Authorities in Colombia seized a multi-ton cocaine shipment belonging to Colombia's most powerful crime group, showing that despite divisions within its leadership, the criminal organization remains a major force in the drug trade.*
Colombian police announced the seizure of nearly 6,200 kilograms of cocaine on April 2 in the port city of Barranquilla, in the Caribbean department of Atlántico. The illegal substances, valued at an estimated 200 million euros (about $213 million), were hidden in a shipment of scrap metal headed to Algeciras, Spain.
Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas said this is the third-largest cocaine seizure in continental Colombia, reported El Espectador. (See InSight Crime's map below)
Villegas also said that the narcotics belonged to the Gaitanistas, also known as the Gulf Clan, Urabeños, and Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC), Colombia's most powerful organized crime group, as well as other criminal organizations in the north and east of the country.
The defense minister added that the multi-ton seizure was made possible thanks to the arrest of "El Mocho," the nephew of the AGC's supreme leader, Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias "Otoniel."
El Mocho began to manage the group's drug routes after an alleged split between Otoniel and his right hand man, Roberto Vargas, alias "Gavilán," whom Otoniel accused of "stealing [the AGC] drug routes and shipments for his personal benefit," Villegas said.
Since the beginning of the year, Colombian authorities have seized 70 metric tons of cocaine, 15.8 tons in the country's Caribbean departments alone. However, Colombia is seeing an all-time high in terms of coca and cocaine production, which means that despite the total volume of seizures, authorities are likely seizing a smaller percentage of the total amount of drugs being produced.
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The record seizure is a clear sign that the AGC's divided leadship has not yet affected the group's status as the major player in Colombia's underworld.
In 2015, the police and military launched a joint operation designed to eradicate the organized crime group. Dubbed Operation Agamemnon, the offensive was beefed up in March 2016 after the creation of a special Search Bloc targeting criminal organizations. To be sure, the operation has taken credit for some major blows against the AGC, including the killing in March 2016 of Jairo Durango Restrepo, alias "Gua Gua," one of the group's board of directors, and the arrest of 1,000 more members.
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But Otoniel, the group's leader and Colombia's most wanted criminal, is still on the run, and the seizure of more than six metric tons of cocaine in Barranquilla speaks volumes of the ability of the AGC to continue trafficking illegal substances. Additionally, the fact that the shipment was destined for Europe shows that the group has maintained its foothold in that key market for the drug, despite operations targeting the AGC's infrastructure there.
Furthermore, the seizure also highlights the importance of Colombia's port cities as strategic departure points for international drug shipments, and the role of Barranquilla in the country's criminal map.
During field research carried out in June 2016, InSight Crime was told that Barranquilla's port was seldom used by drug traffickers. Due to its allegedly tight security controls, narcotics are either shipped via go-fast boats from other docks in the department, or sent from the ports of Cartagena and Santa Marta. The multi-ton seizure would appear to be a sign that this dynamic may be changing.
* This article has been updated from its original version to clarify several points.