Before being extradited to the United States, the drug lord ordered the killing in Ecuador of several officials and police officers who managed his capture. Photo: EFE
Published on 2018-04-16
The origins of a drug lord
To understand how Gerald's dominance in the drug trafficking world came about, it is necessary to go back a couple of decades in Colombia's history. When the Norte del Valle Cartel disappeared, it split into two groups: the Rastrojos and the Machos. The two groups were rivals for control of drug production and routes to the Pacific, according to Colombian Police Criminal Investigation and Interpol Directorate (DIJIN) agents to whom Plan V had access.
The war between the two groups took place between 2000 and 2010. Each had armed irregular armies in both rural and urban areas to guard routes and laboratories. But the urban ones, better known as collection offices, were hired assassination organizations to settle scores in the cities over issues related to drug trafficking, such as the control of territory.
THE RASTROJOS BECAME STRONG FOLLOWING THE DISARMAMENT AND DEMOBILIZATION OF THE UNITED SELF-DEFENSE FORCES OF COLOMBIA, OR PARAMILITARIES. BECAME THE MOST FEARED GROUP IN THE NEIGHBORING COUNTRY. THAT IS WHY THE WAR WITH THE MACHOS WAS VERY VIOLENT. THERE WERE MANY DEATHS OVER TO THE MONOPOLY OF DRUG TRAFFICKING.
The Rastrojos rose to prominence following the disarmament and demobilization of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or paramilitaries. They became the most feared group in the neighboring country. That is why the war with the Machos was very violent. There were many deaths over the monopoly of drug trafficking.
In the case of the Rastrojos, their dominance began in the South Pacific of Colombia, but over the years they extended to a large part of the territory of Colombia. They sought to control the entire business: from the planting of coca leaves and the production of cocaine to the dispatch of these shipments by air and sea to Mexican cartels such as Sinaloa, Los Zetas and Jalisco Cartel New Generation.
Mexican cartels have always needed a lot of cocaine to supply the American market. In 2017, the US State Department estimated that some 1,000 tons of cocaine crossed Guatemala's borders each year, the vast majority destined for the US.
Previously, the Norte del Valle Cartel, which inherited the business after the extinction of the Medellin and Cali cartels, supplied that cocaine to the Mexicans. But with their demise, the Mexicans' new partners were the Rastrojos and the Machos. Confident in their Colombian partners, they did not need to travel to Colombia to oversee the shipments. That was about to change when the Colombian police captured the leaders of the two criminal organizations between 2010 and 2013. But what Colombian agents call "remnants" of the Rastrojos remained, and one of them was "Gerald".
In the case of the Rastrojos, their dominance began in Colombia's South Pacific, but over the years they extended to a large part of the neighboring country's territory. They sought to control the entire business: from the planting of coca leaves and cocaine production to the dispatch of these shipments by air and sea to Mexican cartels such as Sinaloa, Los Zetas and Jalisco Cartel New Generation.
The sea, his domain
Edison Washington Prado Alava alias "Gerald" was born in 1981 in Tarqui, home of the old fishing port of Manta. His proximity to the sea and his relationship from a very young age with the intense fishing activity that exists on that well-known beach gave him the skills to become a great and seasoned boatman.
Colombian agents believe that Ecuadorian boatmen know the sea very well. Having large ports and a very active industry in the Pacific, fishermen become agile and astute. This is in contrast to Colombia, whose Pacific coast is abandoned and there is little such activity. According to researchers, Ecuadorians have a great sense of location and are able to be guided at sea only by the stars, like ancient navigators.
EDISON WASHINGTON WASHINGTON PRADO ALAVA ALIAS "GERALD" WAS BORN IN 1981 IN TARQUI, HOME OF THE OLD FISHING PORT OF MANTA. HIS PROXIMITY TO THE SEA AND HIS RELATIONSHIP SINCE HE WAS A CHILD WITH THE INTENSE FISHING ACTIVITY THAT EXISTS IN THAT WELL KNOWN BEACH GAVE HIM THE SKILLS TO BECOME A GREAT AND SEASONED BOATMAN.
The Rastrojos took advantage of these skills during their time of dominance in Colombia's drug trafficking business. To guarantee the success of these routes, the Rastrojos continually went down to Ecuador in search of these operators on the high seas, according to Colombian agents. Two facts confirm his presence in the country. In 2012, Juan Carlos Calle Serna, brother of The Comba´s, who were leaders of the Rastrojos and former heads of the Norte del Valle Cartel, was captured at his home in Cumbaya, Quito. And a year later, Jorge Eliécer Domínguez Falla, alias Palustre, one of the heads of the hitmen of this criminal group, was arrested in Manta.
In order to export drugs to Central America, the Rastrojos needed navigators who could control the sea routes. At the time, there were three ways of transporting drugs. One of them was via semi-submersibles, the only option to reach Mexico in a single trip from the Colombian Pacific. These submarines were of artisanal construction, but with very good navigation technology. According to the DIJIN, they were the only ones that could reach Mexico because they had the capacity to carry all the fuel they needed for the journey.
The other option was with speedboats that left from Colombia's South Pacific to a ship in international waters. They would pass the drugs to the boat that would take the route to Central America and the boat would return with the fuel provided by the same boat.
The third method consisted of boats leaving from Tumaco to Chocó, Colombia. There they would enter a mangrove swamp, tank and fill up with food. The same boat would leave for Panama, which used to be Colombia's drug storage center during the decade from 2000 to 2010. The Colombian cartels controlled all the way to Central America, and the Mexicans took over from there.
'Gerald' (first from left) in one of his first captures on the high seas in 2012 for drug trafficking. Photo: El Universo
That is why they began to employ Ecuadorian boatmen and captains since 2000, and one of them was 'Gerald'. In fact, according to Colombian intelligence, "Gerald" was one of the most prominent navigators of the semi-submersibles and boat routes. But the Ecuadorian capo's beginnings were in the illegal transport of migrants along these same routes, who were also loaded with drugs to be delivered in Choco or Panama. This was another of the Rastrojos' activities.
Gerald' was the captain of these transports. He was captured in 2006, at the age of 25, for the crime of smuggling migrants and coyote trafficking, a case that was shelved. He then registered two more arrests, in 2012 and 2014, for drug trafficking, but evaded justice. Over time, he became an advisor to the Rastrojos and was the one who set up routes at sea for them. It was then that he began to have his first contacts with the gangs in Central America and with the business in Colombia.
His success: gas stations at sea
Between 2010 and 2013, the main leaders of the Rastrojos and Machos were captured. The Colombian police managed to dismantle the largest organization and put an end to the monopoly on drug trafficking held by the two gangs. And this was a problem for the Mexican cartels. Having an allied cartel in the neighboring country guaranteed the purity of the cocaine and the delivery of the shipments. It was serious business between the heads of the cartels: Chapo Guzman of Sinaloa directly with Diego Rastrojo in Colombia.
BUT FOLLOWING THE DISMANTLING OF THE RASTROJOS, THE MEXICAN CARTELS SUFFERED LOSSES BECAUSE THEIR NEW CONTACTS DID NOT GUARANTEE EITHER THE QUALITY OR THE SUCCESSFUL SHIPMENT OF THE SHIPMENTS. THE MEXICAN CARTELS HAD MANY SEIZURES OR THE DRUGS WERE STOLEN UPON ARRIVAL IN CENTRAL AMERICA. IT WAS THEN THAT THE MEXICAN CARTELS BEGAN TO SEND EMISSARIES TO COLOMBIA AND ECUADOR.
But following the dismantling of the Rastrojos, the Mexican cartels suffered losses because their new contacts did not guarantee either the quality or the successful delivery of shipments. They had many seizures or the drugs were stolen upon arrival in Central America. It was then that the Mexican cartels started sending emissaries to Colombia and Ecuador. "If you go to Guayaquil, listen to the stories of Mexicans in rumbas, on yachts, in drinks, with women. and in Manta, Manabí," says one of the investigators.
The Mexicans began to ally themselves with the middle management left over from the Rastrojos. They were the remnants of the gang. But these remnants did not create a new group to monopolize the illegal business; they continued independently. So many groups emerged, but without an armed wing.
At this point in the story, 'Gerald' appeared, who already had contacts and allies, as his outstanding participation in the maritime routes made him the favorite of the organization for the transport of shipments. He made pacts with the FARC's Daniel Aldana mobile column, which charged the drug traffickers a tax on weight. From this guerrilla structure emerged alias 'Guacho', identified as the author of the attacks on the border and the murder of the El Comercio Newspaper team. Guacho' grew up in the shadow of 'Gerald' as Plan V published last week.
But 'Gerald's' leadership came about thanks to an innovative idea: creating a maritime route with tanks. A sort of ships/gas stations on the high seas. He kept this idea to himself and did not share it with the Rastrojos. With his own capital, accumulated after several years of working with the Colombian cartel, he traveled to test this route when the gang was dismantled. This consisted of the use of speedboats that were fueled by three boats to the Guatemala route and by four to Mexico.
To test it, he partnered with other small drug trafficking groups from which he bought the drugs. He then strategically placed the tanker points at sea above and below the Galapagos Islands. In order not to get lost, he used the same technology of the semi-submersibles, such as the 'spot' or GPS locators via satellite, which allow real-time location. In Ecuador he knew experienced captains and boatmen. He added them to his group and placed them at the points he had defined.
The incorporation of Ecuadorians into his network, according to the agents, is evidenced by the captures at sea by the US Coast Guard. In 2015, 27 Ecuadorians were arrested; in 2016, 50; in 2017, 113; and so far in 2018, 42, according to DIJIN figures provided to Plan V. This increase is related to the rise of "Gerald" to power..
'GERALD' HAD THE ABILITY TO CALCULATE THE AMOUNT OF FUEL THE BOATS NEEDED TO REACH EACH TANKER. AT THE AGE OF 30, HE TRIED HIS ROUTE FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 2013. AND HE SUCCEEDED.
'Gerald' had the ability to calculate the amount of fuel the boats needed to reach each tanker. In his 30s he tried his route for the first time in 2013. And he succeeded. He then delivered his first shipment to Guatemala to the man who bought from the Rastrojos, "Teniente Fantasma" (Lieutenant Phantom). He began to finance 'Gerald' and his route.
The Ecuadorian then bought fleets of boats that took turns reaching those coordinates and serving as gas stations at sea. When one boat ran out of fuel there was already another boat moving towards that location. The boats would stay for several days at sea simulating fishing operations. They were full of fuel, food and spare parts. They also had the mission of recovering cargo and providing security along the route. Their crews had weapons such as mortars, grenade launchers and machine guns.
A DIJIN report adds that they also placed state-of-the-art tracking devices on their shipments to monitor the movement of the drugs in real time. It was a way to ensure that the cargo would never be lost in the event of an interception or pursuit by maritime authorities. In such cases, the shipments were dumped at sea and then coordinated for rescue.
His route was a success. In one night he could take out up to 10 boats, each loaded with 800 to 1,000 kilos, within 30 minutes of each other. In other words, in a single night he would send between 8 and 10 tons of drugs. These shipments were weekly. But when the route was activated, he did not stop: one boat went out after another and the boats were constantly being relayed. He had to supply the demand in Mexico and Guatemala, which increased due to the vacuum left by the Rastrojos.
General JORGE LUIS VARGAS, DIRECTOR OF DIJIN. PHOTO: CAMILO ESPITIA
That's how 'Gerald' started buying a lot of drugs and paying in cash. He monopolized production and routes. He became the number one drug lord in the southwest of Colombia: Nariño and Valle del Cauca. "It has been a long time since we found a drug trafficker with these characteristics. He was in charge of the crops, he had the laboratories, the means of transportation and the routes to Central America. Everything was under his control, something that is very difficult to see nowadays," DIJIN director General Jorge Luis Vargas told Plan V.
The Ecuadorian drug lord's relationship with the Colombian guerrillas in the area was well understood, as he had the capacity to pay the tax without a problem. "As he had all the economic power and the backing of the FARC, no one would touch him," says an investigator. That is why he became a main target for the U.S., which sought to capture and extradite him by any possible means.
Outside the DIJIN in Bogota. Photo: Camilo Espitia
A worldwide dream
Intelligence agents describe 'Gerald' as an intelligent, strong-willed and resourceful guy. With his route, he began supplying all the Mexican cartels such as Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation. Gerald came back to guarantee them the quality of the cocaine. But the Ecuadorian capo was not satisfied with his monopoly of the business in the South Pacific. He also wanted to extend his dominance to Central America and Mexico.
And he was moving fast. He sent his emissaries to Guatemala to guarantee the arrival of the shipments and the payments. One of them was Luis Alejandro Ortiz, alias "Yeyo". He was the second in command of Gerald's group and the head of the armed structures in Colombia and Ecuador for the settling of scores. But when 'Teniente Fantasma' was captured in July 2016 in Guatemala, the Ecuadorian had the opportunity to manage the business in that country as well. Yeyo had the contacts and replaced alias 'Teniente Fantasma' in the commercialization.
He did the same in Mexico, according to the agents. He sent an emissary after the capture of Chapo Guzman in January 2016. This emissary received the drugs and also entered the commercialization. Investigators say he had no resistance from the Mexican cartels because they needed him: he was their main cocaine supplier. He was indispensable to the business because the demand in the US was increasing.
INVESTIGATORS SAY HE HAD NO RESISTANCE FROM THE MEXICAN CARTELS BECAUSE THEY NEEDED HIM: HE WAS THEIR MAIN SUPPLIER OF COCAINE. HE WAS INDISPENSABLE TO THE BUSINESS BECAUSE DEMAND IN THE U.S. WAS INCREASING.
His vision was different from that of the Rastrojos and Machos, who were content to deliver shipments to cartels in Mexico and Guatemala. That is why he even had groups of hitmen in those two countries for his operations. He allied himself, for example, with the Central American maras. The reason: he wanted more money.
A Pablo Escobar emulation?
Gerald' did not go to college. He was a fisherman who managed to finish high school. But he went on to become the leader of the most powerful and violent organization in the Pacific. DIJIN agents estimate the Ecuadorian capo's fortune at between $200 million and $300 million.
Investigators describe his economic power as "exorbitant". It is known that the money arrived through exchange houses in billions of pesos to Colombia or in millions of dollars to Ecuador. The money was invested in sumptuous properties (houses, farms and apartments) in different exclusive locations in Ecuador and Colombia. He had armored vehicles, jewelry, state-of-the-art weapons, shares in companies, commercial establishments and businesses, says a DIJIN report.
For example, in Guayaquil he bought houses for his relatives that occupied up to two blocks in the most exclusive places. But it was also a strategy to take care of himself. "It was almost impossible to carry out surveillance because whoever went in there had to have authorization from the family, and when they didn't know him, the hit squad would come," the agent said. "He built an empire with the family," he says. In the judicial process that follows the Gerald's group in Ecuador, his sister and his partner are involved.
In April 2017, when the capo was arrested in Colombia and 11 members of his organization captured in Ecuador, his economic dominance was evident. In operations in Guayaquil and Manta, stashes with more than $17 million in cash were found. In Colombia, 10 billion pesos (US$3.6 million) were seized, which he kept in prison as petty cash for gambling, alcohol, parties and women. In Ecuador, among those captured were bodyguards, drivers, lawyers and even a police captain and his wife, who was a candidate for assemblywoman. In the trial it was learned that she allegedly received money from the drug traffickers for her campaign in 2017.
IN ECUADOR, AMONG THOSE CAPTURED WERE BODYGUARDS, DRIVERS, LAWYERS AND EVEN A POLICE CAPTAIN AND HIS WIFE, WHO WAS A CANDIDATE FOR ASSEMBLYWOMAN.
Gerald learned from his mentors. One of them was alias "Chupeta," a member of the Norte del Valle and Cali Cartel. According to the agents, ´Chupeta´ had $80 million dollars seized in stashes, just like those of Gerald in Ecuador. That is to say, underground or in false walls. In Ecuador they were on the floor covered by a 15-centimeter-thick cement cover. The bills were packed in special plastic to last for many years.
The agents said that 7.5 million dollars were found in the house of Gerald's mother, the cove was built while the lady went on a tourist trip. General Vargas informed that after the seizure of those coves, Gerald ordered to move other money because he was afraid that it would be discovered. "Much of this money must be in stashes on the frontier," he adds.
According to the agents, with this power he had his name cleared on several occasions through threats or by buying justice. This was the case with his three arrests during his time as a Rastrojos boatman. El Espectador reported that he used lawyers for these purposes and spared no expense. When he was arrested and to prevent his extradition to the United States, he paid 26 lawyers so that he could be prosecuted in Ecuador. In fact, he paid 5 million dollars so that they could pass him off as a member of the FARC and benefit from the peace process in Colombia.
With so much money, he pretended to be a well-known fishing, cattle ranching or construction businessman. This is what Pablo Escobar did in the 1980s, according to a Colombian intelligence agent. He adds that there are many coincidences between the profile of Pablo Escobar and Gerald. He can be compared for his cunning, shrewdness, economic and military power, but also for his relationship with his family. Gerald lived with his family, his parents, his partner and his children. "I don't know if he saw Pablo Escobar's stories, but he was the same profile. He acted and thought like him," says the investigator.
HE USED LAWYERS FOR THESE PURPOSES AND SPARED NO EXPENSE. WHEN HE WAS ARRESTED AND TO PREVENT HIS EXTRADITION TO THE UNITED STATES, HE PAID 26 JURISTS SO THAT HE WOULD BE PROSECUTED IN ECUADOR, AS PUBLISHED BY EL ESPECTADOR. IN FACT, HE PAID $5 MILLION TO BE PASSED OFF AS A MEMBER OF THE FARC AND BENEFIT FROM THE PEACE PROCESS IN COLOMBIA.
His rise was quiet. He was little known in Ecuador because he was based in the neighboring country for 15 years where he learned the monopoly of drug trafficking during the evolution and fall of the cartels. He lived in Cali and carried out his operations from Valle del Cauca and Nariño. Specifically from Tumaco, the municipality with the largest amount of coca crops in all of Colombia. He only went to Ecuador to rest from his long days of work.
After three years of investigations by the DIJIN's Special Investigation Unit, an elite anti-drug trafficking unit, the Ecuadorian drug lord's obsessive and perfectionist character was revealed. He slept very little and only thought about improving and upgrading his routes and laboratories. As well as making sure that he did not lose a single gram of cocaine.
Another similarity found by the agents between Gerald and Pablo Escobar is the taste for women. But above all for those with a high profile and resources. "He was looking for a position as a great lord in society. He wasn't going to get involved with just any woman," he says. And that weakness was what led to his arrest.
The fall of the boss and the death threats he practiced
In 2016, another of Gerald's mentors was captured: Santos Román Narváez Ansazoy, alias "Román". This was the last of the Rastrojos. The Ecuadorian thought he could be betrayed. That is why he decided to return to Ecuador in December of that year.
This was a frustration for the Colombian police, because in Ecuador there is no extradition agreement with the U.S. And they had made great efforts to capture him. For example, they used infiltrators to collect evidence. They posed as coca leaf scrapers, as chemists to look at his laboratories, or as outboard motor mechanics.
At the same time, one agent posed as a woman from a well known, wealthy family abroad, who was keeping an eye on her family's businesses in Cali. She began to frequent the places that Gerald visited, such as the gym. She managed to get the capo to approach her. Although Gerald returned to Ecuador in 2016, they maintained communication.
She got an appointment with Gerald in Ipiales, on the border with Ecuador. He had refused to see her in Cali. Ipiales was a strategic point, as he could cross into the country in case he felt threatened. But Gerald avoided crossing the border. He arrived in a boat to Tumaco and from there he was picked up by the second in his organization, alias Yeyo, who had traveled from Guatemala specifically to accompany him. He did not trust anyone else.
They traveled overland to Ipiales. But an operation was already underway. In April 2017, the extradition request arrived in Colombia. In the early morning of April 11, the order was picked up at the Prosecutor's Office and by the afternoon he was already captured. It happened at a checkpoint where he identified himself as a Colombian citizen with this false ID card.
Fake Colombian ID card of 'Gerald'. Photo: DIJIN
At the same time, 11 members of his gang were arrested in Ecuador and his properties were raided, including his mother's house. The agents affirm that this operation hurt him very much and that is why he ordered the assassination of those who led these actions against his organization and his family in Ecuador. The Ecuadorian police learned of this when they were alerted by their Colombian counterparts that one of Gerald's hitmen was involved in the plan.
In June 2017, the 26-year-old Colombian man was arrested at the air terminal when he was preparing to return to Bogota. In his wallet was a manuscript with two police officers' names and home addresses. Investigations determined that the man was very close to the security of Gerald's brothers.
A DIJIN report reveals that Gerald coordinated the attacks from prison. He ordered his boss of the armed structure to inform the collection offices (hitmen) of Manta, Portoviejo and Santo Domingo de los Tsáchilas. He gave them a list of the organization's military targets and put a price on their heads.
A DIJIN REPORT REVEALS THAT GERALD, WHO HAS ALREADY BEEN ARRESTED, COORDINATED THE ATTACKS AGAINST ECUADORIAN POLITICIANS AND OFFICIALS FROM PRISON. HE ORDERED HIS CHIEF OF THE ARMED STRUCTURE TO INFORM THE COLLECTION OFFICES (HITMEN) IN MANTA, PORTOVIEJO AND SANTO DOMINGO DE LOS TSÁCHILAS. HE GAVE THEM A LIST OF THE ORGANIZATION'S MILITARY TARGETS AND PUT A PRICE ON THEIR HEADS.
Plan V had access to this list, which includes the names of a prosecutor and an alternate assemblyman from Manabí. N.U., a high ranking police officer, is on the list. Also written on the list is the surname 'Serrano' for which two million dollars was offered. The agents believe that the narco was referring to the former Minister of the Interior and Assemblyman, José Serrano. "The minister was right, that's why they wanted to kill him," said a Colombian agent. However, at the time of the operation against Gerald's gang, Ecuador's Interior Minister was Diego Fuentes. Another target, according to the document, was another police chief in Manta, F.S. None of the attacks ordered to his assassins in Ecuador were successful.
According to the agents, Gerald used the same motto as Pablo Escobar: "plata o plomo" (silver or lead). "When he sent threats to these people in Ecuador, it was because he felt he was above the Ecuadorian and Colombian justice system," they say. Gerald's organization was characterized by violence or threats against those who tried to investigate them. But also against rival gangs that dispute drug transport routes and corridors.
In operations in Ecuador and Colombia last year, more than 100 members of his structure and 13 of his leaders were arrested, of which 5 were or are being extradited to the USA. They are Gerald; Leonardo Adrián Vera, alias 'Thiago', head of the maritime route. Also Robinson Alberto Castro, alias 'Rocho', head of cocaine production; and Diego Fernando Arízala, alias 'El Negro', head of satellite tracking in Central America. They also seized 150 tons of drugs.
The Manabí drug lord was finally extradited to the United States by Colombia on February 24. The director of the DIJIN, General Jorge Luis Vargas, explained that the extradition agreement between Colombia and the U.S., which provides for up to 30 years in prison for Colombian drug lords, does not apply to him. According to Vargas, in the case of the Ecuadorian, his sentence by the U.S. justice system could reach 60 years because other regulations that criminalize international drug trafficking apply to him.
Thus, the Manabi boatman who grew up in poverty on the beaches of Manta, who was halfway between pirate, human trafficker and Pablo Escobar look-alike, will end his days in a U.S. federal prison.
Translated by Manuel Novik