Weekly Report - 17 February 2022 (WR-22-07)

COLOMBIA: Fighting the dark web

The corrosive effect of large-scale drug production and trafficking on Colombian society continued in evidence this month with various large cocaine finds and the sacking of an army general accused of complicity with the cartels. To try and seize the initiative, the government announced its Plan Esmeralda strategy, billed as a new hi-tech approach to fight the country’s drug trafficking organisations (DTOs).

On 14 February local news media reported two big cocaine finds. A routine inspection of a container in the Pacific port of Buenaventura, in the department of Valle del Cauca, yielded a stash of 2.3 tonnes (t) of cocaine that had been in transit to the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. After a light aircraft was involved in a crash landing in north-west Colombia, near the frontier with Panama, just over 1t of cocaine was found on a beach close to Acandí, an area known as a hub for drug shipments to the US. In addition, the navy said it had seized a home-made submarine near the Pacific city of Tumaco, loaded with 4t of cocaine apparently headed for Central America. Four men were arrested.

Another container supposedly carrying fruit was seized at the Atlantic port of Santa Marta, in the department of Magdalena, and found to be carrying 1.4t of cocaine destined for Antwerp, Belgium. On 16 February, meanwhile, the army said it had summarily dismissed General Jorge Hernando Herrera, commander of the sixth division in the department of Cauca, after media leaks of audio recordings in which he admitted forming an alliance with a local drug gang, Los Pocillos, in order to fight rival dissident Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Farc) guerrillas in the area. The army said it was passing the case to the prosecutor general’s office.

In short, despite some successful seizures, the war against drugs remains as complex and difficult as ever. Army units continue to fight political and criminal armed groups that control drug production and trafficking in multiple locations around the country. According to data produced by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the area planted to coca leaves fell by 7% in 2020, but thanks to better yields and more efficient laboratories, estimated national production rose by 8% to 1,228t.

Top Clan del Golfo DTO leader Dairo Antonio Úsuga (‘Otoniel’) was captured in October [WR-21-43] but his organisation continues to be active. According to army documents leaked in January it now identifies the highest DTO threat as coming from four armed groups with just under 13,000 members between them: the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) the Farc dissidents, the Clan del Golfo, and Los Pelusos. A fifth group, Los Caparros, is no longer considered a significant protagonist after its key leader was killed in an army ‘special operation’ last year.

To make a step change in the fight against narcotics, in early February the defence minister, Diego Molano, announced Plan Esmeralda, an eight-year strategy with three main innovations. These are a decision to fight the DTOs in cyberspace and the dark web; to step up international cooperation and intelligence sharing on money laundering and other drug-related financial flows; and to monitor trade in precursor chemicals used for laboratory production.

Officials have given some examples of how the proposed leap to more high-tech methods might work. Undercover Colombian law enforcement officers might pose online as criminals to extract intelligence on shipments. It has also been suggested that artificial intelligence (AI) software will be used to analyse available data and predict likely changes in crop cultivation and shifts in smuggling routes. 

Molano has suggested that law enforcement should analyse the drug business’s international value-added chains, to hit those links that would cause most disruption to the DTOs – one suggestion being to target clandestine production laboratories.

Plan Esmeralda

With presidential elections due in May this year, it is possible that the government that takes office in August may seek a wider review of counter-narcotics policies and be inclined to move away from the current government’s very militarised approach. However, it is likely that at least some of the Plan Esmeralda innovations will be developed further.

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