The seizure of a heroin shipment linked to Colombia's most powerful criminal group, the Urabeños, has called attention to a once declining criminal trade that appears to be now growing despite competition from Mexican cartels.
Anti-narcotics police seized the 16.6 kilos of heroin while checking vehicles in the western province of Valle del Cauca, reported El Pais.
Regional police commander General Rodrigo Gonzalez Herrera told El Pais the shipment, which was worth approximately $87,000, was being trafficked by a cell of drug traffickers allied to the Urabeños and was destined for Panama.
This, police said, is common practice in the heroin trade, where small cells of specialist heroin traffickers utilize the international contacts, trafficking networks, and muscle of the Urabeños to ensure safe passage as they traffic shipments by "mule" to Panama. From there, the drugs are moved on to the United States or Europe.
Authorities believe the heroin originated in the southern province of Cauca, which is the epicenter of Colombian heroin production, accounting for over half the country's poppy cultivation in 2014, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) (pdf).
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At the turn of the century, Colombia dominated the regional heroin market, with over three times more hectares of poppy crops than Mexico, its nearest competitor, according to the UNODC. Not only did Colombia have greater production, it also had a superior product, with the purity of the white powder heroin produced in Colombia far higher than the "black tar" heroin processed in Mexico.
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This began to change in 2001. Since then, cultivation in Colombia has fallen by 94 percent, while in Mexico it increased by 532 percent between 2001 and 2011, according to the UNODC. In addition, US authorities believe Mexican cartels are now producing higher quality white heroin, competing on quality as well as quantity.
However, the recent seizure is a reminder that Colombia heroin continues to be a player in the regional heroin market -- and may even be undergoing a minor revival. Between 2013 and 2014, cultivation rose nearly 30 percent, the UNODC's latest report stated, while Colombian authorities have already seized 257kg so far this year, compared to 349kg in all of last year (pdf).