Release of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel boss raises fears of revenge

Héctor Luis “El Güero” Palma Salazar, a longtime associate of infamous crime boss El Chapo, may soon walk free. He has several unsettled scores that are already troubling the authorities

Héctor Luis Palma Salazar during his arrest in 2016.
Héctor Luis Palma Salazar during his arrest in 2016.Secretarías de Estado / Secretarías de Estado

The imminent release of one of the most senior figures of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel is resurrecting the prospect of a wave of revenge, including over the historic murder of his wife and children. Héctor Luis Palma Salazar, also known as El Güero Palma, may soon be free to walk the streets once again after an unexpected court decision acquitted him of organized crime charges. Palma is still being held in custody pending a 40-day investigation, but should he be released after that time, many key figures from his past will be living in fear. Jailed since 1995, El Güero worked by El Chapo’s side in the 1990s, sharing the same personal vendettas and eventually doing jail time with Mexico’s most infamous drug lord.

At 80 years old, El Güero still has the capacity to shock. The government immediately alerted the country’s 32 state prosecutors’ offices after learning of his acquittal on May 1, and also asked the foreign ministry to check if Palma was still wanted for outstanding crimes abroad. The authorities are desperate to avoid a repeat of the case of Rafael Caro Quintero, another drug lord released in 2013 after a controversial court ruling who is still wanted for the 1985 murder of a US Drugs Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent. The founder of the Guadalajara cartel in the 1980s had been in prison for 28 years and still had more than a decade left to serve. He has caused mayhem ever since his release.

In Palma’s case, some of his unfinished business is deeply personal. In the 1990s, when the Guadalajara cartel was waning in power and the then-new Sinaloa empire was on the rise, other criminal groups were jostling for space in a crowded field. The Arellano-Felix brothers, bosses of the rival Tijuana cartel, were trying to gain control of the western border and decided to plant a hitman in the tight circle of power that ran the Sinaloa cartel. The hitman gained the confidence of Palma’s wife, Guadalupe Leija Serrano, and became her lover. Eventually, he murdered her and sent her head to her husband in a refrigerated box.

That was not the end of it. A week later, El Güero received another macabre message in the form of a videotape of his two children, Nataly, 4, and Hector, 5, being thrown off a 150-meter tall bridge in Venezuela. They are all buried in a huge complex at the Jardines de Humaya cemetery in Culiacan, Sinaloa, depicted as angels on a fresco with toys and dolls left around their tombs in tribute.

The Sinaloan response to the murders was also swift and savage. The hitman, a Venezuelan named Rafael Clavel Moreno, was murdered, as were his three children and three other Venezuelan accomplices found dismembered in a ditch. The Tijuana cartel’s lawyer and four of the Arellano family members were also killed. The vendetta lasted at least five years, and it is still unclear how many lives were lost, or if the score was ever settled.

The threat of a new vendetta

The Tijuana cartel is now considered virtually extinct following the death and/or incarceration of its members. But an unexpected new twist could resurrect the old rivalry, as Eduardo Arellano, one of the brothers who founded the clan, could also soon be back on the streets. He has been in jail in the United States since 2013, but “El Doctor”, as he is known, has managed to reduce his sentence and will be released this summer after cooperating with the DEA.

Palma’s journey through the prison system began in 1995 when he was on his way to a wedding in Guadalajara and the plane he was travelling in crashed. He was wounded but took refuge in a house in Zapopan, close to Guadalajara, under the protection of a commander in the Mexican Federal Judicial Police. He was arrested while convalescing in bed and spent five years in Puente Grande prison, in Mexico’s Jalisco state. His old comrade from his young days as a carjacker in Culiacán was also doing time: El Chapo. Palma was then extradited to the United States, where he stayed until his release for good behavior in 2016.

His release after nine years in the high-security Atwater prison in California rang the same kind of alarm bells as his most recent chance for freedom. When he crossed the border into Mexico, army and naval officers were waiting for him. He was wanted for the murder of a deputy police commander and his escort who were under Palma’s control but switched sides to support the Tijuana cartel. On May 18, 1995, in the town of Trigomil, their bodies were found inside their white Chevrolet pickup truck, their faces pulverized by more than 20 bullets.

Despite his good behavior during his long years in prison, psychological tests declassified by the US authorities after his release in 2016 portray El Güero as someone with low social empathy and high criminal capacity. He never spoke of the grisly murder of his wife and children, the documents show. If his release is confirmed, the old capo will have the chance to demonstrate whether he has left the past behind him, or whether he has been biding his time for further revenge.

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