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Authorities escort an alleged Guatemalan drug trafficker who has been extradited to the United States. Las autoridades escoltan un supuesto narcotraficante guatemalteco, quién fue extraditado hacia los EEUU.

US Turns Screw on Enduring Guatemala Drug Clan

US Turns Screw on Enduring Guatemala Drug Clan

The extradition of an alleged Guatemalan drug trafficker linked to the Sinaloa Cartel is a blow to one of the country’s most infamous drug clans. But the group is well-positioned to weather US pressure.

Juan José Morales Cifuentes, an alleged leader of the Los Pochos drug clan, was extradited to the United States on May 17, along with five other alleged traffickers. Guatemalan authorities arrested Cifuentes in December last year. The US Justice Department accuses him of distributing and transporting cocaine in association with Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel.

Cifuentes received taxes from Mexican traffickers “to store their narcotics in the Guatemalan border towns of Tecun Uman and San Marcos,” US prosecutors allege. 

The US Treasury sanctioned Cifuentes in February over his alleged role in drug trafficking, describing him as a “leader of the Los Pochos drug trafficking organization (DTO) since 2019.” 

SEE ALSO: Los Pochos, Guatemala’s New Generation of Drug Runners for Sinaloa Cartel

Cifuentes is the son-in-law of notorious Guatemala trafficker, Erick Salvador Súñiga Rodríguez, the alleged former leader of Los Pochos who died in US custody in 2020. Súñiga spent over a decade as mayor of the group’s stronghold of Ayutla, a border town in the western San Marcos department, before surrendering to US authorities in late 2019. He was simultaneously sanctioned under the US Kingpin Act and accused of supplying cocaine to the Sinaloa Cartel.

In February this year, the US Treasury sanctioned Cifuentes’ wife — Súñiga’s daughter— Isel Aneli Súñiga Morfin. As the current mayor of Ayutla, Súñiga Morfin “reportedly uses her political connections to further the Los Pochos DTO,” according to a statement released by the US Treasury.

The sanctions against Los Pochos also targeted one of Cifuentes’ lieutenants, who was arrested by Guatemalan authorities last December. The measures imposed an assets freeze on bank accounts and companies linked to the group.  

Los Pochos are thought to be the heirs to the renowned Guatemalan drug lord, Juan Chamalé, a convicted trafficker who once controlled the land routes connecting the San Marcos department to Mexico.

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Sustained US pressure on Los Pochos may have depleted the group’s ranks and disrupted its logistical and financial operations, but it is unlikely to have dealt a fatal blow to a network that retains several lines of defense.

The group has long leveraged its political clout in Ayutla to protect its operations. As mayor, Súñiga senior relied on “corrupt local law enforcement officials to assist him with illicit activities,” according to US authorities. 

By controlling the security forces, mayors can also divert attention from drug shipments,  an indispensable tool in towns like Ayutla, which houses a strategic and heavily traversed border checkpoint connecting Guatemala with territories controlled by major Mexican DTOs.

The political immunity afforded to all Guatemalan mayors grants additional protection. Súñiga’s daughter and Ayutla mayor, Súñiga Morfin, has yet to face any criminal charges in Guatemala despite the US sanctions. 

SEE ALSO: A Mayor and a Wave of Narco Violence on Guatemala’s Pacific

Los Pochos’ purported relationship with the Sinaloa Cartel may also help the group recover from operational and financial setbacks. The Mexican group’s thirst for cocaine provides lucrative revenue streams for networks like Los Pochos, which purchases hundreds of millions of dollars worth of cocaine annually for delivery to Mexican drug trafficking leaders, among other recipients, according to US prosecutors.

Los Pochos also enjoy a strong local support base. Former mayor Suñiga was a popular leader who leveraged political power to oust other criminal groups, improving local security perceptions, according to an investigation by the Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism (Centro Latinoamericano de Investigación Periodística – CLIP). He also built churches and cultural centers to shore up local support. Such efforts to foster local legitimacy are geared at ensuring long-term political survival and, by extension, enduring protection from external pressures.

Featured image: Alleged leader of the Los Pochos drug trafficking group, Juan José Morales Cifuentes, is detained and escorted by Guatemalan authorities. Credit: La Hora / PNC

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