DON’T CRY FOR HIM

Argentina’s Most Bad-Ass Drug Boss Might Finally Be Out of Action

It took almost two decades and three previous arrests, but it looks like ‘Marcos’ may finally be in jail for good.

BUENOS AIRES—Like most drug bosses, Marco Antonio Estrada González (known as “Marcos”) enjoyed a lavish lifestyle. The native of Peru ran his operations from a mansion in a luxury housing complex on the outskirts of Buenos Aires right under the nose of former Argentine security minister Alejandro Granados, who, they say, just happened to be his neighbor.

On humid summer days, Marcos would have a poolside lounge chair as his office. Other times, he could make phone calls from the plush red couch in his porcelain-cat-adorned living room. If anyone who visited forgot who was in charge, a table with legs in the shape of a silver “M” would remind them that they answered to Marcos.

This upscale lifestyle all came to a halt—perhaps for good this time—on Dec. 16, when special police forces raided the kingpin’s home to arrest him and his wife.

However, it’s not the first time Marcos has faced criminal charges.

Marcos, 53, was sentenced to 10 years in prison less than four years ago, his third conviction for drug trafficking. But weaknesses in the Argentine criminal justice system have meant lenient sentencing. His three previous sentences were reduced first by a system similar to a plea bargain and later for “good behavior.”

In fact, the power struggle between the drug boss and Argentine authorities goes back 18 years, a reign of nearly two decades that has taken a catastrophic human toll on the neighborhood where he operates as opposed to the one where he lived.

***

The Marcos arrest was the result of seven years compiling information on the Peruvian drug lord. An investigation led by Judge Sergio Torres, who specializes in drug trafficking, began collecting intelligence on Marcos in 2009, according to a source close to the case who asked to remain anonymous for legal reasons.

The final result was 65 raids, where 23 people were detained along with weapons and ammunition, marijuana, cocaine, the cheap drug paco made from cocaine paste, plus cellphones and cash.

The operation’s goal is disruption of the drug market in Villa 1-11-14, one of the poorest and most dangerous slums in Buenos Aires, where Marcos has ruled almost unchallenged since the 1990s.

Among dilapidated buildings and cracked sidewalks, Marcos built his mini-empire, according to a report by Jorge Rodriguez, former investigator for the Ministry of Security. Once vocal in the press, Rodriguez no longer speaks to media out of fear for his life, according to Gustavo Vera, director of La Alameda, the organization that published the report and who corroborated the information it provided for The Daily Beast.

In Villa 1-11-14 Marcos has an army of up to 300 “soldiers” to carry out his orders, including torturing and killing those who cross him. Armed with AK-47s and Uzis, Marcos’s gang rules a stretch of up to 15 blocks where the police don’t dare enter. This has allowed Marcos to expand his operations to production, running an estimated 10 cocaine labs in the neighborhood.

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The business has come at a human cost for those in Villa 1-11-14. Drug addiction plagues the neighborhood and residents live in fear of sporadic shoot-outs.

Marcos’s reign in Villa 1-11-14 began in February 1999 when the budding narco took control of the neighborhood with a show of force. Soon after arriving in Argentina from Peru, Marcos and his business partners, brothers Esidio Teobaldo (“Meteoro”) and Alionzo Rutillo Ramos Mariños (“Ruti”), began plotting their takeover.

At that time, a Paraguayan, Julio Chamorro Revollar, ruled the drug trafficking operation in the shantytown.

During a friendly match at what was known as the “Paraguayan Soccer Field,” the three Peruvians ambushed and shot Chamorro Revollar and his two bodyguards according law enforcement officials and residents, although the three Peruvians were never convicted for those murders.

It wasn’t long before police and investigators figured out who the new bosses were in Villa 1-11-14. In 2001, Marcos and his two partners were arrested on suspicion of drug trafficking and were sentenced to three and a half years in prison.

While they were there, the alliance between the Peruvian partners fell apart, and when Marcos was released, he saw an opportunity to take full control of the barrio. He betrayed his partners, starting a small drug war that resulted in more than 20 deaths.

As revenge, friend-turned-foe Ruti hatched a plan to assassinate Marcos at a religious procession in 2005, based on a tip from a loyal followers who had infiltrated Marcos’s organization.

But the drug boss never showed up to the procession. Ruti and his sicarios instead shot 13 people and killed five, including a baby, in what became known locally as the “Masacre del Señor de los Milagros.”

Ruti was no longer a threat to Marcos after his conviction for those murders. His brother Meteoro, Marcos’s other partner, was killed in 2006. The brothers’ demise ensured Marcos had the power to charge forward with his operations.

It wasn’t long before Marcos once again gained the attention of authorities. In 2007, a federal judge ordered a special operation to arrest Marcos in his three-story apartment in Villa 1-11-14. The drug boss fled to Paraguay, but was soon captured by authorities and brought back to Buenos Aires where he was sentenced.

While Marcos was serving time for his second sentence, investigators noticed something peculiar during an operation in Villa 1-11-14. The trafficking business in the neighborhood seemed eerily similar to when Marcos was a free man.

Some of that could have been coincidental: a lookout system with bells to notify the gang when the cops were coming, and roadblocks in key streets to block police cruisers.

But there were other signs that seemed like more than just a coincidence. The bags of marijuana, paco, and cocaine were all packaged in the same way Marcos always packaged them: marijuana in blocks, paco in bags with a black ribbon, and cocaine in bags with a red ribbon. Teams of vendors were stationed at the same posts following the same pattern, one sells, another counts money, and an armed “soldier” keeps watch a block away. A confiscated accounting book showed the same nicknames for members of the organization.

The drug operation in Villa 1-11-14 was all happening in broad daylight, as evidenced by a video taken by an undercover police officer and shown to The Daily Beast. Not only did it appear that Marcos was still running his business from prison; he was so bold he didn’t try to hide it.

***

In 2009, investigators got their next big breakthrough: an accountant for Marcos’s operation who was willing to talk. He corroborated details investigators already suspected. Most importantly, he confirmed that Marcos was still the head of the organization.

As Argentine anti-drug operations adapted and evolved, the case against Marcos grew. A special prosecutor’s office was created in 2013 to dismantle trafficking networks, and that same year Marcos was convicted again. But he only served a short part of his sentence. He was released under a set of conditions that included promising to never engage in drug trafficking.

Not surprisingly, investigators found Marcos never intended to complete that promise.

Finally on Dece. 16, 2016, after years of compiling data on the Peruvian, prosecutors had what they thought they needed to make another arrest.

Drug bosses are often like shooting stars, flickering brightly until they unexpectedly burn out. Marcos’s power appears to be dwindling. Law enforcement watches his every move and he has racked up his fair share of enemies throughout the years.

Marcos is now being held at Complejo Penitenciario II, where he is just an arm’s length from his enemies’ reach. He requested a transfer to the prison where he was previously held to be closer to his family. It’s the same prison where Marcos is believed to have won control through bribes. But sources tell the Argentine newspaper Clarín it is unlikely he will be transferred this time around.

The 53-year-old now awaits trial. In the case of Argentina’s most infamous drug kingpin, the fourth time may be the charm.