European, Latin Militaries Help Fight Drug Smuggling Across Region
By Dialogo March 12, 2012
Fourteen countries on three continents are sending military units to patrol the Central American isthmus and share intelligence in a bid to disrupt drug trafficking, arms dealing and money laundering throughout Central America and the Caribbean.
The multinational effort, dubbed Operation Martillo, involves Great Britain, Canada, Belize, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, France, Guatemala, Honduras, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Panama, Spain and the United States. It began in the last week of January but doesn’t have a set date for completion, say officials.
“Many within the region now realize that cooperative security is imperative for eradicating narcotics trafficking,” said Lt. Cdr. Tellis Behel of the Royal Bahamas Defense Force. “This cooperative venture will undoubtedly enhance the effectiveness of counter-drug measures.”
El Salvador’s security minister, David Munguia, said at a news conference when asked about Operation Martillo: “Any effort by the international community to combat drug trafficking is very important. As the traffic moves from south to north, it is leaving a trail of violence in all our countries.”
Mexican cartels are seeking to expand operations to the Caribbean, say officials there. One example is the Dominican Republic, where authorities have detected the presence of the Sinaloa cartel in the northern Cibao region.
Anibal de Castro, the country’s ambassador in Washington, recently told a U.S. Senate hearing that suspected Mexican drug dealer Luís Fernando Castillo Bertolucci confessed after his capture that the Sinaloa cartel “seeks to create a route to Europe via the Dominican Republic.”
The diplomat cited evidence that the Sinaloa cartel is now operating in the cities of Santiago de los Caballeros, La Vega and Jarabacoa — and that the cartel may “be getting help from Dominican criminal groups in the Cibao region to acquire chemicals used in the manufacture of narcotics.”
EU-funded effort targets West African airports
The Caribbean isn’t the only focus of international action regarding the Latin American drug trade. Operation COCAIR III, which is funded by the 27-nation European Union, seized substantial amounts of illicit drugs and cash after monitoring 30 international airports in West and Central Africa, including Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Nigeria and Senegal.
COCAIR III was mounted over an eight-day period last December and led to 45 seizures, including 486 kilograms of cannabis, 24 kilos of cocaine, five kilos of heroin and confiscations of Ecstacy pills and other amphetamines and methamphetamines. More than €3 million in cash also was seized.
The operation brought together law enforcement agencies from Africa and Brazil, and had the support of the World Customs Organization, Interpol and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. UNODC officials say COCAIR III is likely to be repeated.
“Apart from the immediate success visible in the various seizures, the operation also led to increased airport checks, helped to raise awareness and reinforced the exchange of secure information between custom services and police, particularly in cocaine trafficking,” said EU officials in Accra, Ghana. “Disrupting this trafficking requires coordinated international action to reduce both the demand and the supply of drugs.” European governments have become increasingly alarmed at the increase in Latin America-produced drugs smuggled into Europe via West Africa.
Ecuador nabs high-value Colombian suspect
Cooperation also was behind Ecuador’s February 2012 capture of Heriberto Fernández Ramírez — alias “Beto” — a high-value target for Colombian authorities. Colombian police had been tracking Beto for four months and alerted counterparts in Ecuador, when he was in the port city of Guayaquil, said the director of Colombia’s counter-narcotics police, Gen. Luís Alberto Pérez.
At a news conference, he maintained that Beto played a key liaison role between Colombian trafficker Daniel Barrera Barrera, alias “El Loco,” and Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel — and that he met regularly in Honduras with Sinaloa operatives to set up drug shipments. It is believed he coordinated the transport of at least seven tons of cocaine.
Last September, Honduran Defense Minister Marlon Pascua claimed that 87 percent of the cocaine that makes its way into the United States from Latin America passes through Honduras.
“This arrest bring us closer to Barrera,” the general said. Beto had initially worked for Colombian trafficker Maximiliano Bonilla, alias “Valenciano,” but switched his allegiance two years ago to “El Loco.”
Ramírez was confronted by Ecuadoran police while walking on a street and was quickly deported to Colombia. An extradition warrant has been issued for him by a U.S. district court in Virginia, where he’s also wanted on drug-trafficking charges.
Just days before the capture of Ramírez, Ecuador’s anti-narcotics chief, Nelson Villegas, announced the seizure of 1.3 tons of cocaine and the impounding of a semi-submersible used for drug smuggling in the Gulf of Guayaquil. The shipment, consisting of 1,177 packages, was stored in on the island of Puna, which was raided by police and navy units. The sub was discovered on the island of Santa Clara, 25 miles south of Puna.
In early January, Ecuador’s Navy detected another semi-submersible 60 miles off the coast of Puna, but the three-man crew managed to scuttle the vessel before being arrested. “These vessels are difficult from the air and hard for surface units to detect,” said Coast Guard commander, Mauritius Alvear.
Cooperation isn’t only a tactic followed by law enforcement agencies. According to the Cali newspaper El País, three of Colombia’s most powerful drug trafficking networks — the Rastrojos, Urabeños and the smaller Paisas — recently met secretly in Medellín to divide the country’s trafficking routes in western Colombia. The newspaper claims the pact is designed to cease infighting among the traffickers.