On April 23, 2018, the Colombian Navy's Anti-Drug Trafficking Task Force Poseidon seized a total of 1,010 kilograms of cocaine hydrochloride in the department of Nariño. Packaged into 51 jute sacks, the drug is worth about $37 million. According to the Navy, authorities found the drug destined to the United States in an underground storeroom in Cabo Manglares, in the municipality of Tumaco.
“The military patrols were performing security tasks and entered a difficult-to-access rural area with thick vegetation,” said Marine Corps First Lieutenant David Salgado Reyes, commander of the platoon that led the terrestrial component in the Colombian municipality near the border with Ecuador. “After searching for almost 24 hours, we found the hidden caches.”
The Navy deployed three components for the operation. The ground component consisted of 35 Navy officers divided into four groups; the riverine component involved light watercraft supporting searches on the banks of all navigable rivers; and a marine support patrol aided the operation at sea.
“Finding that underground storeroom was a successful operation. Hiding drugs underground is a tactic criminals group in this part of the country use,” 1st Lt. Salgado told Diálogo. “When the tide comes up 2 or 3 meters, the drugs are covered with water, and the best way to hide it is to [waterproof it] and keep it underground.” Troops from the Pacific Naval Force brought the cocaine hydrochloride to the municipality’s main city, Tumaco, to set the appropriate legal proceeding in motion.
Tumaco is the Colombian municipality most heavily affected by the drug trade, with more than 23,000 hectares of coca plantations or 16 percent of the country's total. Navy Captain Orlando Grisales Franceschi, commander of Anti-Drug Trafficking Task Force Poseidon, told Diálogo that, in 2017, the Pacific Naval Force confiscated 115 of the 180 tons of coca the Navy seized nationwide. It is also one of the most conflict-ridden areas in Colombia. According to the Colombian Public Defender’s Office, dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, guerrillas from the National Liberation Army (ELN, in Spanish), and several criminal groups use the region to stockpile cocaine hydrochloride and chemical precursors, arrange drug deals, and traffic weapons.
“The increase in narcotrafficking, the strengthening of transnational criminal groups, and the upsurge in highly violent illegal activities set the region back socially and economically. Illegal organizations use force to push people into unlawful activities,” explained Capt. Grisales. “Because of the demobilization and the crackdown on narcotrafficking, the legal economy began yielding results once again.”
In 2012, the Colombian Navy created Anti-Drug Trafficking Joint Task Force Poseidon to counter persistent threats in the department of Nariño. “This region, which suffered the ravages and cruelty of war for years, is still plagued by the ELN guerrilla group, residual armed groups, and organized crime groups that battle for supremacy in the area,” Capt. Grisales added.
“Historically, the Navy has confiscated 50 percent of all cocaine seized from drug traffickers nationwide. It is also committed to unarmed engagement, or Comprehensive Action, which helps the population develop socially and economically without neglecting the fight against illegal activities,” Capt. Grisales said. “Communities in this area are small. While some welcome the military forces, some refuse to provide information, but we help them all equally,” 1st Lt. Salgado added.
Regional cooperation is key to neutralize the extensive reach of narcotrafficking. “It is set up in such a way that its resources are spread across multiple countries,” Capt. Grisales said. “On land, control of a single highway allows for control of a region; at sea, any direction you choose is a highway. At sea, control is limited, incomplete, temporary, and imperfect. It’s difficult for any one country acting alone to make serious progress against narcotrafficking networks.”
As such, the Colombian Navy conducts interdiction operations with Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, the United States, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, and Panama. “The Colombian government maintains intelligence ties with these partner nations to exchange operational information, which allows resources to be allocated as efficiently as possible to dismantle the economic structure of these criminal groups,” Capt. Grisales concluded.