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2011-10-03

Colombia, Central America Record Huge Drug Seizures

Guatemalan soldiers guard a street in downtown Coban, capital of the northern department of Alta Verapaz and the scene of recent drug-related killings. [Jorge Lopez/Reuters]

Guatemalan soldiers guard a street in downtown Coban, capital of the northern department of Alta Verapaz and the scene of recent drug-related killings. [Jorge Lopez/Reuters]

By Jamie Dettmer

Colombian authorities have scored notable successes against one of the country’s most powerful drug traffickers, Daniel “El Loco” Barrera. The latest victory came in mid-September, when four different networks were targeted in Bogotá, Cali, Barranquilla and Villavicencio.

Those coordinated operations netted 36 suspects, including “four big shots,” said the head of Colombia’s National Police, Gen. Oscar Naranjo. Police also seized 21 light aircraft and submarines used to transport drugs to Central America.

Police spokesmen acknowledged that they got help from an informant, but some independent analysts — noting the scale and reach of the police successes — suggest that either the informant is highly placed or that the intelligence penetration is broader than just one informant.

El Loco, who remains at large, is the most notorious of a new generation of Colombian traffickers vying to replace the North of Valle and Cali cartels, both of which were successfully dismantled by authorities. The heart of El Loco’s organization is in Colombia's eastern plains, but his networks are spread nationwide and he transports cocaine along both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, the Colombian police said.

El Loco’s cartel has been one of the most aggressive in using semi- and fully submersible drug submarines to move loads of drugs by sea. Without sonar radar, the subs are hard to detect. Naranjo exuded confidence when talking to reporters about the September operations and claimed that the capture of El Loco — who he said was working with Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel — was all but inevitable.

Panama busts major cocaine operation

Colombia isn’t the only country that’s seen recent success in fighting transnational drug cartels. In neighboring Panama, that country’s drug prosecutor, Javier Carabello, announced that a major cocaine trafficking organization had been broken up, resulting in the arrests of 80 Panamanians and Colombians across the country. Carabello said the group was led by alleged

Colombian drug trafficker Jorge Indalecio Marmolejo and reportedly moved more than 18 tons of drugs in the past year and a half through the Caribbean.

But even though Central American governments are making inroads against drug traffickers, the challenges remain overwhelming. Those challenges were outlined by Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom, who — in a recent interview with BBC — warned about the expansion of Mexican drug cartels into his country.

Colom said Los Zetas controls “seven or eight provinces — 35 to 40 percent of our territory.” Independent observers agree. Samuel Logan, a regional security analyst, said Los Zetas and other cartels control the northern third of Guatemala.

One of the biggest concerns are the alliances that are forming between transnational drug cartels and the street gangs, or “maras”, that sell drugs at the retail level as well as carry out robberies, kidnappings and extortion.

Carlos Menocal, Guatemala’s interior minister, said the cartels are supplying the maras with more modern weapons. In September, he was quoted in a report by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars as saying that “two and a half years ago, we could tell that the maras were still using makeshift rifles. Now they use AK-47s, Galils, AR-15s, machine guns with laser visors, plus 9mm and .40-caliber brand new guns.” Authorities estimate that 1.2 million to 1.8 million weapons are in use in Guatemala, according to the report.

In opinion polls ahead of the Sep. 12 presidential election, Guatemalans indicated that they too are worried about crime and violence. That’s not surprising, given that 41 percent of the more than 6,000 killings last year were linked to drug trafficking, said Colom. The homicide rate is about 41 per 100,000 inhabitants, though the World Bank reported this summer that in the northern region of Petén, the rate is between 80 and 90 per 100,000.

Homicide rates are also skyrocketing in neighboring countries. Honduras is on track to end 2011 with a murder rate of 86 per 100,000 inhabitants, while El Salvador is heading for a rate of 72 per 100,000, according to new studies.

The National Commission for Human Rights in Honduras reported in September that in the first half of 2011, the country had an average 20 homicides a day. Many are related to drugs. Ramón Custodio López, the country’s national commissioner for human rights, said the 2011 estimate represents a significant rise in homicides over 2010, when the rate was 77 per 100,000.

The homicide rate also is rising in El Salvador, which reported nearly 2,900 murders in the first eight months of 2011. August was especially brutal, with Salvadoran police recording 391 killings that month.

On top of the worsening news about crime and violence, regional governments are also examining a new report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which warns that the use of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATSs) such as meth and ecstasy is surging around the world — but particularly in Southeast Asia, West Africa and the Americas.

The report warned that the growing trade in such drugs and the high profits they bring will add more threats to health and security. It said that ATSs now rank as the world’s second-most widely used type of drug after cannabis — surpassing even heroin and cocaine. While the use of cannabis, heroin and cannabis remained largely stable between 2005 and 2009, seizures of ATS drugs and the discovery of clandestine laboratories indicate a rapid increase in these narcotics around the world, according to the UNODC report.

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