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Maritime Spaces Sealed Off to Narcorafficking

The Colombian National Navy uses intelligence information exchanges and interoperability as strategies for interdiction operations.
Geraldine Cook/Diálogo | 9 February 2018

Admiral Ernesto Durán González, commander of the Colombian National Navy, placed the Navy’s capabilities to close off entry to transnational criminal organizations at the disposal of partner nations. (Photo: Colombian National Navy)

The Colombian National Navy cracks down hard on international criminal organizations attempting to transport drugs from Colombia’s Caribbean shores to the United States via Panama. This was evident in Operation Amphitrite (Anfitrite), the first binational operation between the Colombian Navy and the Panamanian Air and Naval Service (SENAN, in Spanish). During Amphitrite, conducted in October 2017, radars detected maritime drug shipments in go-fast boats..

Admiral Ernesto Durán González, commander of the Colombian National Navy, spoke with Diálogo in Bogotá, Colombia, about Operation Amphitrite, its results, and the importance of international cooperation to counter threats to regional security.

Diálogo: What is the objective of Operation Amphitrite?

Admiral Ernesto Durán González, commander of the Colombian National Navy: To combat transnational threats by reducing illegal activities carried out through the irregular use of the sea. This is achieved through combined maritime interdiction operations that impact narcotrafficking and interrupt the illegal flow of narcotics between South America and North America through maritime spaces.

Diálogo: What are the main elements of this operation?

Adm. Durán: The effective exchange of intelligence information in real time as well as interoperability between units of the Colombian Navy and the Panamanian Air and Naval Service [SENAN in Spanish].

Diálogo: One of the main elements of the operation is real-time exchange of information and intelligence. What advantages does such an exchange offer to combat transnational criminal organizations?

Adm. Durán: This intelligence exchange ensures the effectiveness of our operations to fight transnational criminal organizations, denying them the use of maritime spaces for their illegal activities.

Diálogo: The operation is based on the U.S. Coast Guard’s Shiprider model. What were the benefits of that initiative for the maritime operation between Colombia and Panama?

Adm. Durán: Although it’s based on that model, over the course of Operation Amphitrite—and thanks to both nations’ preplanning—a visiting group of inspectors from SENAN, who acted as first responders in Panama’s judicial process, embarked on the OPV [Offshore Patrol Vessel] ARC Victoria in international waters, which allowed us to expedite the judicial process for the persons arrested for narcotrafficking, making the operation more effective.

Diálogo: The experience of Joint Interagency Task Force South for naval air patrols, management of communications and control of territorial jurisdictions also served as a model for Operation Amphitrite. What were the lessons learned from these maritime interdiction operations?

Adm. Durán: To achieve the level of experience of men and women committed to interdiction work is not easy, as they confront different situations in these kinds of operations. The weather is one of those, as is drug traffickers’ response and the constant innovations of transnational criminal organizations, which forces us to adapt interdiction strategies. Therefore, each experience leaves us with lessons that need to be applied to subsequent exercises.

Diálogo: Why are combined operations between Colombia and Panama important?

Adm. Durán: These types of operations offer many advantages, but suffice it to say that their importance lies in effective cooperation and expeditious coordination that enable us to control maritime spaces of Colombia and other Central American nations.

Diálogo: What were the results of joint operations between Colombia and Panama against narcotrafficking organizations?

Adm. Durán: The intelligence exchange between Colombia and Panama allowed us to achieve huge results in the fight against narcotrafficking, particularly over the course of Operation Amphitrite, in which we managed to seize 2,400 kilograms of cocaine hydrochloride, 480 kilograms of marijuana, and detain 20 drug traffickers. That takes a heavy toll on the finances of these criminal organizations, while at the same time interrupts trafficking of narcotics to other countries of the region.

Diálogo: Why is interoperability between the Colombian Navy and SENAN important?

Adm. Durán: It’s primarily meant to interrupt the flow of illegal narcotics currently generated between South America and North America through maritime spaces, whenever criminal organizations use the Colombia-Panama border to stockpile and traffic drugs to Central America and North America.

Diálogo: Could other partner nations of the region duplicate the model for Operation Amphitrite?

Adm. Durán: That topic should be discussed. But it would be very interesting to put this model into practice with other nations of South America and Central America that are impacted by narcotrafficking, to find a more effective way of controlling the sea and denying its use to transnational criminal organizations, thereby decreasing their criminal activities.

Diálogo: In addition to the Colombian Navy’s efforts to counter narcotrafficking, what other security threats exist in Colombia and what is the Navy’s role to counter them?

Adm. Durán: Various threats exist in Colombia, narcotrafficking being among the greatest concerns. But there is also smuggling, illegal mining, and various crimes at sea. The Colombian Navy is responsible for safeguarding the nation’s maritime and river spaces, and constantly fights these crimes, protecting national sovereignty and national interests.

Diálogo: What collaboration programs does the Colombian Navy have with other Latin American and Caribbean navies?

Adm. Durán: Currently, the Colombian Navy has very good relations with Central American and Caribbean navies and coast guards, conducting annual operational exercises that strengthen the bonds of friendship and cooperation. Similarly, through our triangular cooperation, various academic opportunities are offered, which Central American countries use most, including courses in naval aviation, naval infantry, and coast guard intelligence. These courses are provided at our training schools.

Diálogo: What kind of joint efforts do the Colombian Navy and the U.S. Navy conduct?

Adm. Durán: We have an excellent relationship of mutual cooperation, through which we conduct different operations against narcotrafficking and related crimes, based on the maritime interdiction agreement both countries signed in 1997. We also have a longstanding tradition of combined training exercises—particularly PANAMAX, which we've attended in all its versions, and UNITAS, for which we, together with the U.S., are the only countries with uninterrupted participation.

Diálogo: What were the net results of the Navy’s operations in 2017, and what is your forecast for 2018?

Adm. Durán: In 2017, we dealt heavy blows to narcotrafficking and related crimes with the seizure of 175 tons of cocaine hydrochloride, which represents an economic impact of nearly $8.8 million. We prevented transnational criminal organizations from receiving approximately $6 billion from the sale of that narcotic, which is the amount the drugs would be worth in the United States. We also seized and destroyed all chemical supplies and production facilities needed to produce narcotics, and drug traffickers were also captured. It should be noted that in 2017, we seized the first submersible built entirely from naval steel and equipped with electric propulsion.

Diálogo: What message do you have for navies of other countries in the region?

Adm. Durán: The Colombian Navy makes its capabilities and level of involvement in this globalized world available to our partner nations to support the various international operations and humanitarian aid operations that contribute to the development of the region.

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