The seizures of several illegal shipments of medicine in Colombia's northern department of La Guajira has shown that one of the country's least-discussed criminal economies could rapidly expand during the coronavirus pandemic.
In March, two shipments were seized in the municipalities of Maicao and Riohacha, police officials said in a news report. The pharmaceuticals were valued at eight billion pesos (about $2 million) and destined for La Guajira and neighboring Venezuela.
That same month, Colombian customs authorities made a series of seizures of US-sourced contraband medicine in the northern Cesar department, which also borders Venezuela. Antibiotics and over-the-counter anti-inflammatories were seized, including the pain reliever acetaminophen, known internationally as paracetamol, which has been recommended to reduce fevers associated with the coronavirus.
According to Colombia's El Tiempo newspaper, failures in Colombia's healthcare system make it easy to cover up the illegal sales of medicine as it is highly difficult to track such shipments.
“[Prosecutors] have detected a significant amount of these medications being imported by pharmacies located in border cities or ports,” Raúl González Flechas, a prosecutor from the Attorney General's Office in Medellín, told El Tiempo.
The smuggling of medicine into Colombia is common. In August 2019, Colombian prosecutors dismantled a medicine contraband ring in the cities of Medellín, Cartagena and Santa Marta, which allegedly brought in expired medicine from Venezuela and Ecuador, El Comercio reported.
In February 2019, General Juan Carlos Buitrago, then-director of Colombia's Tax and Customs Police (Policía Fiscal y Aduanera -- Polfa), told Blu Radio that Venezuelan officials were likely involved in this type of contraband.
"We have seen contraband gangs that have connections like with other types of products ... there are gangs which involve high-ranking authorities of the Venezuelan government, that distribute these products ... in Colombia," said Buitrago.
InSight Crime Analysis
Given the omnipresence and diversity of contraband in Colombia, medicine smuggling has received less attention. But the black market trade in pharmaceuticals -- facilitated by corrupt government officials, health workers and criminal gangs -- is primed to increase amid the coronavirus pandemic.
According to a September 2019 report published by Caracol Radio, medicine is siphoned off by Colombian healthcare providers (Instituciones Prestadoras de Salud -- IPS) who write prescriptions for greater amounts of drugs than needed and then hold on to the excess. These medicines are then illegally sold on to private doctors and clinics.
Another method involves corruption within pharmaceutical laboratories, where the medicine is diverted to criminal gangs.
The Colombian police has reported having carried out 1,393 operations against the illegal sale of medicine since the start of President Iván Duque's term in August 2018.
Colombia also maintains 16 checkpoints dedicated to combating contraband and smuggling along its borders with Ecuador and Venezuela.
Such a general approach to combating smuggling is unlikely to be enough, given the many remote trails through which drugs, migrants and other contraband is consistently moved.
Instead, Interpol has called for specific actions to crack down on the medicine trade, warning that the coronavirus pandemic risks seeing a global rise in healthcare-related crimes.