Twenty years ago, the United States patiently prepared a punishment for Waldemar Lorenzana Lima, one of the most prominent drug traffickers in Guatemala. But in 2015, the case against him fell down like a house of cards.
On August 18, 2014, Lorenzana Lima pleaded guilty to conspiring to traffic cocaine from 1996 until at least 2009 between Colombia and Mexico, while knowing that the drugs were destined for the United States. According to estimates from witnesses and the prosecutor’s office, Lorenzana Lima and his children trafficked multiple tons of cocaine. One conservative estimate, based on information from witnesses, indicates that just between 1988 and 2002 they trafficked $1.8 billion worth of drugs (in Guatemala), and earned at least $207 million for the storage and protection of drug shipments.
Up until last December, Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly had to decide on a prison sentence of between five and 40 years for Lorenzana Lima. The prosecutor’s office favored a minimum sentence of 27 years. However, after a preliminary diagnosis of Alzheimer’s in February, and another in April, Lorenzana Lima’s fate could change course.
At 75 years old, Lorenzana Lima could: 1) be released from prison after a period of hospitalization, without being sentenced; 2) be admitted to a special clinic for the duration of his sentence; 3) receive a prison sentence of anywhere between five and 40 years, if it is established he has recovered his mental faculties. His lawyers say this is unlikely.
In April, four years after his capture in Guatemala, Manuel Gutierrez, a forensic psychologist at a prison in Butner, North Carolina, concluded that Lorenzana Lima “possibly suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.” In addition, Gutierrez determined that “he was not competent to be sentenced.”
Gutierrez explained that Lorenzana Lima’s condition impeded him from rationally understanding the legal process against him and from collaborating with his defense lawyers, who were in agreement with the ruling. One of the lawyers, Eduardo Balarezo, said that his client did not object to these conclusions. Nor did the prosecutor’s office, although it noted that once Lorenzana Lima had pleaded guilty, it was irrelevant whether or not the defendant could cooperate with his lawyers.
The judge asked Perez if Lorenzana Lima had some type of mental health problem, knowing that he had spoken with his client in the days and hours prior to the hearing. “No, your Honor,” Perez answered.
The lawyers asked for the evaluation of Lorenzana Lima’s mental state just weeks before his sentencing hearing in Washington DC. During a hearing last February 18, lawyer Joaquin Perez said that “his client did not recognize him” when he had visited him days earlier, even though he had represented Lorenzana Lima for almost one year. As InSight Crime reported that day, Lorenzana Lima “waddled” into the courtroom, “in a bright orange prison jumpsuit with an unshaven, expressionless face.”
An Unexpected Mental Deterioration
According to court files, Lorenzana Lima showed no mental problems in 2014. On June 9, 2014, psychologist Elizabeth Teegarden, from the District of Columbia Department of Health, declared him “mentally competent” to understand the accusations against him. Later, when he pleaded guilty on August 18 — five months after his extradition to the United States — he seemed to be healthy, according to a case document.
“Have you ever received treatment for any type of mental illness or emotional problem?” the judge asked Lorenzana Lima.
“No, no, no, no, never,” Lorenzana Lima said.
The document explains that one part of his response was incomprehensible, but that he ended it by saying, “for the love of god.”
The judge asked Perez if Lorenzana Lima had some type of mental health problem, knowing that he had spoken with his client in the days and hours prior to the hearing. “No, your Honor,” Perez answered. But the defense told the judge he had had difficulties explaining to his client that he couldn’t plead guilty and maintain that all of the drug trafficking operations had occurred behind his back. The judge told Lorenzana Lima it was either one or the other. After a short consultation with his lawyer, Lorenzana Lima said that he was aware of everything, but that his sons had managed the drug business, not him. This came after he had found out that his children had wanted to trick him and hide drug profits from him, according to one witness.
In January, the court requested that the forensic psychologist Teresa Grant run another psychiatric evaluation. The prosecutor’s office noted in court document 555 that they did not know if the judge or the defense lawyer had petitioned for the evaluation. But Dr. Grant’s report led to a dead-end. The specialist said that it was impossible to form an opinion with respect to the mental competency of the defendant, and recommended further evaluations. That is why in February, Judge Kollar-Kotelly suspended the sentencing hearing to be held on March 24 until further notice, and solicited another evaluation for Lorenzana Lima. That additional evaluation was the test given by Gutierrez in the North Carolina prison, where Lorenzana Lima was being held.
In April, Gutierrez confirmed that “the defendant suffers from a mental illness or defect which renders him incompetent.” Balarezo requested that his client remain in North Carolina. “Given his age and condition, Mr. Lorenzana and his supply of medicines, would be better monitored in Butner, which is noted for its ability to provide special care for individuals with behavioral problems,” the lawyer said.
On April 27, the judge ordered neuropsychological tests for Lorenzana Lima in order to verify Gutierrez’ diagnosis. Although Lorenzana Lima was ordered to remain in Butner, the Federal Bureau of Prisons registry reveals that he was sent to Federal Correctional Institution, Petersburg Medium, a medium-security prison In Hopewell, Virginia.
On May 18, prosecutors and defense attorneys had to present additional arguments with respect to what should be done with Lorenzana Lima. The prosecutor’s office insisted that a defendant that has pleaded guilty can be incarcerated under special care. The defense opposed this argument.
A Window for Lorenzana Lima’s Release
Judge Kollar-Kotelly announced that if Lorenzana Lima did not improve, the sentencing hearing would remain in suspension. She also announced that the specialists in the prison in Butner had until August 27 to “prepare a psychiatric or psychological report” to determine the following: 1) if the defendant suffers from a mental illness or defect that upon being released, would make him physically dangerous to other people; 2) if he suffers from some mental illness or defect in which he must be admitted to a special clinic for treatment, instead of receiving a prison sentence.
But the Criminal Division of the US Department of Justice doesn’t believe it. Prosecutors fear that admitting a defendant with mental problems to a clinic without a sentence “would incentive him to reject medicines in the hope of avoiding a sentence, and his term in prison or a nursing home,” page 13 of court document 555 reads. The prosecutors believe that “the defendant would be less likely to take these actions if he knows that it could bring a provisional sentence longer than that which he would receive under normal conditions.”
In February, when the preliminary diagnosis of Alzheimer’s was released, case document 538 reveals that “the defendant has been prescribed medicines, to which it appears he has responded well, [but] he has also rejected numerous medical evaluations offered to him while he has been in custody.”
Nonetheless, in a separate document, Balarezo said that “the attempt by the prosecutor’s office to suggest that Mr. Lorenzana could fake his condition in order to avoid his sentence, and jail, shows the [prosecutor’s] lack of understanding surrounding the nature of this illness and is particularly offensive for those who suffer from Alzheimer’s.” But when the defense blamed prosecutors for wanting the court to sentence an old man with Alzheimer, prosecutors responded that if there had been no legal fight against his extradition in Guatemalan courts, Lorenzana Lima would have been sentenced much earlier.
The court document identifies the witnesses that explained how Lorenzana operated his drug business only as Witness One, Witness Two, and Witness Three, and that they pleaded guilty and are serving prison sentences in the United States for drug trafficking. The document reveals that witnesses Two and Three grew up with Lorenzana Lima’s children, and that Two operated a web that smuggled drugs between South America and Central America or Mexico, and that the witness was a cocaine supplier. This profile has many similarities to that of Otto Herrera Garcia and his brother, Guillermo, who also served prison sentences for drug trafficking in the United States. Otto Herrera served from 2007 to 2013 (he spent the first six months in a prison in Colombia, where he was captured) and Guillermo Herrera until 2003, according to the only public registry available.
The seizure of $14 million and important documents in a house rented under the name of Herrera in Guatemala City in April 2003 perhaps led to his capture in 2004 in Mexico, where he escaped from a maximum-security prison one year later. In the years that followed Herrera’s recapture in Colombia in 2007, the dominoes began to fall for the Lorenzanas. In 2009, prosecutors formally accused Lorenzana and requested his capture in Guatemala, which led to various unsuccessful operations in the eastern city of Zacapa. In April 2011, Lorenzana Lima was finally captured, and in November, his son, Eliu Lorenzana Cordon, was also arrested. In September 2013, his other son, Waldemar, was captured. Waldemar Jr. was extradited last November. Eliu was extradited in April. The sons are facing the same charges as their father, before the same court.
Waldemar Lorenzana Cordon, who was in charge of storing drug shipments, was the only son that Lorenzana Lima mentioned by name when he said in 2014 that his sons were the drug traffickers, not him. Nevertheless, Witness One assured that another brother, Haroldo Lorenzana Cordon, told him that Eliu distributed the cocaine to the rest of the family, including his father, and that he bought it from Witness Two.
If the judge declares Lorenzana Lima incompetent to be sentenced, despite the revelations of the witnesses, his incarcerated sons have no lifeline to save themselves — unless they inform on others and declare themselves guilty. One source with access to the Lorenzana circle says that his children who remain fugitives continue trafficking, and that Haroldo Lorenzana Cordon already announced that he would not even think about stepping one foot inside a US prison, and that he would prefer to die in a shootout, yelling at police: “Long live coca, because we all live off it!”
Haroldo, who according to Witness One once wanted to be like his father, no longer wants to look in that mirror: dressed in orange and reduced to sleeping on a bunk bed in prison, or in a nursing home surrounded by the mentally ill in the United States, or perhaps free, a deportee with an empire in ruins. Now, Lorenzana Lima’s fate is in the hands of forensic psychologists and a judge. In the next four months, Judge Kollar-Kotelly must decide if the punishment that the United States reserved for Lorenzana Lima has already expired.