Colombia's arrest of a major Ecuadorean drug trafficker and the dismantling of his organization, unknown to the public until now, illustrates the drug trade's fragmentation and the low profile that criminal actors now adopt to fly under the radar of authorities.
Colombian authorities announced the arrest of Washington Prado Alava, alias "Gerard" or "Gerald," on April 11. Prado, an Ecuadorean citizen, is accused of leading a drug trafficking organization from Colombia's Nariño and Valle del Cauca departments along the Pacific Coast.
He and his criminal group are allegedly responsible for the smuggling of an astounding 250 metric tons of cocaine to Central America and the United States, which had requested his arrest. The director of the National Colombian Police, General Jorge Hernando Nieto Rojas, said Prado "led the most sophisticated and technically advanced criminal organization on the Colombian Pacific coast."
According to the police statement, the organization is suspected of having launched up to 10 speedboats per week, containing between 800 kilos and a metric ton of cocaine each. The go-fast vessels would refuel at other boats waiting at strategic locations en route, serving as offshore gas stations. The drug shipments were supplied by laboratories located in rural areas of the Tumaco municipality in Nariño, which produced between 10 and 12 metric tons of cocaine per week.
In addition to the capture of Prado, authorities arrested two Colombian nationals and another Ecuadorean. The police claim that the men were in charge of managing the maritime trafficking routes, the drug labs and technology for the group - which likely included Global Positioning System (GPS) locators for keeping track of shipments.
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According to the police, Prado initially worked under the wing of the Rastrojos Colombian criminal group. But following the dismantling of the Rastrojo leadership in 2012, Prado chose to set up his own organization, running all parts of the drug trafficking chain, from production and transportation to distribution. The police allege that Prado's network used a variety of routes through Ecuador and Central America to traffic drugs to the United States.
Colombian authorities set up a task force in 2015 with the help of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to bring down Prado, according to El Tiempo. Since then, authorities say they have seized 150 metric tons of drugs from his organization and arrested around a hundred of its members.
Prado is also a wanted man in Ecuador, where authorities suspect him of being involved in the murder of several prosecutors, judges and police officers, according to the EFE press agency.
InSight Crime Analysis
The amount of drugs allegedly trafficked by the criminal organization taken down in this sting -- 250 metric tons -- is jaw-dropping.
The alleged quantity of drugs smuggled by the group is equivalent to more than a fifth of the total amount of cocaine seized by Colombian authorities over the last four years -- 1135.2 metric tons, according to the International Narcotics Control Strategy Reports. Logic dictates that if Prado set up his organization following the weakening of the Rastrojos in 2012, as the authorities claim, his group has been operating for roughly four years.
Colombian police said they have seized 150 metric tons of cocaine linked to Prado in the last two years, since setting up the special task force dedicated to his capture. The country reported total seizures of 716 metric tons of cocaine and cocaine base in 2015 and 2016.
Even if these figures are eventually scaled down, it shows that the drug trafficking group was huge. The police's claim that it has apprehended nearly a hundred of the group's members in the last two years points to a criminal structure considerably bigger than that. Yet despite its scale, Prado's organization was never reported on and he was unknown to the public until his arrest. The authorities admitted that they only started targeting him in 2015. The anonymity of the group shows how he and his associates succeeded in maintaining a low-profile that allowed them to stay under the radar.
The dismantled criminal network shows characteristics that are increasingly common in today's drug trade. The fragmentation of the traditional cartel model across the region has prompted the birth of smaller criminal groups that often work together in different parts of the trafficking chain.
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It is unclear whether Prado personally controlled the whole transnational drug trafficking chain, as the police claim. The three "associates" of his arrested as part of the sting could have been working for him, but might also have been part of other criminal cells working with Prado's.
The idea of a network of disparate criminal groups working together is in line with trends in the region observed since the fall of the first generation of Colombian cartels. Prado's organization reportedly moved between 800 kilos and a metric ton in single shipments, according to the police, a sign, along with other recent multi-ton seizures, that a resurgence of bulk shipments could be happening.
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There are some striking similarities between the modus operandi of Prado's operation and that of another drug trafficker recently arrested by US authorities.
In March 2017, El Tiempo profiled José Feliciano Góngora Solis, alias "Chano." His organization was reportedly one of the first to place drugs in waterproof bags with GPS locators that allowed for them to be thrown overboard in case of a police intervention, and recovered later.
Góngora operated from Tumaco where he succeeded in evading scrutiny by maintaining a low profile. According to El Tiempo, the suspect turned himself in to US authorities in December 2016 without ever having surfaced on the radar of the Colombian government.
Góngora allegedly used Ecuadoreans to refuel the drug smuggling vessels owned by his organization that were launched from Nariño. This was done in the open seas, just as Prado's organization allegedly did.
The importance of these major actors may be being exaggerated; Góngora was depicted as being involved in 80 percent of the drug shipments launched from Colombia's Pacific Coast, a figure that appears to clash with official claims over the amount of drugs moved by Prado.
But the capture within less than four months of both of these alleged criminals is a strong illustration of the fragmentation of the drug trade. And it begs the question of how many other unknown, low-profile criminals are operating large-scale drug trafficking networks in the region.