ZACAPA, Guatemala — Sebastiana Cottón Vásquez had walked into the house of her own accord, accompanied by some of her closest allies. But now she found herself outnumbered and outgunned by her drug trafficking associates.
It was 2008 and Cottón Vásquez was at the ranch of Waldemar Lorenzana, one of Guatemala’s most powerful drug traffickers at the time, to unleash her fury over the $3 million that she knew he’d stolen from her. She had given Don Walde, as she called him, the payment for 400 kilos of cocaine. But the dope never turned up, and now Cottón Vásquez was livid. After they’d screamed at each other on the phone, Don Walde had told her to come to his house to talk it through.
As soon as she walked into his big yellow house in the tiny town of La Reforma, in southeastern Guatemala, Cottón Vásquez—who relayed the incident during her testimony in a Washington, D.C., court—knew she had made a mistake. There were around a hundred armed men at Don Walde’s, spread out in the garden around the veranda where they stood. A helicopter circled overhead.
She arrived with just four of her closest allies: her cousin Max, her son Antonio, a Mexican associate named Lucas, and another employee named Rudy, she said. As they all sat down at a table on the veranda, the armed men closed in, surrounding them.
She was the only woman there.
Don Walde and his colleague Don Juancho both slammed their guns down on the table and pointed at Cottón Vásquez and Lucas, respectively. They then began shouting, jabbing, and pointing, apparently indignant at being accused of stealing. They claimed they had sent the cocaine to her, in hidden truck compartments.
“Every time I moved, whether it was just shifting to get more comfortable in the chair, Don Juancho [a Guatemalan trafficker] would touch his gun,” said Cottón Vásquez.
She got up briefly to go to the bathroom, and to try and let things cool off, but when she came back, her cousin Max took her aside. “Doña Tana, let's get out of here,” he said. (Doña is a respectful form of address for a woman, and Tana is an abbreviation of Sebastiana.)
“Things have gotten ugly,” Max said. “Don Juancho has told me that if you make any moves, any movements, he's going to shoot you.” Don Walde and Rudy were screaming at each other, and when Cottón Vásquez took her seat again, Lucas started kicking her foot under the table. He looked at her and mouthed “Vámonos! Vámonos!” Things were spiraling out of control.
Cottón Vásquez, rarely ruffled, got to her feet calmly. “The big fish has eaten the little fish, and I will figure [it] out,” she said to the men around her. “I'll figure out how to pay that money.”
As the middle-woman between the buyer in Mexico and Don Walde, she now owed her Mexican contact the $3 million he had fronted for the drugs. The men quieted, the tension dispersed. Her tiny group stood up and walked out of Waldemar’s house, unhurt. Neither the cocaine nor the money ever appeared.
The next time Doña Tana saw Don Walde, other than inside the Washington courtroom where she testified against him, was at the home of his brother Eliu, another powerful drug boss. When Waldemar caught sight of her there, he panicked, she remembered.
“Look, Doña Tana, if you're going to do something to me, do it face to face because I'm not going to just stand by for it. We'll see how things turn out for us,” he said to her.
During her testimony in court years later, Cottón Vásquez said she was nonplussed. “So I just smiled and asked him, 'Are you crazy or what?'”
But that smile was anything but reassuring. A photo of Cottón Vásquez from a moment in court shows a woman far more complex, with a smile that was menacing, mocking, and confident rather than joyful. It had a hint of violence. Cottón Vásquez’s smile suggested that she was not to be messed with.
A hardened life with hard men
Cottón Vásquez was not born into the drug trafficking dynasty that she helped run and eventually helped bring down. She began life as an impoverished peasant girl in the town of Malacatán on Guatemala’s shared border with Mexico. She lived in what Guatemala’s anti-narcotics prosecutor Gerson Alegria described as “a key strategic point” in the international drug trade, a major land entry point to Mexico and a key maritime drug route because of the Pacific to the west.
Her life, and the men around her, were hardened. She left school after second grade, but she avoided home.
“My father abused my mother in front of me all the time. [He] was an alcoholic and did not support our family,” Cottón Vásquez told Judge Marcia Cooke during one of her sentencing hearings in Miami in 2015.
When she was 18, Cottón Vásquez told the court, she was abducted by a man who eventually became her husband and the father of her five children. “[He] was a very angry and violent man and very domineering. I lived in fear while he was around,” she said.
When he eventually abandoned her, she began selling contraband to feed her kids. Soon after, she married again, this time a local drug boss. When he was killed, she took over, according to a source from a rival organization who spoke to VICE World News on condition of anonymity. That same source also called Cottón Vásquez a violent hothead. But her defense lawyer William Clay argued to a U.S. judge that geography, more than marriage or temperament, was the main dynamic that brought her into the trafficking world.
“I just want you to understand,” he told the court. “Single mother, all of these problems, a sense of insecurity, economic security and physical security, from having been violated in a country that the State Department calls one of the most dangerous countries in Central America... That's the environment she was in, in a rural area, dominated by very machismo, very bad, violent men.”
Over the years, she developed a deadly reputation in the region. Cottón Vásquez had connections to Digna Valle’s cartel in Honduras and other drug trafficking powerhouses to the south in Colombia and the north in Mexico. She was a frequent face in Culiacan, where she worked with Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s Sinaloa Cartel.
“This is somebody who was known through Guatemala, known through Mexico, as a woman who should be feared because she had the ability to make a lot of things happen,” said U.S. prosecutor Monique Botero during Cottón Vásquez’s sentencing.
Cottón Vásquez was arrested by federal security forces—and subsequently freed for unknown reasons—a number of times in Mexico, according to local media. Much like the cocaine she trafficked, she moved fluidly between San Marcos in Guatemala and Chiapas, the bordering state in Mexico. Hers was the most hands-on of roles, and she was on the front line of the trafficking business. She stored tons of cocaine in her territory and then moved it across the border for her clients.
But she was one node of a network of women in Latin America. Her closest female allies were Marllory Chacón Rossell in Guatemala City and Yaneth Vergara Hernández in Colombia. They were in constant contact, and Cottón Vásquez’s and Vergara Hernández’s text messages would eventually help U.S. law enforcement bring them down.
An $8 million problem
Chacón Rossell, “one of the most prolific narcotics traffickers in Central America,” according to the U.S. Treasury Department, was the antithesis of Cottón Vásquez. She was as sophisticated as Cottón Vásquez was humble, and as strategic as she was violent.
Years before Cottón Vásquez’s ill-fated meeting with Don Walde in the town of La Reforma, Chacón Rossell had her own encounter with the Lorenzana family. But where Cottón Vásquez’s meeting marked a rocky part of her business with the brothers, when Chacón Rossell met them, it marked the start of a beautiful, though relatively short-lived, relationship.
The first night she met Don Walde and his younger brother, Eliu Lorenzana, Chacón Rossell had an $8 million problem sitting on the Honduran border in the form of a ton of cocaine.
The drugs belonged to Vergara Hernández in Colombia, but the deal with a buyer had fallen through. Now, Vergara Hernández and Chacón Rossell needed a new investor, and fast, to get the product moving again. Originally a skilled money launderer, this was her first major drug deal, and a cousin of hers had put her in touch with some of the few people who might be able to help her. Chacón Rossell and her husband were invited, in April 2004, to a finca (ranch) in the Guatemalan department of Izabal (a crucial corridor for cocaine coming up from Honduras), in the tiny town of Playitas.
They were received by Eliu and his wife, referred to simply as “Tavi” in court documents. Don Walde was also there.
“We spoke about the logistics for collecting the cocaine [in Honduras] and delivering the dollars, and the price of the cocaine,” recalled Chacón Rossell years later in court.
As she spoke that night at dinner, Eliu sized her up. His plump face and receding hairline belied his power as one of the country’s most powerful drug bosses, and he was not used to doing business with women. In the Lorenzanas’ circles, women were generally the wives or girlfriends of powerful men, but here things were flipped. Chacón Rossell, sitting next to her husband, Jorge, was the one doing the talking. In her early 30s, with long, light brown hair and fair complexion, she was a world away from the faces Eliu usually negotiated with.
“I don’t know you, but by looking in your eyes, I can tell that I can trust you,” Eliu told Chacón Rossell. The deal was on.
Years later, locals still remember Chacón Rossell, who became a regular in the southern Guatemalan towns of Zacapa and Reforma, doing business. “She was a woman with a big presence and very intimidating because of the kind of people she was surrounded by, and the amount of people,” Juan, a former employee of the Lorenzana mafia, told VICE World News during a reporting trip to Zacapa in March 2021. He asked for his real name not to be used for fear of the consequences of talking about his former bosses.
“[Chacón Rossell] moved with security everywhere. There was always someone at the door,” said Juan.
The protection that Chacón Rossell enjoyed in Guatemala came right from the top—the Guatemalan government.
“Marllory was guarded by the National Police,” said the former cartel employee. “She had three or four cars with her from the Ministry of the Interior—it was security that was assigned to her.”
Chacón Rossell reportedly had a very close relationship with Mauricio López Bonilla, who was Guatemala’s interior minister between 2012 and 2015. He green-lit state protection for her as she moved around the country. The two even met at Chacón Rossell’s house one time in early 2013, according to reports, where she allegedly offered López Bonilla money to protect other drug traffickers.
It’s unclear why López Bonilla protected her. Around the time that he entered power, Chacón Rossell had already begun collaborating with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration after she had been sanctioned in the United States. At that time, López Bonilla was the most important security contact for the United States in Guatemala on security and counter-narcotics. He could have been shielding her on behalf of the DEA, but it’s unclear when he actually knew she was a collaborator. It's likely the DEA kept López Bonilla in the dark about its relationship with her because Chacón Rossell eventually informed on another close ally of his: former Vice President Roxana Baldetti.
Both Baldetti and López Bonilla are now in prison in Guatemala on corruption charges, and once their terms are over, they’re likely to be extradited to face drug trafficking charges in the United States. López Bonilla initially agreed to an interview with VICE World News for the purposes of this article, but when I arrived at the military prison on the outskirts of Guatemala City, he had changed his mind.
Chacón Rossell had more in common with the likes of Baldetti and Bonilla than she did with the Lorenzanas or Cottón Vásquez. Although she had family in rural Chiquimula, she was a middle-class city girl at heart. After finishing high school, she studied psychology for a few years before dropping out and starting some small businesses. She had a head for numbers, and before getting into the logistics of the drug trade, was a money launderer who moved the cash profits from drug deals around the region for her clients.
“Marllory was a very smart and bright person with some very high-level entrepreneurial skills,” remembered Steve Fraga, who was a DEA agent for 30 years who spent a lot of his time investigating drug trafficking in Central America. “I think she was a person who saw some opportunities and took successful advantage of them. She had a business-oriented mindset.”
At the height of her career, the U.S. Treasury accused her of laundering $10 million of drug profits every month. “Marllory Chacón’s drug trafficking activities and her ties to the Mexican drug cartels make her a critical figure in the narcotics trade,” the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control Director Adam J. Szubin said in 2012, when Chacón Rossell was sanctioned.
Her portentous dinner with the Lorenzana brothers that night came about after Vergara Hernández in Medellin reached out to her for help when her original buyer for the cocaine fell through. Vergara Hernández, the third link in that female network, is almost invisible. It seems she worked independently of the major drug trafficking organizations in Colombia when she was in the business, but little is known about her life before that.
It was Chacón Rossell, after selling Vergara Hernández’s dope to the Lorenzanas that night, who subsequently brought Vergara Hernández and Cottón Vásquez together. The three women met to discuss a cocaine deal that eventually led to the arrest of both Vergara Hernández and Cottón Vásquez by the DEA in 2014. Chacón Rossell handed herself in that same year. All three women pleaded guilty, and proved to be fundamental witnesses in bringing down a number of major male drug traffickers, including their former business associates the Lorenzanas in Guatemala.
Even in the courtroom, Don Walde didn’t show the respect Cottón Vásquez thought she deserved. Even as she gave testimony in March 2016—testimony that observers said was fundamental in establishing the violent nature of the Lorenzana brothers—Waldemar mocked her from his seat in the court as she spoke. She was so distracted by it that she complained to the judge that he was laughing at her. The judge backed her up and shut down Waldemar’s mockery.
Cottón Vásquez would have the last laugh. Her testimony and Chacón Rossell’s helped put both Lorenzana brothers away for life. Both women were out of prison by 2019. Vergara Hernández, who also pleaded guilty, was sentenced to 110 months of prison and five years of supervised release in June 2019. She is currently asking for compassionate release.
After she was freed, Chacón Rossell never went home. But Cottón Vásquez’s options were more limited, and sources in Guatemala suggest that she is back in Malacatán.
“If she doesn’t go back to that, what else is she going to do?” said the former employee of a rival cartel. “She doesn’t know anything else.”
Julie Lopez contributed reporting to this story.
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation.