Through Operation Barbudo, Colombian Army and Navy service members have closed spaces off to criminal gangs that operate along the main rivers of Colombia’s Pacific region. This joint strategy has been implemented by Colombia’s Pacific Naval Force (FNP, per its Spanish acronym), together with Joint Task Force Titán (JTF-Titán), since March 2017 to weaken the drug trafficking structures that use the San Juan and Baudó rivers in the department of Chocó to transport cocaine and marijuana to Central America, Mexico, and the United States.
“Our presence on these rivers provides more security to the region and it greatly impacts criminal organizations, mainly drug trafficking,” Colombian Navy Admiral Luis Hernán Espejo Segura, the commander of the Pacific Naval Force, told Diálogo. The ongoing captures and seizures that we have conducted are a resounding blow to drug trafficking groups.”
The operations conducted from March to September by FNP and JTF-Titán service members have led to the capture of 125 people linked to drug trafficking, among them alias “Samir,” the head of financing for a faction of the National Liberation Army (ELN, per its Spanish acronym). The operations have also led to 60 percent of the Gulf Clan along the San Juan Coast being broken up.
Service members have also seized more than nine tons of cocaine hydrochloride, 14,000 kilograms of coca paste in process, and 1.5 tons of marijuana from these drug trafficking structures. Similarly, they have located and destroyed 130 laboratories, crystallizing machines, seeders, and illegal weapons caches. They have also destroyed 25 camps used by illegal armed groups, more than 3.2 tons of solid supplies, and 19,000 gallons of liquid supplies for alkaloid processing.
Thanks to this aggressive approach, the military forces seized an electric submersible from a group of drug traffickers linked to ELN on July 27th. That vessel, which was to be used for transporting more than four tons of cocaine hydrochloride to Central America, was located on the San Juan and Baudó rivers in Istmina municipality, Chocó department, which borders Panama.
In addition to FNP and JTF-Titán service members’ intelligence, research, and river, air, and ground combat capacities, ships and aircraft were also involved. In this way, they are seeking to optimize the results of these operations against criminal structures devoted to drug trafficking in the jungle area of the southern department of Chocó.
The surveillance operations undertaken by these military forces extend from the headwaters of the rivers to the canyons where the main rivers of Chocó flow into the sea. “We began on the San Juan coast and have reached the mid- and almost the upper-San Juan,” Adm. Espejo said. “We’re very close to Istmina, in a town called San Miguel, a point that we had not reached consistently on other occasions.”
Things are going badly for drug traffickers
“Colombia’s Pacific region is where the greatest amount of coca is produced, and where a significant number of criminal actors converge. This large production forces the drug traffickers to come up with new plans for supplying the drug markets,” Rubén Sánchez, a researcher and security analyst at the National University of Colombia, told Diálogo. “Seventy percent of drugs come out of Colombia’s Pacific region.”
The actions taken by the Armed Forces along the length of the Baudó and San Juan river basins are also forcing drug traffickers to examine why things are going poorly for them when they try to transport their drugs through these rivers. “Things are going badly for them because there is good control over the maritime, air, and land spaces. They’re desperate to get the drugs out and are frustrated in the attempt,” Adm. Espejo stated. “That has forced them to go into hiding or to camouflage themselves on rivers and streams.”
“It’s important to understand that it’s not possible to keep these areas under watch at all times. It’s a zone that’s full of rivers and streams,” Sánchez commented. “Everything is done by river. We’re facing a complex and difficult situation.”
According to Sánchez, with the exit of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, illegal armed groups and criminal gangs are now vying for territorial control of the region. Illegal activities by criminal gangs have led to dramatic increases in kidnappings, homicides, threats, murders, illegal mining, the displacement of people, and the recruiting of minors.
Civil society, an ally against drug trafficking
The Colombian Armed Forces, government, and civil society are joining forces against the subversive groups and criminal gangs that are trying to take over new spaces along the San Juan and Baudó river basins. “Citizens have substantial information on the places, people, and crimes linked to these illegal activities,” Adm. Espejo said. “They trust us because they know that we honor the trust they’ve placed in us. There will always be people who provide us valuable information to combat drug trafficking and organized crime.”
In addition to Operation Barbudo, the military forces are providing better living conditions to the residents of southern Chocó through comprehensive operations that involve unarmed efforts. According to the Colombian Navy, more than 36,000 residents have benefitted from the operation through service days featuring humanitarian aid, free medical care, and the delivery of donated items.
Greater cooperation to counter drug trafficking
“Even though the Colombian Army and Navy cannot solve these problems all the time, the authorities have done an extraordinary job,” Sánchez said. “There is greater national and international cooperation. Drug trafficking is a transnational threat that must be combated in a transnational way. The government is aware of the enormous challenge it must face.”
The Colombian Navy noted that Operation Barbudo will stay on the offensive in Colombia’s Pacific region. In order to counter drug trafficking and other related crimes, the mission will continue conducting river, ground, and air operations aimed at dismantling, once and for all, the criminal structures that transport drugs and other illicit items to illegal international markets.