Since the 1990s, they have distinguished themselves by their ability to operate on the Pacific routes together with their Colombian partners. Since then, they have taken advantage of complex maritime laws and intensive trade to get further
Last March, Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, commander of the United States Coast Guard, shed light on an issue that rarely appears in the media and less on the bilateral public agenda with Mexico: drug trafficking by sea, which exceeds by much the transfer by land, according to figures from the US authorities.
In a press conference, Zukunft announced nothing less than the beginning of a joint operation with the Mexican and Colombian governments to fight with more force the drug traffic by the maritime routes.
The news went almost unnoticed in Mexico, but it caught the attention in the United States, where President Donald Trump claims to his Congress funds for the construction of a wall on its southern border to contain the “bad men” of Mexico and Central America. illicit activities.
While Trump concentrates his anger in the border, the Coast Guard in his country alerts of the increase of the traffic of drugs by sea and of its entrance by ports and coasts of the United States.
“It is not a secret that we are besieged by the flow of drugs from Latin America,” the US admiral said when announcing the joint operation.
According to the Coast Guard spokesperson, Alana Miller, the collaboration will involve a more intense exchange of intelligence information on the routes used by drug traffickers.
It also opens the possibility that elements of the Navy of Mexico, and in turn the Coast Guard, embark ships from both countries to “observe operations and have the knowledge,” said Miller.
The United States’ concern about drug trafficking through the sea is supported by its own figures.
If in the fiscal year of October 2014 to the same month of 2015 the Coast Guard seized approximately 50,000 kilos of cocaine in maritime actions, for the period 2016-2017 the figure had increased to 206,000 kilos with a value exceeding 6,000 million dollars, according to their figures.
According to the US authorities, this amount means three times more than the drugs seized on the border with Mexico, and in turn represents only 30% of the total amount of the drug that the Mexican and Colombian cartels move by sea.
In Mexico, the figures also increase. So far in 2018, the Mexican Navy has already seized 4 tons of cocaine transported by mar. In comparison, in the same period of 2017, they had only added 1 ton.
The DEA has also warned of revenues from US ports: in 2012 it is estimated that 80% of the drug arrived in that country by sea vessels and by 2015 it had already increased to 95 %.
“It is a very complicated issue because it involves not only the enormous extent of the seas, complex laws that hinder cooperation between countries in territorial waters and international waters, and the complicity of authorities and companies from different countries,” says Mexican journalist Ana Lilia Pérez, author of the book “Mares de la cocaína, The Nautical Routes of Drug Trafficking.”
The routes of the Mexican cartels
The Tijuana cartel was the first to explore and exploit maritime routes for drug trafficking. Since the nineties, when the Arellano Félix brothers emerged as powerful cocaine traffickers, they created and monopolized a network to operate routes across the Pacific: from Colombia to Tijuana and the west coast of the United States, in important ports such as San Diego and Long Beach.
” They had yachts and fishing boats, owned or rented, which they sent loaded with drugs to the limits of the Pacific territorial waters and there, in turn, to pass the cargo to other vessels with flags of other countries,” says the journalist.
The Arellano Félix began with fishing boats that took advantage of the lack of maritime surveillance, “because the operatives are really very recent,” says Ana Lilia.
His success was later replicated by other criminal organizations, especially his enemy: the Sinaloa Cartel, by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
At the fall of the Arellano Felix -and even when there were remaining Tijuana Cartel that continued to traffic by sea-, the Sinaloa Cartel advanced and consolidated itself as the most powerful organization by sea and land, but also the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas resorted to maritime drug trafficking.
The cartels operated from different Mexican ports of the Pacific and the Gulf of California: in Topolobampo, Sinaloa; La Paz and Ensenada, in the peninsula of Baja California; Guaymas Sonora; Acapulco Guerrero; Lázaro Cárdenas, in Michoacán; Manzanillo, Colima, and Tapachula, Chiapas.
In some, there was evidence that cartels recruited sailors for their operations to Central and South America, says Ana Lilia Pérez
These three criminal organizations, with the help of their Colombian partners, extended drug trafficking routes through the Pacific, the Atlantic and the Caribbean, which is today “a red light”, says Ana Lilia Pérez.
In a decade, the cartels went from the use of yachts and fishing boats to cargo ships with “disguised” containers that allowed them greater loads and less risk of the authorities detecting their movements.
The reasons are the following ones, the journalist explains: the cargo of the containers is sealed and the owner only has to declare its contents. The ship’s captain, who is the highest authority, has no right to open them, and at customs the review is random. “There is not a single country that reviews the entire container load, not even the Europeans,” says Ana Lilia.
This lack of control was demonstrated in June 2009, when the Mexican authorities found in a load of dead sharks and in their bodies, distributed, 894 kilograms of cocaine that had left Puerto Calderas, in Costa Rica, in the direction of a company in Jalisco that produced footwear, purses and briefcases with shark skin.
According to an investigation by the newspaper La Nación in Costa Rica, the drug had gone through two ships and 10 ports in six countries: Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras, Guatemala, the United States and finally Mexico, where the Navy found the cargo.
The cartels have also opened new trafficking routes, since the distant nineties. One, the most important at the beginning of the 2000s, was the so-called “Highway 10” : a route that begins 10 degrees north of the equatorial plane of the Earth and runs as a straight line crossing Costa Rica, Colombia, Venezuela, Guinea , Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Central African Republic, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, India, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines and Micronesia to the Marshall Islands, at the remotest point from Pacific.
Thanks to this “super maritime highway” the Sinaloa cartel was able to “conquer” the far Pacific and reach the coasts of Africa, where the authorities detected operations of that criminal organization since 2010, through connections in Guinea-Bissau.
Samuel González Ruiz, former director of the Specialized Unit in Organized Crime of the Attorney General’s Office (PGR), reported at the time that the Sinaloa Cartel had advanced to Sudan, Senegal, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Cape Verde, Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria to get the drug to Europe through Portugal and Spain .
This connection was corroborated in March 2016, when the National Anti-Drug Agency of Nigeria arrested eight people, four of them Mexicans, in operatives in Lagos and Anambra. They were there as technical advisors to install clandestine laboratories, according to the investigation.
Aana Lilia Pérez also recorded this operation in her book. He wrote: “The influence of the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel in Guinea Bissau was revealed after following in the footsteps of Carmelo Vázquez Guerra , a man with a Venezuelan passport who had been arrested in April 2006 at the small airport of Ciudad del Carmen, the island oil company. of the Gulf of Mexico, insular connection with the Sonda de Campeche, where a DC-9 aircraft landed with five tons of cocaine “.
According to the journalist, Vázquez Guerra “was designated as the operator of the Sinaloa Cartel, was arrested in his cargo transfer operations to Guinea, and then his extradition was required, but there was not an agreement of such nature between the two countries”.
According to a report from the Community of Police of America, the African route passes 30% of the total cocaine destined for the countries of Europe.
The Mexican cartels were pioneers in those routes, with the support of the Italian Mafia Ndrangheta, according to information from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
The “innovative” techniques of traffickers
The authorities of the United States Coast Guard, the DEA and multilateral organizations such as the Office of the United Nations against Drugs and Crime warned that the Mexican cartels, in partnership with their Colombian counterparts, are the main responsible for maritime drug trafficking. to Central America, Mexico, and the United States.
Its routes include the Pacific, the Gulf of Mexico and now, more intensively, the Caribbean, “currently considered a red light,” says Ana Lilia Pérez.
In the Atlantic, on the other hand, traffic has fallen because the European countries associated in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have strengthened surveillance and restricted routes, he says.
But on the Pacific side, much less in the Caribbean, there is some multilateral mechanism that combines efforts to close the passage of maritime drug traffic.
The cartels, on the other hand, resort to increasingly sophisticated and diverse methods. These include rustic and motorboats, “disguised” containers on large vessels, submarines, underwater tunnels-like the one detected by US authorities in the All American channel, east of Calexico, California-and sophisticated technology that harnesses solar energy and the sea currents.
Colombian authorities reported in 2016 that they had found drug shipments “sailing” northward bound for Panama, driven by maritime currents and sophisticated radars operating with solar energy for their location through smartphones.
” Those who understand marine currents are limited to launching the packages to the sea with a radar transporter, a method used to bypass the controls of the State,” said Andrés Aponte, a commander of the Buenaventura station of the Colombian coast guard.
His team had found two shipments of cocaine floating north one year earlier. Each one weighed about 700 kilograms and were subject to buoys with GPS devices powered by small solar panels, he explained.
The “innovations” of the drug traffickers, he said, include submarines and semi-submersible vessels built in the Colombian jungle that take advantage of their business with the Mexican cartels.
Among all the cartels, the US authorities particularly highlight “the advances” in drug trafficking by sea that have been achieved by the Sinaloa Cartel and its Colombian partners Los Urabeños.
According to Colombian and US authorities, these cartels also use very fast vessels to capture cargoes at sea and transport them, and they do not doubt that their methods are increasingly sophisticated in the face of still weak or very limited government and review measures to tackle the traffic.
Ana Lilia offers an example: the bags with drugs that the traffickers leave in strategic and sophisticated parts of the ships. They do this because they are areas that the authorities hardly review because of the legal framework that protects them.
“The boats are practically private property, and to carry out the review – which in strict terms can be understood as a search – you need all the elements in your favor and the authorization of the owner of the ship and the country that holds that boat, and only they can have the ship stopped between 24 and 48 hours, otherwise the shipping company can sue, “he says.
They are “cumbersome” (heavy and difficult) procedures that the customs of the countries hardly comply with, he explains.
Strictly speaking, says Ana Lilia Pérez, the countries count above all with intelligence resources. That is to say, they identify and review the cargo of ships that cover risk routes between countries, for example, what they start from Buenaventura, in Colombia, “where they are always going to try to put drugs on a ship”, says the journalist.
The paradox is that an increasingly intensive and sophisticated maritime international trade has also benefited drug trafficking by sea and, of course, strengthened the operative capacity of the cartels.