The robbers of drug shipments known as "tumbadores" are the pirates of the Central American cocaine trail, but their stories of theft, corruption, murder and drug trafficking are closely intertwined with the region's police.
Three key stopovers for drug shipments making their way to the United States from Colombia are Panama, Nicaragua and Guatemala, where tumbadores are rife, and the line between criminals and police is often blurred.
A version of this report first appeared in Critica. See the original here.
There are currently an estimated 40-50 groups dedicated to the "tumbe," or robbery, of drug shipments in Panama, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Staging tumbes has become one of the most lucrative organized crime activities in the country, and one that has undermined the Panamanian national security apparatus.
Several cases from the recent past show how these groups operate and the role of the security forces. When on July 14 2004, a criminal group decided to break into the vaults of the Technical Judicial Police (PTJ), a group of detectives robbed 103 kilos of cocaine, splitting the profits with the police captain and the criminals.
An anti-narcotics police report from the same year shows it was not an isolated incident. The report describes how a captain of the police called Eduardo Perez and a deputy lieutenant called Bernal from the district of La Chorrera planned and executed a tumbe targeting Colombians living in Panama that used a nearby beach to unload drugs. Perez, along with another policeman and one other man, was sentenced to eight years for drug trafficking when an appeals court overturned a previous ruling in 2007.
While discussing the current status of the local tumbadores, Panama's chief anti-drugs prosecutor, Javier Caraballo, confirmed that over the last few years their investigations had led to the capture of several police officers involved in drug trafficking, most commonly involving agents that drive vehicles carrying drugs. However, there are no statistics showing the number of internal affairs investigations into security forces involved in tumbes for the last two years.
Another of the routes for Colombian cocaine is through Nicaragua, where the situation has been deteriorating.
In September 2008, a tumbe led to the episode that local security analysts identify as the moment Nicaragua woke up to the fact that drug war violence could take root in the country.
In the southwestern city of Rivas, security forces discovered eight people with a stash of arms and a list of people to kill. The hit squad, which was led by a Mexican and included Hondurans as well as Nicaraguans, planned to kill six locals accused of robbing an 800 kilo cocaine shipment.
One of their targets, according to Commissioner Carlos Espinoza, who at the time was head of the local council, was Jairo Cerda Calero, who various sources identified as an ex-policeman.
According to Nicaraguan security analyst Roberto Orozco, officials believe that in 2012 there were at least 17 groups operating as tumbadores, five more than the year before. The groups are made up of young criminals working with former police and members of the military, Orozco said.
However, the robbery of drugs for resale on local markets is a phenomenon that has existed in Nicaragua since the 1990s, but, except with a few notable exceptions, it has not yet had a serious impact on security and the country remains one of the safest in the region, with a murder rate of 11 per 100,000 people.
After drug shipments cross the Guatemalan border they must negotiate a territory divided up by rival Mexican cartels. They must also deal with the tumbadores, whose ranks include both criminals and the police.
A tumbe in June this year led to one of the biggest security operations against organized crime seen during the tenure of President Otto Perez Molina. The operation was launched after a group of around 13 hitmen opened fire on a police substation in Salcaja, killing eight unarmed police officers. The only survivor, deputy inspector Cesar Augusto Garcia, was kidnapped. His dismembered body was found a week later.
The assault was blamed on the previously little known organization of Francisco Eduardo Villatoro Cano, which operates in the department of Huehuetenango on the Mexican border. The authorities' investigations pointed to a tumbe carried out by the police shortly before. According to their theory, the load belonged to Villatoro, who decided to recover his money and take his revenge on the police.
*This report was produced as part of a project by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) in which InSight Crime has collaborated. A version of this article first appeared in Critica, see here.