The illegal operation produced 5 tons of cocaine monthly.
Troops of the Colombian Army’s 23rd Brigade, the Special Counternarcotics Brigade, and the Colombian Police Counternarcotics Directorate located and destroyed a mega lab equipped to process cocaine hydrochloride in a joint operation, August 24, 2018. The drug lab was the largest authorities found so far in Cumbitara municipality, Nariño department, in Colombia’s southwest.
“Cumbitara, with the municipalities of Leyva, Rosario, and Policarpa, is the third most productive coca area of Nariño department,” Colombian Army Colonel Oscar Moreno, commander of the 23rd Brigade, told Diálogo. “The area, under the influence of Front 29 and paramilitary and self-defense groups, has been at the center of a turf war as the main narcotrafficking corridor in the region.”
The lab belonged to Front 29, a remnant armed group of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, in Spanish). According to the Army, the complex was divided into 13 rustic and interconnected structures able to produce 5 tons of cocaine hydrochloride a month, valued at $135 million in the illegal international market.
Authorities found five distillers to refine coca paste, two electric generators, five storage tanks and logos to brand each kilogram of cocaine to identify its owner. Law enforcement also seized vacuum sealers, 34 microwave ovens, two hydraulic presses, four improvised toilets, two industrial heaters, 14 test tubes, 18 acidimeters, two compressors, 10 gas cylinders, 65 plastic tanks, and 3,500 rolls of packing tape, among other equipment and supplies, the Army stated.
Authorities conducted the operation as an air assault, with helicopters allowing for quick seizures, yet with the loud sound of spinning blades. Coca paste makers and security personnel ran away as soon as they heard the aircraft, preventing any arrests from taking place.
The increase in interventions to locate and destroy labs is part of the Army’s Diamond Plan. The plan strengthens the course of action set by the Damascus doctrine at the core of the Colombian Military Forces, which leverages interoperability of joint, coordinated, and interagency operations.
“We have a well-defined plan that considers every front. We receive a lot of support from the United States to make processes sustainable in the community,” Colombian Army Brigadier General Raúl Hernando Flórez, commander of the Counternarcotics Special Brigade, told Diálogo. “We work on mechanisms to restore capabilities for eradication, intervention, and intelligent spraying, based on the rules established.”
The new legal guidelines classify cocaine production facilities and warehouses as high-value targets. “This increases intelligence, research, and judicial efforts,” Brig. Gen. Flórez said. “Strengthening international cooperation is one of the most important tools against this transnational crime. So is promoting coordination centers against its funding, with a coordinated approach of strategic communication and two clear messages: What comes around goes around, and, in particular, narcotrafficking crimes have no political connotations.”
“But none of this will be successful if we don’t devise joint, coordinated, interagency, and multinational strategies to ban drug consumption and possession anywhere in our region,” Brig. Gen. Flórez said. “We are studying the case, adjusting the diagnosis of the problem.”
Remnant groups devoted to narcotrafficking
In 2018, the Army destroyed eight labs in the area. Authorities believe FARC remnants owned the drug labs.
“Remnant groups are completely devoted to narcotrafficking; there’s no ideology, no politics, just business, and this is narcotrafficking financed by Colombian and Mexican rings,” Col. Moreno said. “Locating and reaching these labs is the result of a complex operation using intelligence, technical, and technological [resources], flyovers, heat inspections, many days of follow-up, and, obviously, the community’s help.”