Floating Cocaine to Market: Currents Help Cartels Evade Capture

  • Traffickers use technology designed to monitor fishing nets
  • Floating loads carry GPS devices powered by solar panels

For decades, traffickers have used speed boats, trawlers and submarines to take cocaine up Colombia’s Pacific coast and into Central America. Now, they’re letting ocean currents do some of the heavy lifting.

Cartels are using technology developed to monitor fishing nets to float unmanned loads of cocaine toward Panama, evading patrols that have acquired faster vessels in recent years, according to a Colombian coastguard commander. Packages are later located using smart-phones and loaded onto boats, ultimately bound for the U.S. and Canada.

Cocaine floating at sea
Cocaine floating at sea
Source: Colombian Coast Guard

The packages of half a metric ton or more hitch a ride on the northbound current as gangs increasingly favor stealth over faster, more conspicuous methods. A group known as Los Urabenos, which supplies drugs to Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel, are among the main traffickers in the rivers and forests of the Colombian Pacific, according to police.

“The use of technology has increased,” Andres Aponte, commander of the coastguard’s Buenaventura station, said in a Jan. 25 interview. “People who understand the marine current simply throw the packages into the sea with a radar transporter. It’s a method used to evade the state’s controls.”

Solar Powered

Aponte’s team captured two loads of cocaine floating northwards last year, each weighing about 700 kilograms (1,500 pounds) and attached to buoys carrying GPS devices, powered by small solar panels, he said.

Solar powered GPS buoys
Solar powered GPS buoys
Source: Colombian Coastguard

The use of buoys follows in a long line of cocaine-transporting innovations, including submarines and semi-submersible ships built in the jungle, as traffickers engage in an endless arms race with law enforcement.

That race has been propelled by improvements in Colombia’s fleet, including the acquisition of U.S.-made boats that can out-run the sleek fiberglass go-fast boats used by traffickers. Now gangs are increasingly transporting smaller volumes of cocaine in private and commercial boats, according to Aponte.

“The use of very fast boats was more frequent over the past 10 to 15 years,” Aponte said. “Now it’s more diversified. There are all kind of vessels, not only the fast ones, including the use of fishing boats where drugs are completely camouflaged inside the boat’s structure.”

Top Supplier

Even after Colombia’s most notorious traffickers were killed or captured, the country remains the biggest supplier of cocaine to the U.S. The amount of land planted with coca, the raw material for making the drug, rose 44 percent in 2014, according to the United Nations, meaning Colombia grows more than Peru and Bolivia combined.

This larger crop has translated into more cocaine being transported via Colombia’s Pacific coast, with the trend toward unmanned shipments set to increase, according to Carlos Medina, acting head of the coastguards in the region.

“They’re going to perfect it more,” Medina said by telephone from Buenaventura. “There’s a lot of technology being developed which the traffickers are going to use.”

Colombia’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, are also heavily active along large stretches of the Pacific coast, and fund their insurgency with profits from cocaine production and illegal mining. The Colombian government hopes to sign a peace agreement with the group in March.

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