A recent string of high-profile interceptions targeting international drug trafficking operations has confirmed Guyana remains a crucial transit point for cocaine headed to the United States and across the Atlantic.
InSight Crime looks at Guyana’s decisive role as a transit hub on drug trafficking routes linking Latin America to lucrative markets for cocaine.
The Landmark Extradition
The recent extradition of a former Guyanese police officer to the United States on drug smuggling charges sheds light on Guyana’s ongoing relevance as a transit point to the United States.
On November 10, the US Department of Justice issued a news release, stating that Shaun Nebblett, alias “Dapper,” was the first citizen extradited from Guyana to face federal charges in the United States since 1999.
Prosecutors allege Nebblett recruited couriers in Guyana to take commercial flights to the United States with baggage containing "cocaine ladened shoes."
The extradition may signal that prosecutors are concerned about Guyanese smuggling operations. The United States has consistently worked with Guyana to combat drug trafficking between the two nations.
Guyanese officials have benefited from extra training provided by the US-funded Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, aiming to help authorities in Guyana intercept cocaine flooding into the nation, particularly from Colombia. In 2012, the United States provided Guyana with $500,000 under the security initiative.
However, the US State Department’s most recent International Narcotics Control Strategy report urged Guyana to “enhance its anti-corruption initiatives, increase interagency cooperation, and fully pursue prosecutions for narcotics trafficking."
An Ideal Transit Point
The nation’s porous borders with major drug trafficking nations -- including Venezuela and Brazil -- make it an ideal jumping-off point for smugglers moving cocaine to the United States, Canada, Europe, West African transit nations and the Caribbean.
James Singh, the head of Guyana's Customs Anti-Narcotics Unit (CANU), told InSight Crime the nation is caught in the crosshairs of drug trafficking networks operating between “supply” and “demand” countries.
He added that robust counter-narcotics measures taken by nearby nations had resulted in a “balloon effect,” pushing traffickers to establish new routes in Guyana.
According to the State Department’s narcotics control report, Colombian cocaine is typically smuggled to Venezuela and onward to Guyana by sea or air. The drug may also transit land borders and the river network shared by Brazil, Venezuela and Suriname before it reaches Guyana.
The report added that drug traffickers “exploit the country’s poorly monitored ports, remote airstrips, intricate river networks, porous land borders,” as well as a “permissive environment created as a result of corruption."
More specifically, Guyana has also faced issues concerning scanning inefficiency at its points of exit and entry.
Bob Van Den Berghe, coordinator at the United Nations' Office on Drugs and Crime's (UNODC) and World Customs Organization's Container Control Programme, told InSight Crime that while the country has access to scanning equipment, such machines have not always been used in an optimal way to detect illicit loads.
The European Connection
Guyana has also been directly linked to recent record drug busts in Europe, reflecting how traffickers have used the nation to feed increased transatlantic cocaine flows stoked by booming South American cocaine production.
On November 5, Belgium’s Federal Police announced in a tweet that some 11.5 tons of cocaine in a scrap metal shipment had been seized at the Port of Antwerp. The drugs had been shipped to the city’s port from Guyana and were ultimately destined for the Netherlands.
In Guyana, four suspects were arrested in connection with the shipment, according to the Guyanese Minister of Home Affairs.
The Guyana Chronicle reported that two of the suspects in custody were customs officers on duty as the load was scanned before it left for Belgium.
Guyana sees a high quantity of containers carrying metal fragments leave its ports each year.
Van Den Berghe revealed, in this case, the vast quantity of cocaine exported would have likely been detected prior to its departure from Guyana. However, he added that on a smaller scale, the use of scrap metal to conceal outward bound drugs had been problematic for authorities worldwide.
Scanners can fail to detect small quantities of drugs in large loads of scrap metal, he said. He also reported difficulties in using drug-sniffing dogs on scrap metal cargo, which may injure the animals.
Just months earlier, in Hamburg, Germany, authorities discovered 1.5 tons of cocaine hidden between sacks of rice in a container that had arrived at the city’s port from Guyana at the end of June.
A spokesperson for the Customs Investigations Office said the cocaine seizure was one of the largest in Hamburg’s history, and the Hamburger Abendblatt reported the load had an estimated street value of around €300 million ($353 million). Authorities have suggested the load was destined for Poland, from which the drugs would be distributed across Europe.
Corruption at Guyana ports facilitates the concealing of drugs in cargo headed to Europe. A popular method for placing drugs inside containers at the ports is known as “gancho ciego,” or “rip-on rip-off," in which containers are tampered with at sea or as they await export.
Singh, the head of the anti-narcotics unit in Guyana, said authorities intend to adopt a multi-agency approach to help fight such corruption.
The nation's President Irfaan Ali — who was sworn in just over three months ago — has mandated that CANU must work more closely with its foreign counterparts in joint operations to dismantle various networks, according to Singh.
Always One To Watch
For decades, Guyana has served drug traffickers as a crucial transit point for South American cocaine headed to the United States and Europe.
In the late 1980s, UPI reported Guyana was an integral part of “South America’s new drug smuggling route,” as criminal groups sent increased loads of marijuana and cocaine across the Atlantic past outnumbered Guyanese authorities.
So-called drug mules carried cocaine produced in Brazilian jungle camps to Guyana, and then boarded flights to the United States or Europe, in a bid to avoid transiting through Venezuela or Colombia, where authorities had enhanced their efforts to tackle drug smuggling.
Some two decades later, the nation was increasingly used by criminal networks to smuggle drugs to Africa and Southeast Asia.
Diálogo, a digital US military magazine, reported that at the end of 2012, Malaysian authorities had intercepted a staggering $7.1 million worth of cocaine in sealed tins of coconut milk shipped from Guyana. Further inspections targeted cocaine sent from Guyanese territory to Niger and China.
Given its utility as a transit hub, the nation has attracted large-scale criminal organizations in years past, including the Italian mafia.
In early 2014, US and Italian authorities dismantled a billion-dollar drug smuggling operation involving members of New York’s notorious Gambino Mafia family and southern Italy’s ‘Ndrangheta. The mafias planned to smuggle cocaine from Guyana to a port in Calabria, underlining how powerful criminal groups have been drawn to the Latin American nation when developing new trafficking routes.