(AP) — Police and federal agents with cover from helicopters flying overhead raided a large ranch nestled among the mountains of northern Guatemala, not far from the border with Mexico.
Unlike the ranch’s impoverished neighbors, inside authorities found horse stables, a swimming pool, late model vehicles, guns and a still drunk Felipe Diego Alonso, the alleged leader of a smuggling ring that moved migrants from Guatemala north to the United States.
The raid was part of several carried out Tuesday in four Guatemalan provinces against a migrant smuggling ring, for which authorities say they’ve documented $2 million in revenue since 2019.
Alonzo and three others arrested Tuesday were targets of US prosecutors, wanted in connection with the death of a Guatemalan migrant in Texas last year. In total, authorities nabbed 19 alleged members of the smuggling ring.
The arrests came a month after 53 migrants, including 21 Guatemalans, died in a failed smuggling attempt when they were abandoned inside a sweltering trailer in San Antonio, Texas. There was no indication those arrested Tuesday were involved in the San Antonio tragedy.
The extradition of alleged migrant smugglers known as “coyotes” has been rare and these would be the first known cases in Guatemala of smugglers allegedly pursued for the death of a migrant in the United States.
Prosecutions of migrant smugglers in Guatemala have proven exceedingly difficult because migrants are almost never willing to identify or testify against their smugglers. In some cases they hope for another chance to migrate to the United States with the smuggler’s help and in others they are afraid of the smugglers or their organised crime connections.
Some of the detainees were flown to Guatemala City for their initial court appearances.
The arrests come at a time of heightened tensions between Guatemala’s President Alejandro Giammattei and Washington.
The Biden administration has been outspoken in its criticism of perceived backsliding on corruption prosecutions. The US government sanctioned Guatemala’s Attorney General Consuelo Porras, alleging she was an obstacle to anti-corruption work and was now pursuing judges and prosecutors who had worked on corruption cases.
It was the Attorney General’s Office backed by National Police that carried out the raids near the northern town of Huehuetenango at dawn Tuesday.