A Guatemalan recently accused of laundering money for Honduran criminal network the Valles has a curious backstory: he previously served time in the US, and apparently returned to Guatemala to become a major operator in the cash smuggling trade.
Ruben Arita Rivera, a Guatemalan national arrested on March 19 in the southern department of Chiquimula for money laundering, is no novice when it comes to organized crime. Rivera left a US prison four years earlier, after completing a sentence for drug trafficking in New York.
Guatemala's Attorney General's Office links him to the seizure of $2.2 million in May 2014, and to a 30-kilo shipment of cocaine seized in the eastern department of Zacapa last February.
An unofficial report says that US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents participated in his recent arrest in Guatemala, and that Arita was still on parole when he was captured. Nevertheless, the US Embassy in Guatemala did not confirm this. The US Embassy's spokesperson, Maureen Mimnaugh, said that the United States does not have an extradition request for Arita, according to the DEA office. As of March 19, the United States did not have any pending legal proceedings against Arita, but he is now once again on their radar.
In 2008, Arita and other suspects conspired to distribute 500 grams of cocaine in New York, according to court documents from the Southern District of New York. According to one document, Arita received a package of cocaine in Spring Valley, New York, on March 5, 2008, the day of his capture. Despite the evidence against him, Arita (who hired a public defender) pleaded not guilty. But on January 12, 2009, after an abbreviated judicial procedure, he changed his plea.
The judge Stephen C. Robinson sentenced Arita to 37 months in prison. The time he spent incarcerated while awaiting trial was counted as part of his sentence. He was supposed to leave prison on April 5, 2011, but documents from the Federal Bureau of Prisons show that he was freed on November 10, 2010. He was 44 years old (although Guatemalan police claim that is his current age, as of 2015). The New York court recommended three years of parole, starting when he was released from prison.
During his three years on parole, Arita was prohibited from possessing a firearm, and had to provide DNA samples to his parole officer. Other demands required Arita to have a permanent, legal job, and not be in places where illicit drugs were distributed, consumed, used, or sold. He was also prohibited from having relationships with people involved in illegal acts, according to another court document.
Almost one and a half years after completing his parole in the US, Arita returned to his criminal past in Guatemala, and is now accused of laundering millions.
Arita had to submit his house, car, and workplace to searches if there was “reasonable suspicion” that he had violated the terms of his parole. If deported, he could not return to the United States without the authorization of the Attorney General's Office, as is the case with all foreigners who are convicted of drug trafficking.
The court ordered Arita to pay the minimum fine of $100, and authorities would exempt him from paying additional fines given his inability to pay (in the end he only paid $25 in additional fees).
But almost one and a half years after completing his parole in the US, Arita returned to his criminal past in Guatemala, and is now accused of laundering millions. In 2015, the Public Ministry linked him to money laundering, an activity that allowed him to handle much larger quantities of cash that the $25 he paid to the New York District Court. At least, that is what the Guatemalan prosecutor's office for money laundering believes. The office has linked Arita to the transit of $2.2 million into the hands of Guatemalan national Flavio Dimas Rojas in 2014. He has also been linked to a $360,000 drug shipment, transported by Jose Guillermo Maderos and Carlos Fermin Perez last February.
The Charges Against Arita in Guatemala
Guatemalan authorities link Arita to the Valle Valle criminal organization in Honduras, which the United States accused of drug trafficking in August 2014. In October, Honduran police captured Jose Reynerio, Miguel Arnulfo and Luis Alonso Valle Valle. Their sister, Digna Azucena, was also arrested for drug trafficking in the United States. According to an unofficial source, the Valles worked with the Lorenzana family, a Guatemalan drug trafficking group, in Zacapa. However, it is unclear what the status of this working relationship was after the capture of three members of both organizations between 2011 and 2013.
The Attorney General's Office has tied Arita to an illicit network that moves money from the department of Chiquimula to Huehuetenango and later on to Mexico. This is a noteworthy smuggling route because in 2012, the prosecutor's office for money laundering revealed that cash is moved north to south -- from Mexico to Guatemala -- and eventually on to Panama and Colombia.
Arita's network essentially operated in reverse, according to authorities. Nevertheless, there is at least one other case in which this south-to-north money trafficking route has been observed -- however, it does not end in Mexico, but in the United States.
This case also involved a Guatemalan national. Between 2003 and 2007, a prosecutor in Florida documented how a network co-led by Otto Roberto Herrera Garcia collected cash in Mexico (for the Sinaloa Cartel) and sent it via currency exchange offices to a bank in Florida and a Bank of America in Oklahoma City. The goal: buy planes in the United States, send them to Colombia and Venezuela, and use them to ship cocaine to Guatemala and Mexico.
There are still suspicions that the $14 million found in April 2003 -- in a house that Herrera was renting in Guatemala City -- was supposed to be sent to Mexico, not to South America, as authorities believed at the time. There is no public information on where the cash Arita managed was ultimately supposed to end up, but there are similarities between his case and Herrera's.
The Town of Chanmagua Under the Spotlight
Police officials captured Arita in the town of Chanmagua, in the department of Chiquimula, close to the border with Honduras. It is not a place that is frequently mentioned in the press. It appeared in a few media reports in November 2012, when police seized a contraband cigarette shipment in the area. That same year, an ex-police officer and private investigator revealed that the town was a sales point for contraband firearms, especially assault rifles that arrived from Mexico via Belize.
The red point shows where Arita was arrested in Guatemala
In addition, on January 24, 2012, Guatemalan newspaper Siglo XXI described Chanmagua as a “place for weapons and drug trafficking." The newspaper also reported a multiple homicide case had taken place there, citing witnesses who said that six heavily-armed assassins burned a vehicle with Honduran license plates in Chanmagua, and later moved the dead bodies to Honduras.
The testimonies state that police who arrived at the scene found only the scorched vehicle. Later, the Ministry of the Interior indicated that it found no evidence an assasination had taken place there. The murders reportedly occurred on the road headed towards Chanmagua, which eventually takes you to San Fernando Ocotepeque, a border crossing in Honduras.
If Arita is an associate of the Valle Valles -- in addition to allegedly being involved in money laundering and drug trafficking -- it is unsurpising that authorities captured him in Chanmagua, according to the Attorney General's Office. An unofficial source affirmed that, despite recent arrests, the Valle Valles are still actively trafficking cocaine with their Guatemalan partners. Now, whether Arita will receive the same benevolence in Guatemala as he did in New York depends on whether or not the authorities are able to prove the charges against him.
*This article was originally published in Plaza Publica and was translated, edited, and reprinted with permission. See the Spanish original here.