mexico or the United States.
Los Cachiros started out as the pawns
The drugs also passed through Honduran territory along a number of different corridors. The most important one was probably the Colón corridor, which crossed the immense municipality of Iriona to Colón and the northern departments of Atlántida, Yoro and Cortés, creating important infrastructure in the city of San Pedro Sula. From there the drugs moved into the western region through the departments of Santa Bárbara and Copán and on to Guatemala. Another corridor ran from the Mosquitia into Olancho, crossing Tegucigalpa and continuing into the south of the country, where the drugs entered El Salvador and then Guatemala on the way to Mexico.
By the end of the 20th century, the Rivera Maradiaga brothers were fully committed to the international drug cartels. Javier had managed to position himself as second in command of the Atlantic cartel. Following a ferocious dispute that ended with the death of its head, Jorge AníbalEcheverría Ramos, known as Coque, in March 2004, he became the most powerful purchaser of cocaine from the Colombian and Venezuelan cartels and the most important seller of it to Mexico’s cartels, above all the Sinaloa one.
Coque: Head of the Atlantic cartelCoquewas murdered before reaching his 30th birthday, by which time he already had the capacity to impose his own law, buying off or negotiating with politicians, army and police officers and justice system officials. As head of the Atlantic cartel he had become Honduras’ big drug baron and managed to turn Honduran territory into an air and sea bridge for transporting cocaine from Colombia to Mexico and the US. He was a strategic liaison between Colombia’s drug barons and the Sinaloa cartel led by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
Coque had established very close connections with civil authorities and the armed forces and police. It is said that in the mid-nineties he rubbed shoulders with important politicians from Colón, getting some to buy up thousands of hectares of land between that department and Gracias a Dios so he could build airstrips there for drug trafficking purposes, thus consolidating the corridor between the Mosquitia and the rest of Honduras.
Setting himself up in the community of Francia, between the municipalities of Bonito Oriental and Limón northeast of the legendary municipality of Trujillo on the Caribbean coast, Coque built up a drug distribution center there. By the end of the 20th century the Cachiro brothers had carved themselves out a privileged position in decision-making.
Control of the policeCoque built up close relations with politicians in the country’s northeastern region, to the point of becoming the boyfriend and partner of Margarita Lobo, the daughter of former Honduran President Porfirio Lobo’s brother Ramón. He has been the biggest caudillo in that region for the last four decades and at that moment was a National Party representative in the Honduran Congress.
It has also been learned that around the same time, at the end of the nineties, Coque had close links with Army officers and had laid the foundations to control all of the police chiefs who came to Colón. Confirmed sources say Ramón Lobo Sosa’s son Jorge, one of his stepsons and several of his cousins and nephews were part of the cartel led by Coque, the boy from Macuelizo, department of Santa Bárbara, who also came from a deeply Catholic family.
Los Cachiros initiate Very well placed in the top hierarchy of Coque’s cartel, the Rivera brothers under Javier’s leadership started showing signs of willingness to dispute Coque’s control. To achieve this, Los Cachiros opened up autonomous direct lines and communication channels with Colombian drug barons. They started to create their own security and drug transport structures, exploiting the well-worn contraband cattle path they had established for so many years between Colón and the Guatemalan border, passing through San Pedro Sula.
the territorial dispute
Meanwhile, in the very same way as Coque had put the region’s biggest caudillo and politician in his pocket by winning the affection of one his daughters, Javier Rivera secured his relationship with Coque by becoming the lover of one of his sisters. However, the struggle for control of the cartel was more passionate than any other feelings and soon the first signs of distrust and confrontation began to emerge.
A fight to the deathThe breaking point came on March 22, 2003, when fired up by drink and a dispute over women, Isidro Rivera (El Cachirito) got into a fist fight with Coque in a bar in Tocoa called Los Talibanes. The fight ended when Coque killed him and wounded several of the brothers’closest collaborators.
This triggered a fight to the death between those linked to Los Cachiros and those with Coque. Blood began to flow as the rival groupaimed to finish off Coque and his whole family, leaving not a single seed “to continue his bloodline,” as some have quoted Los Cachirosas promising to do.
Twice wounded but still aliveOn October 19, 2003, the two remaining Rivera brothers detected their enemy in San Pedro Sula and set up an ambush. Coque was with his lover Margarita Lobo and a large group of bodyguards when they were attacked in the street by a commando force sent byLos Cachiros. Coque and his partner were seriously but not mortally injured. After several days in a private clinic, with an important private security contingent that at one point killed an infiltrator sent to the clinic to finish them off, Margarita and Coque flew to Cuba. This move was facilitated by different invisible hands from high political circles that conjured up passports and visas for them in the space of a single afternoon.
It was an emergency, because if Coque remained at that clinic, he would have lost his right arm in the best of cases and could have been assassinated in the worst. He stayed in Cuba for two months, then moved to Costa Rica in February 2004 to finish convalescing and organize his return to Honduras from there. He was being treated in a clinic in Escazú when on February 18, 2004, hooded gunmen burst into his room and shot him three times. He was seriously wounded, but again survived the attack.
The Colombia-Los Cachiros pactBy that time Los Cachiros had taken hold of all of the strings controlling the cocaine trafficking corridors and established new pacts with the drug barons of Colombia and Mexico. Some say that the attempted murder of Coque in Costa Rica was organized by Colombians who had decided to eliminate him as their main drug go-between and representative in Honduras as a result of the pact they had by then established with Los Cachiros.
Coque, all too aware of the danger he faced in the Costa Rican clinic, fled to Panama still carrying a bag of IV solution cannulated into his body. Tipped off about his presence—by which powerful voices?—the Panamanian authorities arrested Coque in March 2004 and immediately repatriated him to Honduras. Getting off the plane at San Pedro Sula ,Coque yelled for help upon recognizing a group of gunmen preparing to finish him off as soon as he left the airport.
The end of CoqueAs he had not yet recovered ,Coque was first taken to the hospital in La Ceiba. From there, he was unexpectedly transferred by helicopter to the clinic in Honduras’ Támaramaximum security prison. In
and “his whole bloodline”
the bed next to him was another patient hooked up to an oxygen tank, whose body was bandaged head to foot and full of IV tubes. When Coque asked who he was, he was told the man was in such bad condition he was unlikely to make it through the night. But at midnight that same day, March 18, 2004, once everyone was asleep, the bandaged man got out of bed and emptied all the bullets from a nine-millimeter pistol into Coque, this time killing him. He then walked calmly out of the prison as all doors opened before him.
From that day on, with Javier Rivera Maradiaga now the undisputed leader, LosCachiros became lord and master of drug trafficking in Honduras, strengthening the alliances with its peers south and north of the country. Over the next three years, from 2004 to 2006, Javier and his brother Leonel—the latter the most bloodthirsty of the whole family, according to different sources—eliminated anyone found to be linked to the Echeverría Ramos family. They killed or ordered the killing of Coque’s father, mother, brothers and sisters, cousins, brothers- and sisters-in-law, uncles and anyone else among his extensive number of relatives, whether they lived in the Aguán area or the family’s place of origin, the department of Santa Bárbara. It is said that the sister who had been Javier’s love until El Cachirito was murdered, escaped with her life by leaving for the United States just in time.
A decade-long reignThe reign of the Cachiros cartel has been the longest in Honduras’s drug-trafficking history, lasting from Coque’s murder in 2004 to the moment when Javier Rivera handed himself in to the United States on January 31, 2015.
Los Cachiros had enormous real power in the country, only exceeded in the number of years it was exercised by dictatorTiburcioCaríasAndino (1932-1949), who ran the country for over 16 years, and by the military governments that stretched out for nearly 20 consecutive years. Today, President Juan Orlando Hernández is seeking to obtain an unbreakable record through his determination to reform the Constitution to legitimize his indefinite re-election. He aspires to remain at the head of the government for 50 years… and his permanence there for at least a fair amount of time appears to suit the US plans for Honduras, apparently cut and pasted from Plan Colombia.
An association that backfired What did the Rivera brothers do during their decade in power? Many businessmen, politicians, police chiefs and army heads could give a detailed response to this question. For years, important people related to politics, trade, the armed forces, justice, entertainment, finance and religion had connections with these outlaw cattle rustlers turned drug kinglets in Honduras’ Caribbean region.
Several congressional legislators, dozens of mayors, prosecutors, judges, bankers, agro-industrialists, traders, army and police officers and certain ex-Presidents must be worried as they nervously wait to find out what Javier and Leonel Rivera may have been saying or are going to say about them to the DEA after the surrender they hammered out with the United States.
Sources who move in the subterranean world of organized crime have revealed that the Cachiros affair has really backfired on these politicians and businesspeople. An alleged plan to murder the two brothers and thus erase all connections that might prove any links with them was aborted when they turned themselves in to the US government.
Did they negotiate It’s difficult to separate speculation from truth in the Cachiros case. What is certain is that on January 22, 2015, days before the surrender of Javier, hitmen murdered Juan Gómez Meléndez, their main money laundering partner, in broad daylight right in the center of the city of Tocoa. It is rumored to have been a hit that, if not negotiated, was at least tolerated by the US as a concession to the brothers in the negotiations for being turned over to the DEA.
Juan Gómez’s death?
Some say that Javier and Leonel Rivera had been negotiating their surrender with the United States for many months and that the negotiations included the fate of their properties and the information they would provide, as well as the conditions of the handover, the trial and the sentences they would receive in the US courts. If it’s true that the brothers had been negotiating their surrender in exchange for ratting out some of their main partners—the mayor of Yoro, “El Negro” Lobo and his lieutenant, the Valle brothers and Héctor Emilio Fernández, alias “don H”—it could also be true that they decided to eliminate Gómez. One reason could have been to get his properties confiscated by the State in exchange for respecting those belonging to their father, mother and sister. Another could be that they couldn’t just abandon their principle of not leaving alive anyone who has betrayed them, and they knew that Gómez had become the DEA’s main informer on their cartel’s activities.
The fact that the surrender was speeded up after the murder of Juan Gómez is the most evident sign that their partners and friends, politicians and businesspeople were willing to kill them to keep any information about the collusion with them from getting out.
Gómez’s murder marked the end of Los Cachiros’ reign and ushered in the new period we now find ourselves in, when a lot of what’s happening is centered on the nervousness of the political and business elites. Sorting out this period is occupying both the fear and the time of many who, although they publicly declare themselves very worried about the country’s situation, are actually concerned about emerging unscathed from whatever the Rivera brothers say or fail to say in the United States.
The life and death of Juan Gómez It would have been very hard to imagine any other ending to the life of Juan Gómez. His whole story is one of a perpetual front man who lived to keep people with power in the shadows. His power was always subsidized by those with the real thing. He never had his own sheen; he was always backlit by the light of others. He lived wretchedly, adulating those above him and humiliating those below. His occupation was to be a toady and what power he had was on loan from others.
In the eighties, Juan Gómez was a civilian, but nobody viewed him as one because he lived at the service of the military, while they looked down on him because they saw him as an adulating civilian. His role was to snitch on grassroots leaders and many of those discovered dead in the Aguán River or African palm plantations had been informed against by him. As a reward for his loyalty to the men in uniform, Gómez was governor of the department of Colón at the end of the eighties and during the nineties.
Then to cover up dirty business already related to drug trafficking, he sheltered in the shadow of prominent politician and eternal legislator for Colón, ÓscarNájera. Gómez was his parliamentary alternate. That was how things remained until in his last five years he ended up putting his heart, soul and life into laundering Los Cachiros’ money through a construction company and as the front-man for 120 businesses, from machinery and housing companies to bank branches and even a private cemetery.
This go-fer for men in power had to end up the way he did. After he was murdered, everyone who knew him denied they ever had. Within a few weeks after his death nobody referred to him as a friend any more. The State decided to confiscate all of his properties and even evicted his widow and family from the house where he had lived all his life. Nobody even defended his family. Even in the circles he moved in, all of which are sullied by the dirty businesses he acted as front-man for, nobody wants to remember him. “What do people say about Juan Gómez?” I asked one of his neighbors in Tocoa. “Nobody knows anything, nobody’s saying anything; a month has passed and it’s like he never existed or died many years ago,” I was told.
They wanted to kill them It is said that during the negotiation process that culminated in the Riveras’ surrender, the US negotiators were very careful not to leak information about this strategy to Honduran intelligence, much less to other government authorities, even including President Hernández. So they say. The hypothesis that the Honduran authorities planned to eliminate the brothers, and that both of them knew about it, also seems plausible.Javier and Leonel Rivera were determined not to be captured in Honduras, because it would mean certain death. Their allies in Honduras were equally determined not to let them to be extradited because of what the brothers had on them. Los Cachiros’ domestic partners and allies had started worrying the moment President Obama announced in mid-2013 that he was concerned about its existence as one of the most dangerous and powerful cartels in the region.
But no matter how much their partners in crime may have wanted to break links with the brothers, the businesses and commitments had become so numerous, so important, so immense, that it was impossible not to leave a trail. This meant that the only way to get away with it, or at least not end up besmirched, was by killing them. Although the US government already had plenty of information, in some cases detailed, on Honduran mafias’ political and economic links, killing the Rivera brothers was indispensable for many of the country’s politicians and businesspeople.
Javier Rivera’s many favors Rumor has it that in the department of Colon it’s very difficult to find any traders, bankers, agroindustrial businesspeople, public officials or armed forces officers who don’t owe Los Cachiros favors or haven’t seen their profits grow thanks to its contributions…
Many people, and not just those with money, owe the brothers favors. When in September 2013, following President Obama’s declaration, the Rivera family had several of its properties and businesses confiscated, some 2,000 people took to the streets of Tocoa to protest, demanding the return of the assets and public recognition of the social benefits provided by the businesses of “don Javier Rivera,” as everyone called the older brother in public.
Nobody knows exactly how many, but several thousand families from the Aguán area depended on Los Cachiros’ money and many could talk about the favors and good treatment they received from don Javier.
“Give my best wishes to our Friend!” In fact,Los Cachiros took on the role of State, or at least the state institutions ended up implementing the decisions made by the brothers.
Their power is illustrated in the following anecdote. One night a young man and his girlfriend were travelling from La Ceiba to Tocoa in a luxury vehicle when they were stopped at a police post in the Aguán area to have their car checked. An officer asked the young man for his documents, and although he had nothing to do with the powerful family, his surname was also Rivera and the officer asked him, “Are you related to our Friend?” Without waiting for an answer, the officer assumed he was, so didn’t check the vehicle. He merely said, “Have a good trip. We’re at your service. And please, give my best wishes to our Friend!”
They imposed securityHaving become the State, at least in the department of Colón,Los Cachiros was able to bring peace to the area. Many people have said they felt safe under its control because criminals really thought twice about committing any offenses. In Tocoa, the department’s most thriving urban center, there were no youth gangs, assaults or kidnappings and the violent death rate was very low compared to the rest of the country.
It is known that between 2009 and 2011 Los Cachiros implemented a social prophylaxis campaign, cleaning out the criminal gangs operating in the corridor of Trujillo and La Ceiba, assaulting buses among other things. Those eliminated included a number of police officers. Los Cachiros imposed order, which the people recognize and are grateful for.
The campaign startedThe campaign to capture the brothers started with Obama’s words in mid-2013. The next step came in September of that year, when certain properties and bank accounts belonging to Los Cachiros members were seized by US order.Enormous cattle ranches were confiscated that had no cattle on them when the operations took place. Seized bank accounts were either empty or contained only a few lempiras. When it came time to confiscate the brothers’ own “Joya Grande” zoo, all the employees had already abandoned the place.
with Obama’s words
These were signs that suggest this whole first operation may have been agreed between the DEA and the cartel. This idea took on greater weight with the confirmation several weeks after this wave of confiscations that the properties had been returned, if not to LosCachiros then to some of its front-men.
The properties in Juan Gómez’s name weren’t affected in those same operations, suggesting that either this conspicuous personality was part of the negotiations between the Cachiros and the DEA or he was already collaborating with the DEA, like a rat leaving a ship it knew was sinking…
The downfall of “El Negro” LoboIn the space of 16 months (September 2013-January 2015) the tortilla flipped for the owners of Honduras’ drug kingdom. The pressure ratcheted up starting in the second half of 2014. Before that, people of less significance were captured, many of them in the context of settling scores or of territorial disputes between local gang members. The decisive arrests and blows came later, in a short period and following the strategy designed and led directly by US agencies and authorities. The local authorities limited themselves to carrying out the field operations subordinated to the gringos.
The first arrest had a very strong media impact. Arnoldo “El Negro” Lobo, a well-known drug trafficker who had amassed an enormous fortune transporting cocaine from Honduras to the US, was caught on March 27, 2014, in one of his residences in San Pedro Sula through an operation planned in detail by the DEA and executed with specialized Honduran police and army personnel. Lobo’s was the first case to implement the Honduran extradition decree, approved two years earlier when Juan Orlando Hernández was president of the National Congress. The extradition was put into effect on May 9, 2014.
The mayor of Yoro behind barsAnother operation on July 27, 2014, resulted in the arrest of Arnaldo Urbina, mayor of the municipality of Yoro, capital of the department by the same name,who was part of a gang led by his brothers. Unlike the modus operandi of so many drug barons, who sought to win over people through favors, these brothers sowed terror in the communities, forcing mass abandonments of houses and crops in areas where they required lands for their operations.
Mayor Urbina was tried and sentenced for illegal arms possession, conducting of illicit business and other crimes and is currently behind bars in the San Pedro Sula prison.
Chancleta and “don H” go downThe third arrest took place in La Ceiba on September 11, 2014, when “El Negro” Lobo’s lieutenant, Juvin Alexander Suazo Peralta, alias “Chancleta,” was captured. Then on October 28, 2014, he became the second drug baron extradited.
This was followed by a fourth operation on October 7 in which Héctor Emilio Fernández Rosa, known as “don H,” was arrested. He was one of the most successful traffickers of drugs to the US and very close to Los Cachiros. He was also extradited, in his case this February 5.
The fall of Copán’s Valle GangThe fifth capture was undoubtedly the most talked about and the one with the greatest repercussions. The powerful Valle Valle brothers (Miguel Arnulfo, Luis Alonso, and José Inocente and his wife Marlen Amaya Argueta) were based in the department of Copán. The first arrested was their sister, Digna Valle Valle, on July 20, 2014, on US soil. She was immediately tried, convicted and sent to a US prison. The three brothers and José Inocente’s wife were then arrested on October 5 and all were extradited to the US for trial: Miguel Arnulfo and Luis Alonso on December 18, and José Inocente and his wife on January 23, 2015. If found guilty, they will serve their sentence there.
The arrest of this powerful family gang was accompanied by the expropriation of dozens of properties and several million dollars found in sacks buried in a number of those properties. The Valle Valle brothers ran all drug movements along the border between Honduras and Guatemala in the departments of Copán and Santa Bárbara. They put in and took out authorities and because of their links with businesspeople and bankers were the liaison with the drug runners controlled by Los Cachiros. In the process culminating in their capture they were abandoned by everybody. Before boarding the plane to the United States, Miguel Arnulfo, the head of the gang, threatened, “I’m leaving with a file containing the names of those who betrayed us!”
Fight between two police sectors Some versions suggest that the operation to capture the Valle brothers was done by Honduran authorities. According to this theory, one sector of the authorities—the one linked to corrupt police officers and to politicians, officials and businesspeople involved in the drug trade—gave the order not to capture them alive in order to wipe out any evidence, while the other sector of the national police—officers not directly linked to corruption—was determined to capture and subsequently extradite them.
This conflict may explain why then-Minister of Security Arturo Corrales Álvarez abruptly fired the director general of the National Police, Commissioner Ramón Sabillón, and his circle of officers. He supposedly did this in collusion with powerful police officers and following orders from the highest level, replacing them with another, historically less “clean” sector.
Buffing up his imageThe reign of Los Cachiros has come to an end. With their clan behind them, 42-year-old Javier Rivera Maradiaga and his 38-year-old brother Leonel ruled as powerful drug lords for over a decade, exceeding the average for Honduran drug bosses, who tend to last no more than five years.
In the five years before he gave himself up, Javier Rivera sought to clean up his image by rubbing shoulders in public with society personalities and publicly investing in a wide range of businesses. We saw him,
for example, at the opening of a gas station and a mall he owned, sitting at the same table as Ramón Lobo Sosa, legislator ÓscarNájera and a member of the powerful Rosenthal family, representing the Banco Continental, which Javier used for his transactions.
A pact at a LosCachiros hacienda A number of strongly-based rumors suggest that Javier Rivera developed closer relationships with political personalities when he joined the National Party. However, the support he gave to mayors and legislators in the areas he controlled transcended his affiliation.
Although his main political commitment was to the National Party, it is said that mayors of Tocoa, Trujillo, Sonaguera, Iriona, Sabá and Bonito Oriental, among other municipalities, all owed him to some extent for the backing he had given them to fund their election campaigns.
It is rumored that following the National Party’s November 2012 primary elections, the dispute between the winner, Juan Orlando Hernández, and the loser, Ricardo Álvarez, became so intense that Álvarez accused Hernández of fraud, contested the results and demanded a total vote recount.
The different party leaderships promoted dialogues and negotiations between the two candidates until a pact was reached: Juan Orlando Hernández promised to include Álvarez on his presidential ticket as first Vice President. According to various sources, that pact, entered into on April 7, 2013, supposedly took place on one of Los Cachiros’ haciendas. These versions state that Javier Rivera was the host and main funder of the event, in which barbecued meat abounded and beer flowed. The two main party leaders smoked the peace pipe in Rivera’s shadow and are now Honduras’ President and Presidential Designate.
The end of the story? The Cachiros’ reign came to an end, but its consequences will be felt for a long time. Both drug barons are still alive and in prison and both have lots of incriminating information. Their main partners are also alive. All have so much information, which in the current scenario like never before, is a powerful weapon that could prove deadly to many who haven’t faced any charges yet.
Los Cachiros’ criminal reign has ended, but the US is still the planet’s biggest consumer of drugs, and they are still being trafficked there from South America. And so, just as drug barons opened up new drug-trafficking corridors in the early 90s and Honduran territory became the most strategically important space for the narcos, new barons will undoubtedly replace Los Cachiros to benefit from everything they have already invested in Honduras.
Is the rabies threat really over? The word is that Washington accepts that in this first stage it was only seeking to eliminate, capture and neutralize the main mobsters. However, the US government is exceedingly well informed about who these mobsters’ partners are in Honduras’ political and business circles. Could it possibly be that all they want to do is capture the worst mobsters, not crack down completely on the drug trafficking?
In any case, it remains to be seen what relations the US will maintain with those honorable figures who were in cahoots with Los Cachiros. So far, from 2013 to 2014, its plans and strategy were to block the threat the drug lords, the worst traffickers, represented to US national security. Will they think they’ve removed the threat of rabies by killing that dog? And is it actually dead? Has capturing a few of the most notorious crooks eliminated the epidemic?
Will any of the partners be collared? If US government officials maintain relationships with politicians, bankers and businesspeople who were Los Cachiros partners, will they just ignore their links with organized crime, when it’s a well-known secret they’re besmirched rather than merely spattered by illicit dealings? Will the time also come for any of them? Why only arrest Yoro’s mayor, when there are firm suspicions that many other mayors—the former mayor of El Paraíso and the mayor of Copán, to name just a couple—and legislators representing Colón, Copán, Santa Bárbara, Yoro and Cortés, among other departments, are highly implicated in drug-trafficking activities?
More militarization? Although they played a decisive role in establishing drug trafficking and have been responsible for much of the violence it has generated in Honduras, the Rivera brothers are still only one chapter in this story. Many people currently want to heap all the blame on them to dissemble their own responsibilities. Some want to make them scapegoats and others to use them as an excuse to further militarize the Aguánarea. To justify this, they argue that the disappearance of Los Cachiros has led to the reappearance in Aguán of labor insecurity and, above all, crime and social decomposition. The militarization of Honduras is another main component of the “Plan Colombia” version the United States is going to apply to our country.
More of the same? Who will take up the reins from Los Cachiros, or is already doing so? Having captured the main mobsters, the US government appears to be concentrating on moving on to another stage: throwing dollars at the main causes behind the violence, organized crime and migration.
Billions of dollars a year for five years have been announced in the framework of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle: Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. In Honduras’ case, this involves allying with the same figures linked to the violence and organized crime.
The chapter following the one titled “Los Cachiros” is only just starting to be written. There’s no doubt the mobs will rise again under other names and with other faces. Give or take a few names, their allies will still be politicians, big business and army and police officers. They’ll come from the same quarry the US government persists in using to provide the building blocks for a different scenario in our country.
Ismael Moreno, sj, istheenvíocorrespondent in Honduras.