Backed by Infantry Battalion No. 46 (the “Voltígeros del Ejército”), the Antinarcotics Police of Urabá and the Prosecutor General’s Technical Investigation Corps, troops from the Colombian Navy’s “Neptuno” 73 Anti-Trafficking Task Force seized 1,124 kilograms of cocaine hydrochloride in Carepa, in the Gulf of Urabá region. During a May 5th inspection of cargo ship containers, the operating unit of the Navy and National Police found the drugs inside boxes of bananas bound for Belgium. According to the Colombian Navy, the joint operation prevented more than $67 million from falling into the hands of drug-trafficking groups.
“This seizure is the result of the working strategy developed by the Colombian Armed Forces, the National Police, and the Attorney General to take on the transnational criminal organizations that use large vessels to take drugs to the biggest consumer markets located in North America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania,” Rear Admiral Juan Francisco Herrera Real, commander of the “Neptuno” 73 Anti-Trafficking Task Force, said to Diálogo. On April 22nd, local authorities also confiscated 400 kilograms of cocaine hydrochloride from a container on another vessel. The drugs, valued at more than $13 million, were found on a ship headed for the port of Río Haina in the Dominican Republic.
Almost 90 percent of international trade is transported by sea containers. A large number of containers navigating the world by sea is a major target for drug traffickers, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime website.
Criminal groups change shipping strategies
“Up until the previous year , most drug shipments were sent via smaller, go-fast type vessels. What we have seen this year is that the dynamic has changed a lot,” Rear Adm. Herrera said. “Today the shipment of drugs through Colombian ports is increasing along the Caribbean coast of Colombia.”
According to naval authorities, the shift in trafficker strategy was confirmed by the more than six metric tons of cocaine seized on April 2, 2017, in the Port of Barranquilla. This seizure of drugs hidden in metallic boxes inside a container headed for Europe is considered the biggest since 2008 when 10.5 metric tons of cocaine were going to be unloaded in this same port for later shipment to the Mexican port of Veracruz.
“Drug trafficking is highly mutable; it adapts to circumstances and uses all of its ingenuity to transport and hide the drugs in its quest to evade security forces and the police,” Néstor Alfonso Rosanía, director of the Security and Peace Studies Center in Colombia, told Diálogo. “Maritime transport allows for moving a greater amount of cargo to criminal networks at a lower operational cost, and allows for quick profit-making,” he added.
Strengthening the port system, a shared responsibility
In order to prevent transnational criminal organizations from transporting drugs in containers owned by legitimate companies, Colombia has been applying the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS), since 2004. The ISPS initiative establishes an international framework to detect and evaluate possible maritime security threats and to take preventive measures to protect ships and port facilities from terrorism, drug trafficking, piracy, and other threats. “Although we have had achievements at the local and national levels, it is important to bolster our plan for protecting containers and port facilities to neutralize the outflow of drugs because, just as a container and a ship can be used to bring in drugs, explosives can likewise be brought in,” said Rear Adm. Herrera.
In 2017, security forces and local authorities have also increased their communication with international port agencies in the European Union, Central America, and the United States in order to facilitate cooperation against criminal activity. They likewise have reinforced their efforts at the ports, addressing everything from how goods arrive to the identification of companies that could pose a risk.
“Colombia, the largest coca leaf producer in the world, needs legal backing to go beyond port protection in order to stem the outflow of drugs via containers and commercial vessels. All those who use them to illicitly smuggle goods must be sanctioned,” Rosanía said. “This work is not just the responsibility of the security forces.” He added that port authorities also must be more committed and assume greater responsibility.
“We cannot continue allowing ships to transport drugs. We are working to ensure that certain things that are classified as administrative penalties become crimes like we did with Law 1311,” stressed Rear Adm. Herrera.
Law 1311, approved in 2009, penalizes the use, construction, transport, and trade of submersibles and semisubmersibles for illicit purposes, with penalties ranging from six to 12 years in prison. The legislation, which arose from the difficulty in penalizing the use of these marine vehicles, allows for the unambiguous identification of those who are implicated.
“With a legal framework, operations against the use of containers and vessels to ship drugs out will benefit. It will not be easy; to move forward will require willpower on the part of a court with jurisdiction. For the moment, the Colombian Navy will continue its strategy in the fight against this illegal activity,” Rosanía concluded.