A joint operation between four Latin American countries dismantled a drug trafficking organization, demonstrating the success of regional cooperation policies in the fight against sophisticated transnational organized crime structures whose diversified and specialized operations extend across the continent.

On August 14, 2018, authorities from Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala and Mexico announced the arrest of 38 people in several Latin American cities who allegedly belonged to a drug trafficking organization (DTO) called Neptune’s Spear (Arpón de Neptuno). The arrests were the culmination of a coordinated operation between the Attorney General’s Offices and police departments of all the countries involved.

The attorneys general from the four countries issued a joint press release detailing how the group trafficked marijuana and “was capable of producing a metric ton of cocaine hydrochloride and moving up to $2 million in just three days.”

The DTO, therefore, had the capacity to produce a jaw-dropping 10 tons of cocaine a month, or more than 120 tons per year. While estimates vary slightly, cocaine production in Colombia in 2017 reached a historic high of nearly 1,000 metric tons, which means the group was able to move more than 12 percent of the country’s cocaine production that year.

The drugs originated in Colombia and most were destined for the United States. One portion of the product would be transported to Central America in speedboats and semi-submersible vessels leaving Colombia’s port city of Tumaco on the Pacific coast. The other went to Ecuador, where part of the shipments stayed in country for the domestic marijuana market, while the rest was exported out of the port cities of Esmeraldas and San Lorenzo, with a route passing through the Galapagos Islands and on to Costa Rica, Guatemala and Mexico.

Neptune’s Spear was allegedly led by Guatemalan national Juan Abad Lemus, alias “Chema,” who had moved to Colombia in 2017. Abad was one of those detained in the recent operation and is now in jail awaiting trial.

A source inside the Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office told InSight Crime that Chema likely began his criminal career as a “transportista,” or drug transporter in Guatemala, which would have given him his first contacts in Colombia, allowing him to expand his operations. His brother, Willian Estuardo Lemus, was arrested in the Guatemalan department of Chiquimula in June 2018, and is set to be extradited to the United States.

According to the press release, Chema “directed a specialized structure in each country … from production [phases] in Colombia and Ecuador to distribution in Guatemala and Mexico, where he maintained alliances with the Mayo Zambada faction of the Sinaloa Cartel.”

Although the criminal structure had a direct aerial transport route from Costa Rica to Mexico, the drugs also sometimes left Costa Rica by land to be stored in Guatemala before moving on to the United States’ southern neighbor. Guatemala also housed the network’s money laundering operations.

Once the drugs reached Mexico, they were delivered to the Sinaloa Cartel, which handled transport into the United States.

The source at the Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office also told InSight Crime that there is another investigation underway against the money laundering arm of the same DTO, which has used several businesses to hide its illicit revenue, including at least one coffee farm.

InSight Crime Analysis

The press release from the four attorneys general stated that this is the first time the region has seen a coordinated transnational operation of this magnitude. And the success of the Neptune’s Spear operation is a testament to the benefits of regional cooperation and security strategies focused on intelligence and effective following-up on information derived from investigations.

In previous decades, more than one of these countries conducted similar procedures against organized crime groups, but under the impetus of the war on drugs and always at the behest of the United States. Previous binational actions have traditionally been limited to operational work with less of a focus on intelligence.

The Neptune’s Spear case may be a sign that change is now afoot in how Latin American countries combine their resources to combat transnational criminal activity. Unlike in the past, this international security forces operation involved constant meetings and joint actions between the attorney general’s offices and police of all four participating countries during more than a year and a half of procedural work.

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This case has also revealed new developments in the changing face of DTOs. The structure and operation of the now-dismantled group demonstrates a tendency towards both diversification and specialization in which the various operations of the same group in multiple countries can adapt to reap the benefits of their competitive advantages in the international drug trade according to the resources available, geographic location and group capabilities.

These underworld transformations come not just from the responses of criminal groups to the security strategies targeting them, but also the emergence of new consumer markets and the need to accommodate adjustments in frequently changing criminal dynamics.

Meanwhile, the fact that only slightly more than a metric ton of cocaine was seized after such an operation supports the argument that the constant flow of drugs to the United States cannot be stemmed with interdiction policies and arrests alone.

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