Authorities in Colombia say they are targeting the latest evolution in the country's organized crime world: "baby narcos," or university educated, business savvy young people who use front companies to send cocaine shipments to Europe.
Colombian investigators told El Tiempo in the last six months they had detected 15 drug traffickers fitting this profile, who they also refer to as "mommy's and daddy's narcos."
These young traffickers use their education in business administration, economics, finance and foreign trade to set up legal companies, which they then use to send to send small shipments of cocaine via commercial freight.
The preferred destination is Europe, as the traffickers believe the risk of extradition if they are caught is low, according to investigators. They also do business in Asia, where they launder proceeds by using drug profits to purchase clothes and shoes for import into Colombia.
Although these youth establish connections to the drug trade to source their drugs, they are not associated with large scale criminal groups and are generally unarmed and non-violent, say investigators.
"Baby narcos" have been implicated in several recent cases, including a 110 kilo shipment seized in Belgium's port of Antwerp in April, and a 35 kilo seizure in Bogota, which led to the arrest of a 25-year-old man.
InSight Crime Analysis
While the quantities of cocaine involved suggest "baby narcos" only account for a fraction of the cocaine dispatched from Colombia, the development of a new generation of drug traffickers operating in this way is part of a larger pattern in Colombian organized crime.
Drug trafficking in Colombia has been undergoing a process of fragmentation and decentralization since the breakup of Pablo Escobar's Medellin Cartel and the Cali Cartel in the 1990s. Monolithic cartels no longer exist, and today's traffickers are generally not all-powerful drug lords, but shadowy businessmen and deal brokers who contract organized crime groups such as BACRIM (from the Spanish abbreviation of "criminal bands") to provide services such as security, shipment and debt collection.
The "baby narcos" seem to have taken this a step further by attempting to work almost entirely within the legal economy and minimize contact with the risky, violent world of major drug trafficking.
Improvements in Colombian anti-narcotics operations have substantially reduced the lifespan of a major drug lord, so this low profile approach may look increasingly appealing, especially to a new generation of educated traffickers. However, the logistical limitations of working in this way reduce the profits on offer, making it unlikely this will become the dominant Colombian trafficking model.