A fatal bus crash in Ecuador has drawn attention to a new drug trafficking method devised by the ever more innovative networks emerging from Colombia’s rapidly evolving underworld: international “narco-bus tours.”
On August 18, Colombian authorities raided two separate houses in Ibagué, the capital of the western department of Tolima, and arrested six alleged members of a transnational drug trafficking group dubbed the "Border Merchants" (Los Mercaderes de la Frontera), according to a press release from Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office.
The arrests came after authorities discovered a 637 kilogram shipment of marijuana hidden in a secret compartment beneath the floor of a bus that crashed in Ecuador on August 14, killing 24 passengers on board, according to a press release from Ecuador’s National Police.
Colombian investigators from the Attorney General’s investigative unit (Cuerpo Técnico de Investigación – CTI) had information that the bus was potentially being used to traffic drugs into Ecuador, but authorities in Ecuador were initially unable to find any drugs on board, according to El Tiempo.
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However, days later a member of the criminal group notified authorities about a hidden compartment on the floor of the bus where the drugs were stored, which allowed authorities to uncover the shipment.
? Momento en el cual nuestros servidores policiales encuentran las 4 caletas con marihuana en el bus siniestrado el pasado 14 de agosto en el sector de Pifo-Papallacta. pic.twitter.com/b6u1YAAmmO
— Policía Ecuador (@PoliciaEcuador) August 17, 2018
The drugs were allegedly loaded onto the bus in the city of Cali in Colombia’s southwestern Valle de Cauca department. The bus then set off for Ecuador with the intention of continuing on to Chile, where the drugs could be sold at triple the value, according to Colombian prosecutors.
Members of the criminal group allegedly recruited individuals -- primarily women -- from Cali by offering them a free trip to Ecuador and Peru through a fake tourism service, according to El Tiempo.
After the crash, authorities became suspicious because the trip was free for the passengers and the bus reportedly did not have permits to leave the country. In addition, prosecutors said the bus used an improvised route to avoid police checkpoints in the city of Ipiales, the region's principal border crossing, passing instead through a hotly contested drug trafficking region in Putumayo department, and that it was guarded along the way by a separate vehicle following behind.
The criminal group allegedly used this same route multiple times since 2017 to traffic marijuana and cocaine into Ecuador and sometimes Chile. Among those arrested were two of the group’s alleged principal suppliers, who maintained contact with drug traffickers in Valle de Cauca and the departments of Caquetá and Risaralda, and two alleged distributors responsible for selling the drugs to consumers.
InSight Crime Analysis
The cocaine boom in Colombia coupled with the increased presence of security forces along traditional drug trafficking routes such as the Urabá region to the north of the country and Nariño department to the south is driving innovation among criminal groups.
The "narco-bus tour" method illustrates this trend as it did not require the military capacity or territorial control of armed criminal groups such as the ex-FARC mafia groups and the Urabeños, whose activities draw the attention of security forces.
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Instead, the information released so far suggests the network's inventive trafficking techniques allowed them to cut out such violent overseers of drug trafficking real estate, and instead deal directly with "invisibles" -- the shadowy deal makers now behind much of Colombia's drug trade.