By Katherine Corcoran, Associated Press
On a steamy, late-summer day near the Salvadoran coast, more than 100 police working an intelligence tip scoured a near-vacant cattle ranch the size of 42 Manhattan blocks.
Using probes and backhoes, they unearthed two plastic storage drums packed with U.S. dollars. It took three days to count the $20s, $50s and $100s — which added up to more than $10 million. A third barrel was excavated a week later from beneath a patio in an upscale San Salvador suburb, for a total of $14.5 million.
Though questions remain, the stash may be Mexican drug cartel money. One of the two Guatemalan ranch owners allegedly had ties to the leader of a Guatemalan branch of Mexico’s Gulf Cartel, who is serving a 31-year sentence for drug trafficking in the U.S.
Mexican drug cartels now operate virtually uninhibited in their Central American backyard. U.S.-supported crackdowns in Mexico and Colombia have only pushed traffickers into a region where corruption is rampant, borders lack even minimal immigration control and local gangs provide a ready-made infrastructure for organized crime.
“The cartels are clear on the possibilities for using El Salvador as a place to launder money or to transport it south to pay for their drugs,” National Police deputy director Howard Cotto told The Associated Press in an interview.
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