The discovery that two cocaine-laden ships were bound for South Korea from Honduras in 2016 suggests that the rising demand for drugs in East Asia has been met in part by smaller regional criminal organizations, such as the Atlantic Cartel.
A new report from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) showed that the group’s boss, Wilter Neptalí Blanco Ruíz, confirmed in 2016 that he was behind two ships carrying around 100 kilograms of cocaine which were seized by the South Korean navy.
South Korea has become an increasingly frequent transit country or point of entry for drugs such as cocaine or mephamphetamine headed to China or beyond.
SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profile
However, these drugs were usually arriving from more traditional drug trafficking countries. In March 2018, Colombian authorities seized 481 kilograms of cocaine hidden in a ship at port of Buenaventura.
According to authorities, the drugs were to go from Colombia to Panama and Mexico, before stopping in China, Japan and the South Korean port of Busan.
The Buenaventura-Busan route to South Korea appears to have been well-established. In March 2017, 700 kilograms of cocaine valued at $95 million were also found in the port on Colombia’s Pacific coast and were also destined for South Korea.
Mexico has also been an important transit point. In a more recent case from December 2018, South Korean authorities seized cocaine valued at $68 million.
The ship, which was intercepted on its way to China, left Ecuador on October 14, stopped in Mexico and was docked at the port in Busan, when discovered.
InSight Crime Analysis
The statements of Blanco Ruíz, sentenced to 20 years in prison by a court in Florida, were given in text conversations with the DEA in 2016. This appears to be the first indication that cocaine shipments were sent from Central America to South Korea, if not Asia, according to El Heraldo.
While the Atlantic Cartel was one of Honduras’ major players, the fact that Blanco Ruíz had the capacity and connections to load up two ships with cocaine and export them is telling.
SEE ALSO: Atlantic Cartel Profile
It confirms that the capacity to export drugs along new routes to Asia is not only limited to larger Mexican and Colombian cartels, but also to smaller actors in other parts of the region.
Over the last decade, the greatest growth in cocaine trafficking and consumption has been seen in emerging markets, such as Asia. The amount of cocaine seized in Asia tripled from 2014 to 2016, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Latin American criminal organizations have been behind much of this increase.
South Korea has not escaped this trend. One official told the South China Morning Post that the country’s reputation as being "drug free" has had an inverse effect, attracting smugglers who believe they will escape the increased scrutiny they might face in Chinese ports.