Colombia seized eight metric tons of cocaine from the Urabeños criminal band, but the biggest drug bust in years speaks as much to the shortcomings of one the country's biggest security operations as it does to the effectiveness of its anti-narcotics efforts.
Police found the drugs on a banana farm in the Caribbean port municipality of Turbo, Antioquia, El Colombiano reported. The operation -- in which three people were arrested -- was led by the Antinarcotics Police's Search Bloc and coordinated by National Police Chief Gen. Jorge Hernando Nieto.
The illegal load reportedly was the responsibility of the Urabeños drug trafficking organization's second in command, Roberto Vargas Gutiérrez, alias "Gavilán."
SEE ALSO: Gavilán Profile
Hidden under a layer of cement in a pit 6.5 meters wide and 2.5 meters deep, the cocaine had reportedly been collected from drug operations in Norte de Santander department, the Bajo Cauca sub-region of Antioquia, and the Eastern Plains region. According to preliminary police investigations, the drugs were to be shipped via Central America to the United States.
El Colombiano reports that police had been investigating the drug shipment for 12 weeks before the launching the raid. Officials said the Urabeños purchased the Turbo property and set up a banana farm as a front for their operations.
President Juan Manuel Santos tweeted that police had seized "the biggest amount of drugs in history," while Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas stated that this represented Colombia's biggest cocaine bust on land, although larger seizures had been made at sea, The Atlantic reported. According to Villegas, over a ton of the drug had been packed and labeled for the "export market."
Two days before the bust was announced, police reported that they seized another 1.5 metric tons of cocaine belonging to the Urabeños in numerous operations across the country.
De esta forma nuestra @PoliciaColombia @PoliciaAntiNar logró incautar 8 toneladas de cocaína del #ClanÚsuga pic.twitter.com/Sr9TCDyVbw
— Mindefensa Colombia (@mindefensa) May 15, 2016
InSight Crime Analysis
Contrary to the president's tweet, this is not the biggest cocaine seizure on Colombian soil.
As Semana points out, 11 years ago the national police laid claim to the biggest single cocaine haul in history after finding 15.1 metric tons of the drug in the southern department of Nariño. Another case from 2011 saw 12 metric tons of cocaine seized in the port of Cartagena.
This weekend's bust is a particularly impressive haul, although it could be more of a testament to the Urabeños' continued ability to carry out large-scale criminal activities in the face of prolonged and intensified security operations against the group.
SEE ALSO: Urabeños News and Profile
In 2015, the police and military launched a joint initiative against the Urabeños named Operation Agamemnon, centered on the municipality of Necoclí, another port city just 38 km north of Turbo. The operation was beefed up in March 2016 with the creation of a special police Search Bloc targeting organized criminal groups.
While the government has claimed that its efforts have hurt the Urabeños' finances, the seizure of eight tons of cocaine right under the nose of Operation Agamemnon is a clear indication that the group's fugitive leaders remain capable of buying, transporting and storing huge amounts of illegal goods.
There are yet more signs that the Urabeños' power continues to grow: it was recently confirmed that the group has been expanding into Colombia's coveted Eastern Plains, while its declaration of an "armed strike" at the start of 2016 caused widespread economic disruption.
Still, the police seizure will be no small blow to the Urabeños, who will have to make up the loss with their associates in order to maintain their credibility.