This small plane, captured in Guatemala in October 2017, left Ecuador loaded with 382 packages of drugs. The aircraft had a malfunction and fell in Jutiapa. The pilots were Mexican. Photo: Prensa Libre, Hugo Oliva
The clues left by two light aircraft
The seizure of a small plane in Guatemala was the first link in a series of investigations that led to a drug trafficking organization linked to Mexico's Sinaloa cartel. The gang sent large quantities of drugs to Mexico and Central America from Manabí, El Oro and Guayas. But a prosecutor, public officials and a judge were also involved in the network.
Guatemalan agents found, on October 8, 2017, 382 packages abandoned in a US-flagged aircraft with registration number N6621. A malfunction had forced the pilot to land on a farm in the Guatemalan department of Jutiapa, and his crew -who had fled- was later captured. The plane came from Ecuador and the pilots were Mexican.
On October 8, 2017, two Mexicans were arrested by Guatemalan police in Jutiapa on drug trafficking charges. They were piloting an aircraft loaded with drugs coming from Ecuador. Photo: Prensa Libre/PNC
These were the packages wrapped in jute sacks found in the small plane that crashed in Guatemala. Photo: Prensa Libre, Hugo Oliva
Two months later, in the Manabita canton of San Vicente, police agents surprised nine people while they were loading 580 kilos of cocaine into a small plane at San Vicente's Los Perales airport. They were Ecuadorians, Colombians and Mexicans. According to the police, the drug traffickers used legal and illegal airstrips in Guayas and Manabí to send the drugs.
It took seven months of investigations to reach these arrests. The police had intercepted the telephones of the gang's leaders; the main one was Robinson A., who was under investigation in the United States for drug trafficking and money laundering. Thus, the agents learned of the drug shipment, on December 2 at 15:00, bound for Mexico. The investigation of this case fell under the responsibility of the San Vicente prosecutor, Angélica V.
While the case progressed, the agents continued to listen to the leaders of the gang. They were not captured in the December operation. A source linked to the investigations told Plan V that they had organized everything by telephone because the leaders "don't get dirty. In the wiretaps, the leaders were asking how they could help the members of their organization who had been captured.
These intercepts were to Robinson A., who operated from Guayaquil, and his right-hand man, Victor Hugo E., who informed him of their efforts to help the detainees. In those conversations, Victor Hugo E. mentioned that they had already "settled with the prosecutor" and that they had supposedly agreed on a payment of US$200,000 for her and US$50,000 for the judge of Criminal Guarantees of Canton Sucre, Ana P.
There were four agreements between the narcos and the judicial operators that - after reviewing the file - were effectively fulfilled, according to the same confidential source. The first: one of the nine arrested in his version was to give the names of two people who would supposedly impersonate those who had hired them.
THE POLICE HAD INTERCEPTED THE PHONES OF THE GANG'S LEADERS; THE MAIN ONE WAS ROBINSON A., WHO IS UNDER INVESTIGATION IN THE UNITED STATES FOR DRUG TRAFFICKING AND MONEY LAUNDERING. THE AGENTS LEARNED OF THE DRUG SHIPMENT ON DECEMBER 2 AT 3:00 P.M., DESTINED FOR MEXICO.
The second: that the prosecutor was going to call these people to testify and that one of them was going to take the blame. This person, later considered by the Prosecutor's Office as a false witness, came forward on his own free will to testify without having been summoned by the prosecutor in the case, something that caused surprise to the agents. In his appearance, accompanied by a lawyer, the witness said that he had hired the detainees. According to his version, the nine people hired did not know it was a drug shipment. In turn, in the wiretaps between the leaders of the gang, the plan also contemplated that the witness would say that he had terminal cancer.
The third point of the plan involved the role of the prosecutor. She was going to reformulate the charges against the defendants with that version. In fact, this happened. The defendants had initially been charged with large-scale drug trafficking (with sentences between 10 and 13 years). But the prosecutor changed the crime to drug production (with sentences between 7 and 10 years). This modification allowed the detainees to take advantage of the abbreviated procedure. This is a figure that can only be used by those accused of crimes with sentences of up to 10 years in prison. Under this modality, the accused accepts the facts and is guaranteed a reduction of at least one third of the sentence. This could result in a sentence of only 3 years. In the case of alias Gerald, known as the Ecuadorian Pablo Escobar with links to Sinaloa, the abbreviated procedure was also used to benefit his gang.
Following the reformulation of the charges, prosecutors from Guayas and police officers undertook Operation Impact 43 between January 30 and 31, 2018. The prosecutor and four officials of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation of Manta and San Vicente were arrested. The latter, according to the police, provided the organization with the logistics for the arrival of several aircraft in broad daylight, supplied with cocaine and sent to Mexico.
Detail of the results of Operation Impact 43. Agents seized two light aircraft and arrested 15 people.
The two leaders were also captured: Robinson A. and Víctor Hugo E., who together with the prosecutor Angélica V. were prosecuted for illicit association. This arrest frustrated the fourth point of the plan: to request the abbreviated procedure for all the defendants. Finally, a new prosecutor in this case requested the nullity of this reformulation.
A judge also involved
Once the prosecutor was arrested, the investigations also targeted the judge who approved the reformulation of the charges against the defendants. Ana P., judge of Criminal Guarantees of Canton Sucre, was called to testify. For the investigators it was strange that the new crime is drug production, which must be justified with the existence of a laboratory or a place where the drug is being produced. But the seized drug was ready to be exported.
In addition, the request for the hearing of reformulation of charges was qualified by the judge the same day it arrived; she also summoned the hearing for the following day. The law mandates that hearings must be notified at least 72 hours in advance. The hearing was summoned for December 22, 2017, the day Ana P. was ending her duties as judge in charge of the Criminal Judicial Unit of Sucre. In her defense at the Prosecutor's Office, she said that she did not know about that file but that her assistant had told her to convene the hearing soon. The assistant denied it, according to the versions in the Prosecutor's Office.
A press conference was held at the Perales airport in San Vicente to report the results of Operation Impact 43.
When the leader of the gang, Robinson A., was arrested, his cell phone was confiscated. It was reviewed by the agents and a WhatsApp conversation between him and his lawye, Xavier N, was found. In these chats there is an image of a napkin that said "300,000, 200,000 PROSECUTOR´S REFORMULATION, 50,000 JUDGE IS TO ACCEPT REFORMULATION AND FOR CHANGE OF THE CRIME, 50,000 subject of links", according to police intelligence sources consulted by Plan V. With this evidence, the Provincial Prosecutor's Office of Guayas requested the linking of the judge, the lawyer Javier N., the secretary of the prosecutor and the lawyer of the false witness, Johanna del P. The lawyer Javier N. denied having offered money to the prosecutor and the judge.
But among the evidence gathered by the Prosecutor's Office are the wiretaps, the expert examinations of the gang leader's phone where chats and photos of the documents sent by the prosecutor Angélica V. to request the change of crime, voice matching reports, a technical report confirming the telephone links between the defendants, a report of financial movements, among others.
ACCORDING TO AN INVESTIGATOR IN THE CASE, ONLY PROSECUTOR ANGÉLICA V. WAS DISMISSED FOR FAILING TO WORK. SHE WAS DISMISSED FOR FAILING TO DO HER JOB, WHILE JUDGE ANA P. IS STILL IN HER OFFICE. THE COUNCIL OF THE JUDICIARY HAS NOT YET RESPONDED TO A REQUEST FOR INFORMATION ON THE MATTER.
Due to the judge's jurisdiction, this case went to the Provincial Court of Guayas. The judge in charge ordered preventive detention against those involved. But the lawyers appealed in the same hearing. "By doing that the judge is obliged to send the process to another chamber of judges of the same Court and they will resolve the appeal. But the appeal does not suspend the pre-trial detention. After the hearing the judge said that she will not sign the orders because the lawyers appealed. The hearing was before a long holiday and after those days the Chief Justice signed the remand. But the President of the Court granted them a bond for US$4,632," said a confidential source who was at the hearing.
The bond is a guarantee that is left before the judge and can be a pledge, a mortgage or money so that the defendant can be released and the judge is sure that the defendant will be present throughout the criminal process. According to an investigator of the case, only the prosecutor Angélica V. was dismissed for not doing her job. While the judge Ana P. remains in her office. Plan V asked the Judiciary Council for information on the employment status of the defendants, but has not yet issued a response. The leaders of the gang Robinson A. and Víctor Hugo E. are in prison.
Sources linked to the investigation, who requested anonymity, maintain that the pressures reached the Judiciary Council and high-ranking officials of that entity allegedly supported the judicial decisions. The judicial system also notes that the preparatory trial hearing was postponed 10 times. Finally, it was held last August 29 in the Court of Justice of Guayas. But on that day the president of the Court, Judge Gabriel Manzur, abstained from continuing to hear the case and sent the file to the Provincial Court of Justice of Manabí. In his resolution, Judge Manzur said: "I must indicate that at the personal criteria of the judge to whom the competence of this process falls, he must observe the presumed nullities that could be present in the development of this process, since the enclosed is unable to declare them due to the fact that I am inhibited from it".
Thus, the file went to the Provincial Court of Justice of Manabí. However, its president, Judge Laura Sabando, also inhibited herself and returned the process to Guayas. "The jurisdiction is located in the city of Guayaquil, where the investigated act was allegedly committed, corresponding to the President of the Provincial Court of Justice of Guayas to substantiate and resolve the present case". The file, of 15 bodies, returned to the Main Port last November 8. So far, a preparatory trial hearing has not yet been convened and this case is about to complete nine months since it was announced as one of the most important anti-drug operations in the country.
Translated by Manuel Novik