The Colombian Navy’s operations and investigations at Cartagena’s port exit points toppled a narcotrafficking network that shipped cocaine in refrigerated containers. For nearly a year, the organization camouflaged cocaine headed to the United States, Europe, and Central America in container floors.
At the end of October 2017, the Colombian Navy and the Office of the Attorney General of Colombia, with the support of the U.S. National Security Agency and Customs and Border Protection, arrested eight individuals in simultaneous operations in Bogotá, Montería, Barranquilla, and Cartagena. “There lies the importance of capturing this organization operating in different cities around the country: it leads to other captures and reveals their modus operandi,” Colombian Navy Commander Jorge Herrera, commander of the Cartagena Coast Guard Station, told Diálogo.
Authorities requisitioned almost 3,000 containers in the operation. In one container, they found one ton of cocaine in 23 individual packages. “It works very well for them [the criminals] because they compromise fewer financial resources than with a go-fast, sailboat, semisubmersible, or a narco-torpedo parasitic device,” Cmdr. Herrera said. “To contaminate the container, drug traffickers threaten or extort people to commit the illicit act.”
The captured organization used refrigerated food containers that require special conditions. “Narcotraffickers use these containers because they believe it’s less likely for authorities to check them,” Cmdr. Herrera explained. “These are the risks of the job that must be mitigated even if there is a risk of spoiling the goods.”
During another operation in mid-November 2017, in the port of Cartagena, the Colombian Navy found almost 500 kilograms of cocaine under the false-bottom floor of a container headed to Europe. “This is not a new method; for the past eight years, we’ve refined our intelligence to stop this initiative and detect those responsible for this,” Cmdr. Herrera said. “However, there is a high degree of difficulty for the authorities because it involves cargo-logistics people in ports, who are not always the same people, and it’s difficult to track.”
According to the Port of Cartagena Organization, a port and logistics platform, almost 1.5 million containers passed through the port between January and October 2017, making Cartagena one of the principal ports in South America. In its most recent report of 2013, the World Shipping Council estimated the number of containers worldwide at almost 35 million.
According to Rear Admiral Juan Francisco Herrera Leal, commander of the Colombian Navy's Neptune Counternarcotics Task Force No. 73, only 2 percent of that total is inspected, since an international policy on narcotrafficking in containers doesn’t exist. “This is a problem we handle in Colombia because it’s a narcotics-producing country, so we have strict port controls, and concentrate our efforts on neutralizing illicit crops,” Rear Adm. Herrera said. “But containers go to ports all around the world, so joint responsibility is very important to confront the narcotrafficking issue.”
Colombia counts on alliances and intelligence exchanges with international agencies responsible for combating drug trafficking. “When we inspect suspicious containers in Colombia but don't find any evidence, we notify the authorities where the container ship is headed so they can do the appropriate checks once it arrives at its destination port,” Rear Adm. Herrera said.
According to the officer, partner nations’ efforts resulted in the seizure of 146 tons of drugs in 273 containers in 2016. In 2017, the number rose to more than 200 tons seized from 400 containers.
“Although results are positive, strengthening intelligence and information exchange is fundamental to obtain better results. For every 44 tons seized between Colombia and Europe, around 80 tons may have entered the market,” Rear Adm. Herrera explained. “Narcotrafficking handles very high volumes due to the profit generated; the cost per kilogram of cocaine hydrochloride is more than $35,000 and $45,000 in Europe. The same kilogram is worth $2,500 in Colombia.”
In 2017, the Cartagena Coast Guard Station conducted 14 operations and found five contaminated containers, seizing 3 tons of cocaine. “Small vessels use small-scale methods; illegal organizations have evolved in their tactics to contaminate large shipping vessels as a more secure and effective method,” Rear Adm. Herrera added. “That’s why it’s essential to coordinate with port authorities in countries where cargo arrives from Colombia, to find a more effective method to monitor containers, with the appropriate training on tactics used to commit the narcotrafficking crime, all of this without affecting the normal flow of commerce,” he concluded.