GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - U.S. and Guatemalan agents captured Guatemala’s top drug trafficker on Wednesday as the United States pitches in to help curb drug cartels’ expanding reach in Central America.
Soldiers and police in helicopters swooped into Guatemala’s second largest city, Quetzaltenango, and arrested Juan Ortiz-Lopez in his home, where he appeared to be only lightly guarded by two men, the Guatemalan interior ministry said.
Ortiz-Lopez, 41, is considered Guatemala’s most important drug smuggler by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, an indictment by a U.S. prosecutor said.
Heavily armed agents landed at the air force base in Guatemala City with Ortiz-Lopez, handcuffed and wearing a leather jacket, and escorted him and two bodyguards to court.
The suspects are accused of smuggling tonnes of cocaine through Guatemala to Mexico and the United States over the past decade, according to the U.S. indictment.
“This is the capture of a big fish,” Guatemala’s Interior Minister Carlos Menocal told a news conference.
He said Ortiz-Lopez and his associates were likely to be extradited to the United States.
Ortiz-Lopez’s capture follows the arrest in October of his henchman, Mauro Solomon, in another joint operation as Washington tries to stop Guatemala from being sucked deeper into Mexico’s drugs wars.
Guatemala is struggling to prevent Mexican cartels from destabilizing parts of the country, a poor but democratic U.S. trading partner and a major coffee and sugar exporter.
Officials worry that Central America’s weak governments do not have the capacity to contain the spreading threat of cartels as their armies and police are no match for gangs equipped with rocket launchers and semi-automatic weapons.
President Barack Obama announced $200 million in fresh funds for the drug fight in Central America this month during a trip to neighboring El Salvador. Until now, most U.S. aid is for Mexico, where turf wars between the gangs have killed more than 36,000 people over the past four years.
Reporting by Mike McDonald in Guatemala City and Kevin Gray in Miami; writing by Robin Emmott. Editing by Christopher Wilson