Colombian security forces dealt a heavy blow to drug trafficking when they seized 130 kilograms of cocaine that was to be transported via an unmanned aerial vehicle (drone) — the latest tool for transporting drugs from Colombia’s jungle region to Panama.
On November 15th, following an intelligence operation, 50 men from Colombia’s National Police, Office of the Attorney General, and Navy, located ready-to-assemble drone parts and cocaine buried on a beach in the Bahía Solano coastal region, in the heavily forested department of Chocó. The drugs were marked with the logo of a rock band.
This action “is a resounding blow against drug trafficking. The aircraft is capable of transporting 10 kilos of cocaine and covering a distance of 100 kilometers,” General José Gerardo Acevedo, regional police commander told Diálogo on December 12th.
Police suspected the Gulf Clan used drones to transport small shipments of cocaine to Panama, where other members of their organization would retrieve them.
Operation Agamenón was launched on February 2, 2015, with 1,200 police officers to wipe out the Gulf Clan, considered the largest criminal organization in the country.
Police estimate that the Gulf Clan has about 2,600 members. The criminal organization is devoted to drug trafficking, illegal mining, extortion, and recruiting minors.
Operation Agamenón was developed by the Intelligence; Anti-Drug, Anti-Kidnapping and Extortion; and Criminal Investigation directorates, and Interpol, in coordination with Colombia’s Office of the Attorney General and Air Force (FAC, per its Spanish acronym).
Advances in police techniques for drug interdiction have forced drug traffickers to look for new ways of avoiding detection. “This is the first time that we have found drone parts linked to drug trafficking activities, another way of transporting drugs,” said Gen. Acevedo.
“We're talking about a carbon fiber composite unit that uses batteries and fuel, and can fly autonomously for two hours,” Rafael Vides, founder of Colombian enterprise Soluciones Robóticas Integrales S.A.S. told Diálogo. The Colombian company developed a drone capable of using an electronic nose to detect antipersonnel mines from the air.
“This small aircraft evades radar controls. The unit located by the security forces is worth approximately $10,000.”
Security forces use a drone system in aerial patrol work to provide support in natural disasters, search and rescue, border control, highway patrol, combating illegal mining, and rural support and development.
The use of drones for border patrol is not new to the region. Mexican authorities became aware in 2011 that drug traffickers were using drones or unmanned aircraft to smuggle drugs into the United States. The Gulf Clan has been one of the main suppliers of narcotics to the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico.
Colombia is considered the world's largest cocaine producer, according to the Monitoring Report on Territories Affected by Illicit Crops in Colombia, issued by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in July 2016. As of 2015, the country’s coca cultivation area had jumped 39 percent, from 69,000 hectares in 2014 to 96,000 hectares in 2015.
Colombian Navy authorities estimate that one kilogram of cocaine is worth approximately $5,000 in Colombia, $20,000 in Mexico, and as much as $37,000 in the United States.
A drug trafficker can operate around 24 drones for the price of building one submarine, according to an article published on May 22, 2014, by the online journal Robotics Business Review.
“We must not allow these aircraft to be used for illegal activities. The misuse of these devices puts our regional security in jeopardy,” Vides stated. “Drones can ultimately be used by criminal groups to carry out terrorist attacks.”
Drug traffickers also employ ultralight planes, torpedoes, semi-submersibles, speedboats, radio buoys, cargo containers, canned fruit, agricultural products, and even people (drug mules) who ingest cocaine packed in latex capsules, which they later excrete.
Although these means and measures test the authorities’ adaptability in fighting drug trafficking, “we have the antidote and the technological means to combat these threats,” Gen. Acevedo said.
The company Alta Tecnología para la Defensa de Colombia is actively engaged in developing radars “that allow us to detect this kind of emerging technology,” Lieutenant Colonel Andrés Niño told Diálogo. Lt. Col. Niño is assistant director of Defense Operations for the FAC.
The FAC began to fly this type of aircraft in 2005. As of March 2016, they had logged 18,000 flight hours in unmanned air systems. “We have established procedures for capturing these aircraft in one way or another, which are being used to do things that fall outside the law,” added Lt. Col. Niño.
Colombian security forces have dealt heavy blows to drug trafficking. The National Police reported in a November 21st press statement that during the 700 days that Operation Agamenón has been fighting the Gulf Clan, security forces have arrested 906 people linked to that group and 279 others affiliated with other transnational criminal organizations.
“Crime has never prevailed in our country. They have all fallen; from the biggest crime bosses to the leaders who support them; criminals cannot operate at ease here,” Gen. Acevedo concluded.