A 14-ton seizure of cocaine has exposed a trafficking network linking Colombian trafficking group Los Pachenca to a small smuggling organization on the La Guajira peninsula -- an arid, remote corner of the country ideal for launching drugs into the Caribbean.
The haul -- valued at $630 million -- was one of the largest seizures in recent history, Caracol reported. The smuggling group held a “monopoly” on cocaine exports out of La Guajira, military officials said in a news release.
A two-year investigation into the group uncovered links to Los Pachenca, a drug gang that operates out of Santa Marta in northern Colombia. The trafficking network sourced cocaine from the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) guerrillas in the northeast region of Catatumbo, a major coca-growing area, according to the news release.
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The smuggling group stockpiled the drugs along Alta Guajira, at Colombia’s northernmost tip. Boats loaded with drugs then took off from barren beaches between Puerto López and Puerto Inglés. Once in Caribbean waters, the drugs were passed among different vessels docked in ports off Aruba, Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, and eventually picked up by transnational drug groups, according to the news release.
Between 2018 and 2020, the network shipped 66 tons of cocaine in “17 illegal events,” the news release stated.
Raids across the Colombian cities of Barranquilla, Santa Marta, Riohacha, Valledupar and Bogotá led to the arrests of ten members of the organization. Authorities captured the alleged ringleader Reydis Rafael Valdeblanquez Morales, alias Humito, and his father in Barranquilla, El Heraldo reported.
InSight Crime Analysis
Los Pachenca’s links to the La Guajira smuggling operation suggest that the trafficking group -- weakened by blows to its operations in other parts of Colombia -- is looking for new life on the desert peninsula.
La Guajira is a strategic departure point for cocaine because of its long empty coastline on the Caribbean, and its proximity to the island nations of Curacao and Aruba. Drugs are also easily moved to Venezuela, with which La Guajira shares a short desert border, said Fernando Trejos, a professor and investigator from the Political Science and International Relations Department of the Universidad del Norte.
“The Alta Guajira is a barren territory, there is a small population and this facilitates the movement of any kind of merchandise with almost certain security. And the other thing is that there is a long history of illegality in these territories,” Trejos told InSight Crime.
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But the group has found itself hobbled recently after a series of military operations. Its principal crime boss, Jesús María Aguirre Gallego, alias “Chucho Mercancía,” was shot and killed by Colombian forces in June 2019. Another group leader was killed in June of this year.
It also lost its hold on smuggling drugs out of the Port of Santa Marta after allied trafficker Elkin Javier López Torres, alias “La Silla,” turned himself over to authorities in December 2019.
“They lost their logistics operator to move [cocaine] out of the port, and additionally, and the growth of the tourism industry along that area of the Caribbean Route means that the beaches in this area are less and less solitary,” said Trejos.
And given the amount of cocaine seized in La Guajira, it seems that Los Pachenca are betting big on their new territory.