Colombia Halts Narcotrafficking with Cutting-edge Technology

The Colombian Navy’s unmanned aircraft, radars, and sensors expand coverage and monitoring of the country’s coasts.
Julieta Pelcastre/Diálogo | 31 July 2018

Transnational Threats

The Colombian Navy curbs narcotrafficking with sensors, radars, cameras, and unmanned aircraft. (Photo: Colombian Navy)

Service members of the Colombian Navy’s Pacific Naval Force seized 3 tons of cocaine hydrochloride, May-June 2018. The drugs belonged to criminal organizations aiming to transport the drug to Central America. The Navy used cutting-edge radars and detection technology to identify smuggling activities and locate targets from a great distance. 

“We’ve been very efficient in the fight against narcotrafficking in the Pacific region by using sensors, unmanned aircraft, and coast guard unit vessels,” said Colombian Navy Lieutenant Commander Juan Camilo Ocaña, commander of Tumaco Coast Guard Station in the department of Nariño. “Technology helps us monitor the sea [and rivers] in the best way possible, and get excellent results.”

Drones, radars, and sensors

Using drones, radars, and sensors, the Navy, Air Force, and the Office of the Attorney General of Colombia found a modified low-profile speedboat navigating in the Sanquianga Natural National Park area of Nariño, in June. After an hour-long chase, authorities intercepted the semi-submersible vessel carrying 2,039 kilograms of cocaine hydrochloride and a crew of four people. In addition, authorities detected and intercepted a speedboat with dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, in Spanish). The vessel traveled at high speed and carried 932 kg of cocaine hydrochloride in an attempt to move it from the Micay River area in Cauca to Central America. Upon noticing the agents, the speedboat crew went to shore and abandoned the vessel and its cargo. 

Authorities carried out both interventions under Operation Atalanta. The objective of the joint interagency strategy among Navy, Army, and Police forces launched on May 2, 2018, is to curb narcotrafficking and crimes of illegal organizations, especially in the departments of Cauca and Valle del Cauca. The offensive seeks to strengthen territorial control and provide security to the people of that region.

“The results of Operation Atalanta, so far in 2018, include captures and drug and weapons seizures,” Colombian Navy Colonel Oswaldo Solano, commander of the Second Marine Brigade, told Diálogo. “The [May 11th] capture of alias Mordisco [Samuel Javier Yotengo Yafue], leader of a FARC dissident group, stands out. Authorities had offered a $7,000 reward [for his arrest].” 

“[Interventions] require complete information at the right time. The latest technology can provide information about the location of vessels to deploy maritime and air units,” Col. Solano said. “Naval intelligence, with all its technical resources, is fundamental to operational development, as well as our personnel’s training and experience in hostile environments, moving from a riverine to a maritime environment and vice versa.”

Service members of the Colombian Navy’s Pacific Naval Force seized about 3 tons of cocaine hydrochloride in the Colombian Pacific. (Photo: Colombian National Navy)

Chances of interception

The Colombian government seeks to transform the Navy into a naval war force with deterrence capacities and a logistics structure to allow for sustained operations and protected borders. According to the Navy’s Naval Strategic Plan 2015-2018, the institution intends to migrate to more efficient operational scenarios to fulfill its mission by acquiring, producing, and implementing new technologies, as well as renewing its fleet.

“Technology is necessary in the fight against narcotrafficking, because they provide a broader view, coverage, and monitoring of coastal areas, day and night,” Lt. Cmdr. Ocaña said. “The chances of intercepting a boat in the high seas, speedboat to speedboat, are about 20 percent. If we add an operational pair, say ship plus speedboat, the chances are 45 percent. When we integrate an air asset, a vessel, and a speedboat, the chances of capturing the drug vessel rise to 85 percent. Each time we add a resource and advanced technology, we curb narcotrafficking’s success rate and increase ours.”

“The strength of institutional interoperability made joint and interagency operations more efficient, and information run more smoothly for planning,” said Col. Solano. “It’s a great advantage to have all institutions collaborate with us, which simplifies our work.” 

A new trend

Narcotrafficking remains the main threat to the country and the region. “We saw a change in trends with criminals. In the past, they [only] trafficked cocaine hydrochloride. Now, base paste is also transferred to be refined in other countries. It’s a change,” Lt. Cmdr. Ocaña said. “With that said, narcotrafficking’s main methods to move drugs is via speedboats.”

“Not even the most powerful Navy in the world, the U.S. Navy, controls the sea 100 percent,” Lt. Cmdr. Ocaña said. “It’s important that countries be in tune with technology to develop their naval power to counter narcotrafficking,” Col. Solano concluded.

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