Skip to comments.Colombian enemies team up in drug trade
Posted on 05/30/2005 11:07:19 AM PDT by Tailgunner Joe
TUMACO, COLOMBIA - Tipped off by informants, Colombian authorities were nonetheless stunned by what they found on a jungle mission near the Ecuadorean border.
In the largest-ever drug seizure in Colombia, police and naval forces seized eight boats on the Mira River that were packed with 15 metric tons of cocaine. Agents confiscated so many packets of white powder that the stash later burned for 19 hours in a police bonfire.
But the quantity of cocaine, worth an estimated $400 million, wasn't the only surprise during the raid conducted earlier this month.
According to Colombian authorities, the narcotics were produced by both Marxist guerrillas and their blood enemies illegal right-wing paramilitaries who have killed thousands of rebels and their civilian supporters since the 1980s.
The Mira River seizure, officials say, stands as clear evidence that guerrillas and paramilitaries sometimes cooperate in the illegal drug trade, even though both sides continue to target each other in many parts of the country.
"These two groups rely on each other to see that (drug production) runs smoothly and that everybody gets their money," said a U.S. counterdrug official, who insisted on anonymity for security reasons. "Our intelligence tells us that this is happening at an increasing rate."
Some analysts portray this part-time partnership as a sign that the 41-year-old civil war in Colombia a nation that provides 90 percent of the cocaine and much of the heroin sold in the United States is further devolving from a politically driven conflict into a criminal free-for-all.
The situation is increasingly drawing in American resources.
Washington has provided the Bogota government with nearly $4 billion in mostly anti-narcotics aid since 2000. About 500 U.S. advisers train Colombian army troops to attack the rebels and paramilitaries, groups that have long relied on the drug trade to fund their movements.
In the Mira River case, negotiators working on behalf of the guerrillas sold coca paste, a rough form of cocaine that had been produced in rebel-held areas, to paramilitaries, according to Juan Dario Rodriguez, a drug investigator for Colombia's judicial police. The paramilitaries, he said, transformed the paste into cocaine, then sold it to smugglers who stored it near the mouth of the river, which empties into the Pacific Ocean.
The traffickers were preparing to deliver the drugs on speedboats to a larger vessel at sea when about 100 Colombian agents swarmed their hideout.
"If there had been any more drugs on those boats, they would have sunk," said Javier Segura, police chief of the nearby town of Tumaco, who took part in the operation.
Authorities also captured two paramilitary gunmen who were guarding the narcotics.
"This is the biggest individual blow to drug traffickers in the world," Admiral Mauricio Soto, commander of the Colombian navy, proclaimed at the time.
This South American nation, however, produces more than 500 metric tons of cocaine annually, the vast majority of which is thought to reach drug users in the United States, Latin America and Europe.
Traditional drug cartels used to dominate the trade. In the past two decades, however, rebels and paramilitaries have muscled their way into the business.
In areas it controls, the nation's largest rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish initials as FARC levies taxes on farmers who grow coca plants and turn the leaves into coca paste. The guerrillas often buy the paste themselves and sell it to traffickers.
The paramilitaries, who sprang up in the 1980s to battle the rebels, also tax coca farmers.
But the right-wing fighters earn most of their money, authorities say, by turning coca paste into cocaine at jungle laboratories, smuggling in chemicals needed to make the drug and peddling the finished powder to Colombian cartels.
"If there were no drug profits, there would be no money for guns, boots and salaries," said Wilson Parada, a captain with Colombia's anti-narcotics police, as he marched through a field of 7-foot-tall coca bushes near the Mira River. "The war would be over in a few days."
Parada and a dozen fellow agents were protecting a team of 125 laborers uprooting coca plants with shovels as part of a U.S.-funded effort to eradicate the crop. Gripping his rifle, Parada warned that FARC rebels roam the area and sometimes target eradication workers.
The fight for control of coca fields and smuggling routes has provoked all-out battles between FARC and paramilitary units. But in some zones, authorities say, the two sides have worked together.
When army raids disrupted FARC drug operations in Colombia's eastern jungles in 2001, for instance, the guerrillas began selling coca paste to paramilitaries in northern Arauca state, according to the attorney general's office.
More recently, Martin Llanos, a well-known paramilitary chieftain, teamed up with a FARC unit in southern Meta and Guaviare states to smuggle cocaine, said Bogota military analyst Alfredo Rangel.
"The rebels may help the other side move a small boatload of drugs because otherwise they won't be allowed access to precursor chemicals or to villages controlled by the paramilitaries," said Sandro Calvani, who heads the Colombian bureau of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.
"It's like an accord between gangs in New York City," he said.
At times, the two sides have reportedly reached military nonaggression pacts. According to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity, FARC and paramilitary units stationed on opposite sides of the Magdalena River recently agreed not to attack each other and to focus their fire on government troops.
Sometimes, however, the deals collapse.
In Norte de Santander state on the Venezuelan border, for example, the rebels and paramilitaries agreed to divvy up the coca fields, according to the U.S. counterdrug official. But field hands for the FARC later switched sides and began picking coca leaves for the paramilitaries.
The guerrillas retaliated by killing 34 of the workers.
The level of hostility or cooperation between paramilitaries and guerrillas depends on several factors, experts say.
Old-time paramilitary commanders would rather kill guerrillas than cut deals with them, said Rodriguez, the police investigator.
But some members of the new generation of paramilitary leaders have few qualms about conspiring with the enemy for profit.
Rodriguez predicts that collaboration between the two sides could increase as the paramilitaries' umbrella organization the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC splinters into bickering factions.
Many AUC leaders are involved in peace talks with the government, which could lead to the demobilization of most of their 15,000 foot soldiers.
But Rodriguez said other paramilitary commanders want nothing to do with the peace process and could eventually ally with the FARC to run drugs.
For its part, Washington has blacklisted both the FARC and AUC as terrorist organizations.
But Rangel, the military analyst, says it's wrong to paint Colombia's conflict as a criminal racket, pure and simple. FARC leaders, he points out, remain bent on seizing national power and setting up a leftist government.
"They are not buying yachts in the Caribbean. They use their cocaine profits to purchase guns to make war against the state," Rangel said. "For the FARC, drugs are a means to an end."
But the U.S. counterdrug official doesn't buy that argument.
"This is not a fight over ideology," he said. "It's a business."
sometimes the very far right and the very far left agree more than anyone on either side would care to admit...
add to that the normal human greed that comes with $400 million worth of coke and political ideologies gets pushed to the wayside....
Well, hchutch, there's your AUC "freedom fighters."
Colombia ping list included.
The cocaine trade has produced all sorts of strange "partnerships".
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