The four-month-long intelligence operation included analysis of infrared photos taken during night flights over the area.
Colombian authorities dismantled a cocaine lab of the National Liberation Army (ELN, in Spanish), in Tibú, department of Norte de Santander. Troops from the Colombian Army’s Second Division, the Special Counternacotics Brigade, the Colombian Air Force (FAC, in Spanish), and the Attorney General’s Office conducted the joint interagency operation against the guerilla group.
“The mission [is part] of the Victoria Plus Strategic Military Plan that counters drug trafficking by striking crops, fuel, supplies, and chemicals used in coca planting and replanting,” Army Brigadier General Raúl Hernando Flórez Cuervo, commander of the Special Counternarcotics Brigade, told Diálogo. “Similarly, we combat its processing, storage, distribution, and transport, and provide support to the Attorney General’s Office and the National Police to dismantle strategic assets and prevent money laundering.”
The lab found in late May 2018 could produce 8 tons of cocaine hydrochloride a month. According to the Army, eight structures, organized in warehouses and areas for the production and drying of alkaloids, sat on a 200-square-meter area.
Authorities found 8,000 gallons of liquid supplies and cocaine base paste, equivalent to 4.3 tons of cocaine hydrochloride on site. They also uncovered 80 kilograms of cocaine base paste ready to be sold.
“It’s a very complicated area, always has been and that’s why we’re there with the Military Forces in coordination with the government,” Brigadier General Pablo Enrique García Valencia, commander of the FAC’s First Combat Command, told Diálogo. “This region has typical border-area problems. Drug trafficking, the engine of the illicit economy, isn’t an exception.”
After four months of intelligence work, authorities devised an operation with the support of aircraft from FAC’s Air Assault Aviation Division and the First Air Combat Command. “It takes serious analysis of area images, infrared images, and daytime photos,” Brig. Gen. García said. “These are the achievements of the intelligence staff, ours as much as the Army’s.”
A Changing Enemy
“Armbands and documents enabled us to conclude that the lab belonged to ELN,” Brig. Gen. Flórez said. “This means that, in addition to its traditional sources of funding, such as kidnapping, extortion of multinational oil companies and fees to drug dealers, the group now receives direct income from drug production and trade.”
According to Brig. Gen. Flórez, the lab also exposes recent changes within the narcotrafficking industry. In the past, drug traffickers planted on large fields and harvested coca leaves about three times a year. Now, with land fragmentation and biological manipulation, they can get up to five annual harvests with a higher hydrochloride concentration. The use of toxic fertilizers destroys forests and jungle areas.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime July 2017 “Colombia Survey of Territories Affected by Illicit Crops 2016,” the production of cocaine doubled between 2015 and 2016. The report stresses the importance of leaf density increase particularly in the coca fields of Nariño, Putumayo, and Norte de Santander to understand production estimates. In the new cycle, the report continues, plants produce more leaves that mature more quickly, which increases alkaloid concentration.
“Drug trafficking is a changing enemy. It must be confronted with comprehensive internal solutions from the Armed Forces and the support of government, private sector, and NGOs [nongovernmental organizations],” said Brig. Gen. Flórez. “We are aware of all the social and economic implications, the effects of narcotrafficking crimes and terrorism. Our commitment is to carry out these operations, and fight the enemy with the full force of the law each time we find them,” he said.