The Real Narcos: A Clear and Present Danger Today
13 Dec 2019

The Netflix TV show Narcos has done a commendable job showing audiences the trials and tribulations of both drug traffickers and those tasked with catching them in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Yet the problem is not historical, nor have things improved over the last 40 years. Today, despite global efforts, the illicit trade in narcotics touches on everything from corruption to human trafficking to terrorism.

Following years of a general decline in coca bush and cocaine production in Colombia, volumes saw an increase in 2013, reaching an all-time high of 1,976 tons in 2017, based on UN statistics. According to Isabel Pereira, a drug policy advisor for the Colombia-based organisation Dejustia, the reasons behind these changes lie in both socio-economic factors and the permanent demand for cocaine in Europe and the United States.

Beyond Colombia, when one thinks of drug trafficking, Mexico often makes headlines due to the extreme violence witnessed in the country while little attention is given to countries like Guinea-Bissau being labelled a ‘narco-state’ or Ecuador, where it was reported that over one-third of Colombia’s cocaine flows into the country and from there is transported globally to the United States, Europe and even as far as Asia.

Growth in demand and changes in jurisdictions are not the only evolutions of the illicit drug trade. Tactics have changed as well. Given the ever-shifting nature of the fight against cartels and the kingpins who run them, it is important remember the age-old adage of war: know your enemy.

Record drug busts: USA, UK and Malaysia

In todays world of bank scandals, virtual assets and artificial intelligence, it is easy forget just how much of a threat drug trafficking poses. If a reminder is ever needed, one only need look at the case of the MSC Gayane, a vessel said to be owned by JP Morgan.  The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Area Port of Philadelphia executed a warrant in July 2019 to seize the largest vessel in its history, and on board found nearly 20 tons of cocaine.  This case highlights just how resourceful criminal organisations can be and how easily they can infiltrate commerce to traffick large volumes of drugs.  In October 2019, the Pennsylvania district court judge granted prosecutors more time to trawl through 4,000-hours of audio, data from 50 devices and more than 500GB of vessel data and other evidence.  Prosecutors indicted a nautical engineering trainee in September 2019 and accused him of taking part in a conspiracy that involved everything from “narco”-mobile phones to fake container seals.

Large movements of drugs are not limited to the USA.  Across the Atlantic, the United Kingdom’s National Crime Agency (NCA) announced in October that it had arrested individuals who were part of the UK arm of an international organised crime group and were awaiting the extradition of others from the Netherlands. The suspects were purportedly involved in importing 50 tons of drugs from the Netherlands into the UK.  Using British and Dutch front companies to import heroin, cocaine and cannabis, the group used lorry-loads of vegetables and juice to smuggle the drugs through UK ports over an 18-month period.  The industrial scale of the operation was said to be one of the biggest uncovered in the UK.

The truly global nature of the drug trafficking problem was highlighted further when it was reported in September that the largest-ever drug seizure in Malaysia took place.  Twelve tons of cocaine were found mixed in 60 tons of coal that was believed to be from an international drug trafficking group using Malaysia as a transit point.  The cocaine was found amongst 60 sacks of coal in 3 containers and the group was said to have used “advanced technology” to avoid detection, to the extent that even the canine unit could not detect the haul.

As well as record drug busts, another first was in November 2019.  The NCA and Spanish authorities intercepted a 20-metre-long, semi-submersible submarine off the coast of Spain, with 152 bales containing 3 tons of cocaine.  Two Ecuadorian nationals were arrested at the time and, whilst ‘narco-submarines’ are common in South America, this was the first seized this side of the Atlantic.

New smuggling routes in the Pacific

In September 2019, whilst on patrol in the Eastern Pacific, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Valiant stopped a self-propelled semi-submersible vessel carrying around 12,000 pounds (over 5 tons) of cocaine worth over $165 million and apprehended 4 suspected drug smugglers.

Whilst the Eastern Pacific may not be a new route for drug traffickers, nor the use of a ’narco-submarines’ a novel tactic for such groups, there have been increasing reports in recent years of more conventional vessels from South America moving tons of cocaine by travelling much further afield to Australia via the South Pacific.  Under-resourced and over overwhelmed, a number of small islands in the South Pacific have felt the deleterious effects of narcotics trafficking. As drugs washed up on their shores, some unsuspecting locals have mistakenly consumed the drugs become addicted as a result or else used them as washing powder.

‘Asia’s El Chapo’ and other global players

Not only new routes, but new players have emerged also.  When the words “drug lord/baron” are mentioned, thought first turns to South America and plane-loads of cocaine.  Some may be surprised to read an October 2019 Reuters investigative report about a relatively unknown individual dubbed “Asia’s El Chapo”.  Tse Chi Lop is suspected of being the leader of a multinational drug trafficking syndicate called simply “The Company” and dubbed the “Sam Gor” syndicate by police, according to the report.

The syndicate is said to be extremely wealthy, disciplined and sophisticated, so much so that when authorities had success in stopping the main drug ships, the syndicate quickly switched to using containers to hide the drugs. When Thailand stopped trucks with methamphetamine crossing the border from Myanmar, the syndicate sent deliveries through Laos and Vietnam. This involved sending large numbers of individuals carrying backpacks, each with 30 kilos of methamphetamine, into Thailand through narrow jungle paths.  The report concluded by saying that, despite efforts by police, the drug operations continue unfazed.

If there was any doubt about the amount of drugs smuggled within the Asia-Pacific region, an Australian Federal Police press release published earlier this month cites the country’s largest onshore methamphetamine seizure.  Approximately 1.6 tons were seized during a sea cargo inspection after the drugs were found in vacuum-sealed packages hidden within speakers originating from Thailand.  The estimated street value of the drugs was approximately $1.2 billion.

Corruption: a key role in drug trafficking

A local media report in Mexico published last month highlighted how cartel members had met in Colombia to define new routes for sending cocaine to the USA, which led to the arrest of 10 drug traffickers.  One of the members was responsible for getting routes, aircraft and contacts in Venezuela so that the aircraft loaded with coca could fly through the airspace without being detected.  The report detailed how a captain of the Venezuela Air Force received approximately $250,000 for providing the aircraft entry codes and then another $250,000 for not sending fighter planes to force the aircraft to land or be shot down.  The return routes included Guatemala and Honduras and it is understood that Honduran authorities along with the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) made an arrest of an individual who was subsequently extradited to the USA.

Many do not instantly associate bribery and corruption with drug trafficking, but as the above case highlights, corruption plays a key role in facilitating large-scale drug trafficking.  This was a point made in the recent case of Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, a politician and the brother of the Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández.  Tony Hernández was found guilty of drug trafficking in October 2019 in the USA, where prosecutors said Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, who had already been convicted of drug trafficking, gave $1-million in bribes to Tony Hernández to pass on to his brother.  Whilst the Honduran president was not charged in the case, he was labelled a co-conspirator.

Expert insights: Chris Feistl

Following the fall of the Medellin Cartel, it’s rival, the Cali Cartel capitalised on dominating cocaine trafficking.  Whilst the Medellin Cartel operated through threats, intimidation and violence, the Cali Cartel took a slightly different approach.  Known as the “Gentlemen of Cali”, the brothers Gilberto and Miguel Rodríguez preferred bribery over shootouts.

One of the US agents tasked with bringing down the Cali Cartel was Chris Feistl. Although Chris has since retired from the DEA and has gone on to work as consultant for the TV show ‘Narcos’ and starred in Discoverys reality show ‘Finding Escobars Millions’, his insights remain invaluable.

When I recently spoke with Chris, he explained “You have to remember, Pablo [Escobar] was the first narco-terrorist. I mean he even had a plane blown up and was fighting a 6-or-7 front war with everybody from the Los Pepes to the authorities.  The Cali Cartel learned that they can’t do that, so instead their weapon was to bribe everybody and everywhere”. Because the cartel was compartmentalised and no cell knew what the other was doing, “the only way to go after them was to recruit an asset on the inside,” he said.

The cartel was very sophisticated, Chris explained. For one, the cartel didn’t like talking on the phone and consequently used voice-changing machines and sophisticated relay/trunking/switching stations so that whenever someone called a number, it got transferred or switched to where the Cali leaders were located.  “It made it impossible to know, based on the number, where you were calling” he said.

The use of sophisticated technology was not the cartel’s only innovation.

“The cartel preferred face to face meetings so they would call people in. They would make you put on sunglasses that had been spray painted black on the inside so you can’t see out them, then they would drive you around for a few hours switching routes.  They would then put you in front of the brothers and take the painted sunglasses off,” he said, adding that he had once found a pair of such sunglasses in a house that was searched by the DEA.

Following the 17 December 1997 extradition treaty of Colombia, the floodgates of cocaine opened in West Africa and Europe, he noted.  The change in jurisdictions meant “less risk, maybe less money to start with as they were expanding… but after a while [this resulted in] more money as the price of cocaine in Europe was quite a bit more than in the US,” he said. “It was definitely worth it [for them] because the chance of extradition to Europe was about 0%”.

This didn’t mean that the cocaine supply to the US stopped. It continued being routed to the United States via Mexico, which eventually ultimately meant selling directly to Mexican cartels.

“Once they sold the cocaine, the Colombians were not involved anymore and those loads belonged to the Mexicans.  That’s how the Mexicans evolved and became very powerful”.

Expert insights: Robert Mazur

I also got in touch with Robert Mazur, the US agent who actually infiltrated the Medellin Cartel, as detailed in his book ‘The Infiltrator’, which has since been made into a movie.  Robert has also since retired and now offers his expertise through master classes and keynote speeches through his company KYC Solutions Inc.

Robert shared his views on the capabilities of criminal organisations today, including the key challenges they pose.  One of these, he explained, is that criminal organisations have huge resources, something that is sometimes difficult to realise by those trying to stop them.

“They also control, in some instances, key government officials,” he said. “When I worked undercover, I dealt with people at that level who, to the rest of the world appeared to be pillars of the community. They controlled the movements of goods in ports all over the world”.

Then there is the budgetary problem faced by law enforcement officials around the world. For example, a small country like Fiji has only one large boat to patrol its waters and stop the flow of drugs. In the UK, the NCA is facing cuts of £26 million as reported in November 2019.

Whilst the resources of criminals grow, “the funding for the good guys is not increasing and has been perpetually far less than what is reasonably needed”, Robert said.

Both Robert and Chris emphasized that these criminal groups are increasingly working with the world’s most dangerous terrorist organisations.

“That marriage is crucial to illegal drug movements from South America into Europe, a path that starts in Venezuela, moves to mostly French-speaking nations in West Africa, and then through the Middle East with the help of traditional terrorist routes and players,” Robert said.

When the subject of drugs is discussed, the conversation typically focuses on the trafficking element and not enough on the demand, which is equally key, as Robert explained.

“To me, the supply side of the war on drugs is important at the highest levels to attack command-and-control, which destabilises (at least temporarily) these massive criminal organisations.  But, in my view, my country has ignored the power of putting massive resources on the demand-side of this fight.  When I say that, I mean not only through drug education and drug treatment, but most importantly through creating economic opportunity for large segments of our society that can’t afford education and career opportunities that should be everyone’s right”, he said.

In the UK, this appears to be something that has become a realisation, in part anyway, as there have been recent calls for more focus and investment in treatment, though what action is taken remains to be seen.

The future of our fight

Earlier this month, Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador met US Attorney General William Barr to discuss joint efforts to stem the illicit drug trade. At the time of the meeting, many wondered whether US President Donald Trump would follow through on recent threats to designate Mexican cartels as “terrorists,”—a proposal that has since been put on hold. Such a designation, many suggested, could lead to drone strikes or similar unprecedented steps. The government of Mexico, naturally, opposed the designation and stated that it would prefer an alternative joint effort to tackle the issue. Whatever the likelihood of such a plan, it certainly raises concerns about the future of the global war on drugs.

As Robert explained, it’s easy to say ‘drugs are bad and they must be stopped,’ but trafficking is just one aspect of the problem. With increasing sophistication, smuggling routes, technology at its disposal, the global illicit drug market continues to grow and remain a very real threat in today’s world.

As Chris put it, “drug money leads to everything. It waters every plant”.

Dev Odedra is an independent anti-money laundering and financial crime expert.  He has over a decade of experience in managing financial crime risk in the retail, corporate and investment banking sectors.  His expertise covers investigations, advisory and controls implementation and improvement.

This article is expressing personal opinions and is meant for information purposes only. The article does not intend to replace professional or legal advice. It is recommended that readers seek independent professional or legal advice, or speak to authorised persons/organisations.

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Photo: © Tomas Castelazo, www.tomascastelazo.com via Wikimedia Commons

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