Investigation reveals vast web of narco trafficker influence of officials, offers details of murders

Dec 16, 2023 | 0 comments

“What the Operation Metastasis investigation revealed was nothing less than the decomposition of Ecuador’s justice system,” Attorney General Diana Salazar said during a lengthy arraignment hearing Thursday night following the arrest of 31 government officials and private practice attorneys.

Ecuador Attorney General Diana Salazar

Among those arrested in raids in seven provinces were the former head of the country’s prison system and the top officer of Ecuador’s judicial council.

According to Salazar, the justice system was being taken over by drug gangs and Mexican cartels. “The corruption involved judges, prosecutors, police officers, prison guards and private lawyers, and others,” she said. “One man, Leandro Norero, was able to manipulate an entire system to do his bidding. Our investigation is continuing, and we will make more arrests and reveal more criminal networks that seek to gain control of our institutions. Norero was not the only one bribing judges and police.”

Norero, described as the most powerful drug trafficker in Ecuador at the time of his October 2022 murder at Cotopaxi prison, was the leader of the Chone Killers, an affiliate of the Mexican Jalisco New Generation cartel. According to a January 2022 police report, Norero aspired to be the “Ecuadorian El Chapo,” a reference to the powerful Mexican drug lord who outsmarted law enforcement for almost two decades. Norero had united three drug gangs, the Chone Killers, Los Tiguerones and Los Lobos, but his inability to reach agreements with two other gangs led to his death.

In addition to former chief of Ecuador’s prison system, Pablo Ramírez, and President of the Judicial Council Wilman Terán, nine judges and eight high-ranking police officials were arrested. The Attorney General’s office said that eight or nine suspects remain at large, the result of a leak prior to Wednesday’s raids.

President of the Judicial Council Wilman Terán is taken into custody.

Among those who posted advance notice of the raids on social media was former president Rafael Correa, who Salazar could be prosecuted for proving a warning to suspects.

Most of the arrests were based on cell phone calls, texts and voice recordings that fill almost 15,000 transcript pages. The transcripts detail how Norero and other criminals bribed officials to escape arrest and be released from prison. In cases where convicts were not released, the records show how they were given preferential treatment, provided weapons and drugs, and protected from rival gangs.

The suspects were paid in cash, real estate and jewelry and provided prostitutes.

The transcripts also provide details of murders carried out by Chone Killers and other gangs and offer clues to the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio. In one phone text, Norero asks his lawyer to get Villavicencio’s home address and cell phone number because he planned to “send the boys for a visit.”

In the murder of Manta Mayor Agustin Intriago in July, records show that Agustin was providing “services and information” to Norero and was killed to keep him quiet.

In another unsolved case, Norero says Rubén Cherres, business associate or former president Guillermo Lasso’s brother-in-law, was killed by the Los Lobos criminal gang over a drug deal gone bad.

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