The infilitration of cargo containers to smuggle drugs is now evident in El Salvador, according to the United Nations, highlighting the growth of a widely used logistical method on which drug traffickers have long relied across the region.
Amado de Andrés, the representative in Central America and the Caribbean for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), said drug traffickers are increasingly falsifying containers' seals in an effort to move drugs across the region, and El Salvador is a key transshipment point, reported La Prensa Gráfica.
The strategy, which authorities have dubbed "gancho ciego," or "rip-on rip-off," involves several steps. Drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) based in South America identify a container in which to place their narcotics. Before loading the drugs they manufacture an identical copy of the container's seal, more than likely thanks to collusion with dock or port employees. While on the dock, they break the original seal, load the drugs inside the container, and replace the broken seal with its counterfeited copy. The containers are then shipped to Central America, from where they are sent to the United States and Europe.
The seal is usually only broken once, but if Central American DTOs must repeat the procedure, South American DTOs send their counterparts a picture of the seal, so that they too can manufacture a counterfeited copy.
De Andrés said El Salvador recently launched a new program to detect drug cargos, financed by the European Union. A team of prosecutors and police officers is now operating in El Salvador's International Airport and the port of Acajutla, in the Sonsonate department.
The initiative is designed to "investigate how these criminal networks are using El Salvador as a logistical platform, and find out where they get their money from," De Andrés was reported by La Prensa Gráfica as saying.
The program has already scored some victories. On May 31, authorities seized 208 kilograms of cocaine hidden inside a container carrying soluble jelly. The shipment had left from Colombia and first stopped in Panama, but its seals did not show signs of having been broken.
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Drug traffickers have long relied on containers to smuggle drugs across the region, by and large as a result of the inability of authorities to effectively inspect them.
Indeed, a 2013 joint report by the Americas Regional Police Association (AMERIPOL) and the European Union, titled "Situational Analysis of Drug Trafficking – A Police Perspective," found that failure to enforce stricter controls on maritime containers is a regional problem, as only a minimal percentage of the containers destined to Europe or the United States are effectively inspected by authorities.
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Falsifying seals is a practice that dates back a long way. The "gancho ciego" tactic has been at the centerpiece of Colombian maritime drug routes towards the Caribbean, but the practice has also been noted elsewhere, and the AMERIPOL-EU report found evidence of it being carried out inside the port of Guayaquil, in Ecuador.
But while the practice may not be altogether novel, the fact that El Salvador has allegedly turned into a key transshipment point, with the port of Acajutla as it epicenter, is rather striking. Historically, drug traffickers relied on ports in Panama, Costa Rica and Mexico to smuggle drugs via containers. The remarks by the UNODC would appear to suggest that these patterns are now changing.