MEXICO CITY – A Guatemalan man described by U.S. authorities as Central America's most-wanted drug smuggler was captured by Mexican agents at the capital's airport in an arrest officials here hailed as important for the hemisphere.
Otto Herrera (search), a 39-year-old Guatemalan trucking company boss, did not resist when federal authorities seized him at Mexico City's Juarez International Airport (search) on Wednesday as he met a woman identified as his girlfriend who had arrived on a flight from Guadalajara, Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha said.
Mexico made the arrest at the request of U.S. authorities who had offered a $5 million reward for his capture, Macedo de la Concha said. Herrera faces U.S. charges of drug trafficking and organized crime, as well as similar charges in Guatemala.
Authorities accuse Herrera of building a gang that used a small army of pilots, speedboat operators and truck drivers to move Colombian cocaine through Panama, Guatemala and Mexico en route to U.S. streets.
The gang helped turn Guatemala's sliver of Caribbean coast into a major drug route. The Drug Enforcement Administration says half of the 400 tons of cocaine smuggled through Central America each year passes through Guatemala.
In interviews with The Associated Press, State Department officials had described Herrera as the most-wanted drug smuggler in Central America.
The attorney general said Herrera had been linked to the Cali cartel (search) in Colombia and has cooperated with reputed Mexican kingpin Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, whose drug smuggling syndicate is thought to be based in the resort city of Mazatlan.
"Without a doubt, this is an important arrest for the Mexican government and for the hemisphere," Macedo de la Concha said.
Herrera has been in hiding since last April, when authorities stormed a house they said was owned by one of his associates in an upscale Guatemala City neighborhood and discovered $14.4 million in cash stuffed inside filing cabinets and strongboxes. Police also found weapons in the home, including a pair of grenade launchers.
Macedo de la Concha said that authorities believe the money belonged to the Cali cartel. He said Herrera used contacts in Panama as well as Guatemala and Mexico to move the cartel's cocaine.
Mexican authorities had opened an investigation to determine whether he should face charges in this country, the attorney general said.
In a parallel operation in the resort city of Cancun on Wednesday, federal agents captured three Mexicans suspected of being close Herrera associates, Macedo de la Concha said.
State Department officials said last year that Herrera's thriving smuggling syndicate helped explain why President Bush dropped Guatemala from America's list of allies in the counter-narcotics effort in January 2003. Bush also cited corruption that reached to the highest level of government.
The U.S. government has since restored Guatemala's anti-narcotics affiliation and Washington has said Guatemalan anti-drug efforts improved during the last months of the administration of President Alfonso Portillo, who left office in January, and under his successor, Oscar Berger.
Herrera's alleged career as a drug lord began deep in the Guatemalan countryside, where he grew from a small-time smuggler into the head of a small but powerful gang in a welcoming climate of lax law enforcement.
Los Amates, a sun-scorched town of 70,000 people, is home to Herrera's trucking company and is the center of his alleged drug operation.
In the heart of banana-growing country, the town's muddy streets are clogged with new sports cars. Authorities say the gang's leaders have moved elsewhere, but dozens of farmers-turned-smugglers still live in heavily guarded ranches near the town.
Much of the cocaine arriving in Guatemala comes aboard ships that steam into Puerto Barrios (search), the country's only major Caribbean port, 55 miles north of Los Amates.
Small planes also fly in from South America, landing at heavily guarded clandestine airstrips in the mountains outside town or dropping drug packages to fishing boats in the shallow coastal waters. And speedboats capable of carrying up to a ton of cocaine rendezvous with fishermen.