Guatemala City –
When Guatemalan investigators searched the home of the suspected leader of a migrant smuggling gang in the mountains near the Mexican border, they found $51,000 worth of coins, about 100 slot machines and the latest generation vehicles that were purchased with cash.
They arrested David Coronado Pérez and nine others, three of whom were lawyers allegedly helping Guatemalans launder money they received in the United States. In addition to coins, about $200,000 in cash was also seized in the January raids. Coronado denies the allegations.
Guatemalans are paying up to $15,000 to move to the United States, and prosecutors are quick to figure out where that money is going if the illicit business develops. Where villages used to have a local trusted “coyote” to guide migrants, large smuggling rings now rake in many hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
In many cases, investigations begin when the death of a migrant draws the attention of prosecutors.
Coronado became the target when 19 people, including 15 Guatemalan migrants, were killed and burned near the US border in January 2021 – allegedly by ruthless Mexican police officers. Coronado’s organization is accused of smuggling her, and her son Aden is said to have been her leader. from those killed.
Coming to notoriously difficult cases – migrants almost never want to identify their traffickers, even when things are going terribly bad – Stuardo Campo, who heads the Attorney General’s office investigating migrant trafficking.
In November, federal agents destroyed a migrant smuggling ring in Nahuatl, western Guatemala, arresting five people and seizing $256,000. It is a predominantly indigenous region and one of the poorest in the country.
One of the migrants the group brought to the United States was caught by US border patrol. When he was in custody and out of contact, the smugglers took advantage of this and extorted money from the family, telling relatives that he had died and demanding more to get his body back. He was later deported.
“Not only did they buy the latest models of vehicles, but they also bought a bus that they used to transport people,” Campo said.
“When they buy new vehicle models, they do it with cash,” he said. The seller is required by law to report the transaction to the bank and then report it to the bank. This is sometimes the start of an investigation by the authorities.
In December, 55 migrants, including 40 Guatemalans, died in a semi-trailer crash in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, an example of the scale of smuggling. No arrests have been made in Guatemala so far, but investigations are ongoing.
Campo’s office also launched an investigation after smugglers abandoned a semi-trailer on the outskirts of San Antonio on a stormy day in June. 53 migrants aboard the truck were killed, including 21 Guatemalans.
In February, weeks after the raid on Coronado’s home, the Guatemalan Congress reformed the country’s immigration law, extending the prison terms for those who smuggle immigrants from the previous six to eight to ten to 30 years.
The law change was intended to deter smugglers and make the government of President Alejandro Giammattei, which has a strained relationship with the Biden administration over corruption, a willing US partner in managing migration.
Critics said at the time that increasing prison sentences meant little if those responsible rarely came to justice.
Enter Campo’s office.
Police and federal agents raided a farm in northern Guatemala near the Mexican border this month. With helicopters buzzing overhead, agents invented custom SUVs, guns, a swimming pool, and horse stables, where they found a fine breed named the Picasso that cost $100,000.
Felipe Diego Alonzo, the suspected gangster arrested in that raid, said he was just an onion grower who occasionally sold cars. Again, the death of a migrant allegedly smuggled by Alonzo’s ring caught the attention of investigators, this time including the US Department of Homeland Security.
Marta Raymundo Corrio was found dead near Odessa, Texas in early 2021 after being smuggled through Mexico. Campo said the woman died in a warehouse due to lack of food and water and her relatives have asked officials to determine what happened.
Alonzo and three others were arrested at the request of the US government, which is seeking their extradition.
Trafficking rings often use a network of relatives or close associates. Like many illegal ventures, they dump their profits back into businesses in the dark corners of the economy that operate primarily with elusive cash – brothels, gambling, bars and loan sharks.
Big cash purchases are also common for things like new cars, Campo said.
“Most of these structures launder money,” Campo said.
Coronado’s attorney, César Calderón, said his client was innocent and his slot machine business was legal. Calderón said Coronado was a farmer, not a smuggler, and a victim himself because his son was among those killed in Mexico.
But earlier this year, Campo told the court the tragedy, which also killed five minors, didn’t stop Coronado’s business.
“After that incident, it was documented that they smuggled two other groups, including three minors,” he said.