Colombia Strikes Narcorafficking in the Pacific
By Myriam Ortega/Diálogo November 28, 2017Two illegal vessels transporting 1,415 kilograms of cocaine hydrochloride and 756 gallons of fuel were intercepted at the end of September. The Colombian National Navy (ARC, per its Spanish acronym) arrested six crew members on flipper-type boats near Cabo Manglares, in the department of Nariño, along Colombia’s Pacific coast.
The seizure took place after many hours of surveillance at dawn. “Drug traffickers are especially active at night because the lack of light gives them some ease they don’t have during the day,” ARC Vice Admiral Luis Hernán Espejo Segura, commander of the Pacific Naval Force, told Diálogo. “Visual detection and detection from the air are more difficult, unless we have night vision goggles.”
ARC transferred the boats, shipment, and suspects to the municipality of Tumaco. The cocaine seized has an estimated value of more than $47 million on the international market, ARC reported.
“The operation is the result of the Pacific Naval Force’s strategy,” ARC Commander Antonio Espitia Porras, chief of the Pacific Naval Force’s Operations Department, told Diálogo. “Out there, with good intelligence gathered through different agencies, the operations supervisor plans and develops a strategy to carry out the seizures.”
During a similar operation a day later, a third boat was intercepted with 1,384 kilograms of cocaine hydrochloride aboard. These two blows to narcotrafficking represent 2,799 seized kilograms of the drug. “It was two days in a row, and the operations were almost identical with similar results in terms of quantity,” Vice Adm. Espejo said. “In two consecutive blows in areas close to each other, we impacted these vessels.”
This seizures were possible thanks to the 24-hour surveillance by service members who are vigilant of drug traffickers’ modus operandi. “It turns out that [criminal] organizations sometimes think that the coast is clear because one boat was caught, but we always [have more] units in the same area,” Cmdr. Espitia said.
Colombian authorities carried out simultaneous operations in rivers because the area has many tributaries. “A single river, for example, like the Mira River, can flow into three or four different mouths. So [criminal] organizations use this diversity to plan drug trips,” Cmdr. Espitia said. “Narcotraffickers plan a possible exit route for drugs along two or three estuaries, sometimes at the same time. So, the strategy consists of having such good placement that regardless of the exit point, we can plan an operation.”
In 2017, the Pacific Naval Force handed over 186 narcotraffickers to authorities for prosecution. The force also impounded about 79 vessels used for drug trafficking and confiscated more than 71,000 gallons of liquid and 62,000 kg of solid materials. It seized 88,568 kg of cocaine hydrochloride, 3,548 kg of marijuana, and 25 kg of heroin, according to figures the Pacific Naval Force provided Diálogo.
These figures emphasize the effectiveness of official surveillance, which forced criminals to modify their routes. “Colombian waters are no longer the preferred route. The preferred route is exiting through the south, by the Galapagos Islands, and seeking a northern route from there,” Vice Adm. Espejo said. “Trips can last up to 15 days, with refueling points out at sea. Artisan fishermen do the refueling. It’s a very complex, very long journey.”
The support of partner nations from the hemisphere has been fundamental. Networks of close cooperation were built, especially with Ecuador, Panama, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and the United States. “What we do in terms of cooperation with our allies is very important,” Vice Adm. Espejo said. “The ratio [for the results] is almost 50–50 for seizures, with our own resources and through international cooperation mechanisms.”
Despite the results, the challenge is great. In addition to boats, drug traffickers use submersible or semisubmersible vessels, small planes on clandestine airstrips, and land vehicles, among other means. “There’s a wide range of options to take out cocaine hydrochloride,” Cmdr. Espitia said. “This is everyone's fight. It’s not a sole country’s fight, it’s a fight against a transnational crime that violates borders, harms generations, and harms the youth.”