The capture of 19 people for trafficking cocaine through the Caribbean archipelago of San Andrés reveals how Colombia's criminal groups used -- and will continue to use -- this tourist hotspot as a strategic operational center.
A joint US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Colombian National Police operation saw the arrest of 19 alleged members of the Urabeños criminal organization in San Andrés, Cartagena, Santa Marta and Barranquilla, HSB Noticias reported.
Investigations revealed the network operated by moving cocaine from the Colombian departments of Norte de Santander and César by land to the Caribbean ports of Cartagena, Barranquilla, and the northernmost part of La Guajira department, El Espectador reported.
From there, the drugs would be smuggled by go-fast boat to the San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina archipelago -- a Caribbean department 720 kilometers from the Colombian mainland and 110 kilometers from Nicaragua. Once on Providencia island, the traffickers would tie the drug cargo to small buoys and submerge it in mangroves and streams, hiring islanders disguised as fishermen to safeguard the cocaine. The cocaine would later be shipped on to Central America and finally to the United States or Europe, RCN Radio reported.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of the Caribbean
Alias "Joselito" -- the leader of the organization -- was arrested in Atlántico department, according to HSB Noticias. One female Costa Rican national and eight natives of San Andrés island were also among those detained. Local operatives reportedly used the creole language of the islands to avoid being detected by authorities.
Investigations into the network began in 2013, when a DEA source provided a list of phone numbers belonging to alleged drug traffickers. The list was shared with Colombia's investigative police (Dirección de Investigación Criminal e INTERPOL - DIJIN), which then began intercepting the suspects' phone calls.
Authorities believe that over the course of the investigation six drug trafficking operations took place, of which four shipments amounting to 2 metric tons in total were intercepted by Colombian or US security forces. Nonetheless, the network successfully shipped around 4 metric tons to their destination.
An investigator told El Espectador that payment for transporting drugs was around $12,000 ($35 million Colombian pesos) for the boat captain, while the crew earned between $3,400 and $4,100 ($10 to $12 million Colombian pesos).
InSight Crime Analysis
These arrests are further proof of a criminal dynamic that has been identified in San Andrés for some time, but they are unlikely to significantly disrupt illegal criminal activity on the islands.
San Andrés has historically been used as a transit point and operational base for pirates, contraband smugglers and, most recently, drug traffickers. Among the archipelago's main assets are its inhabitants -- given their expertise at navigating the surrounding rocky seas, locals are often contracted to transport drug loads. San Andrés' proximity to Central America also makes it an ideal stopover point in traffickers' journey north.
The Urabeños have been strategically placed in San Andrés since at least 2010. Following a violent struggle for control of trafficking in the area with the Rastrojos -- another neo-paramilitary drug trafficking group, which are referred to as "BACRIM" -- the Urabeños gained predominance.
SEE ALSO: Urabeños News and Profile
And it will not be easy to loosen their foothold on the islands. While similar big busts have been made in the past -- including the recent prosecution of 17 Urabeños traffickers, mostly islanders -- InSight Crime field research during July 2016 found that drugs continue to flow through the archipelago with relative ease.
Facilitating this dynamic is pervasive police corruption, as well as the inextricable relationship between trafficking activities and the islands' tight-knit local community. Hundreds of locals -- from a population of around 77,000 -- are thought to be involved in the drug trade.
The rank and origin of those detained also suggests the arrests will not significantly impact the Urabeños' island operations. HSB Noticias reports most of the suspects were involved in transport and logistics and that a large number were locals, whereas it is believed the Urabeños' top operatives hail from mainland Colombia.