Wild Colombia coast a focus of drug war

Times Staff Writer

At the sound of approaching patrol boats, the drug smugglers hurriedly fled their camp hidden among the mangroves, leaving behind a wealth of evidence.

The Colombian Coast Guard’s raiding party arrived to find a still-warm makeshift stove, short-wave radios, satellite phones, enough AK-47 assault rifles to arm a platoon, and, buried under freshly turned mud, 8 tons of cocaine.

The June 28 seizure near the village of Venado is viewed as an encouraging success in a campaign called Operation Riptide mounted late last year by Colombian and U.S. counter-narcotics forces to stem the export flood of cocaine and the violence enveloping this wild, virtually ungovernable coastline.


The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that at least three-quarters of the cocaine destined for U.S. markets departs from camps such as Venado along the hundreds of miles of coastline from the Panamanian border to Tumaco, near the border with Ecuador.

At the center of the tropical wilderness lies Buenaventura, a fast-growing impoverished port through which half of all Colombian trade passes. Many neighborhoods here lack running water and electricity, and housing is so scarce that the poor have constructed warrens of shacks on stilts over inlets and the bay -- creating a maze-like cover for traffickers.

Leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and drug traffickers vie here to dominate the illicit trade, leaving behind an average of a corpse a day, a homicide rate nine times that of Los Angeles. Nine bombs exploded around the city in June, allegedly placed by the guerrillas.

“It’s not like competing supermarkets. These are violent criminal gangs. If you are moving a shipment of $40 million in illegal merchandise, you don’t feel safe having the other guy around,” said one U.S. counter-narcotics official who discussed the port city’s appeal to drug traffickers.

Much of the violence is the indirect result of the success of previous drug suppression efforts on the Caribbean coast and in the interior, under U.S.-funded Plan Colombia.

Operation Firewall, which began in 2003 on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, reaped record narcotics seizures and unprecedented numbers of extraditions and convictions of Colombian drug traffickers in U.S. courts.

Aerial spraying of vast cocaine plantations in Colombia’s southeastern jungle since the 2000 inauguration of Plan Colombia also has forced guerrillas, paramilitary armies and traffickers to seek more permissive locales to grow and process coca leaves.

Buenaventura and the surrounding estuaries and jungles fit the bill for laboratories and staging areas because parts of the region often are inaccessible to the armed forces. In addition to the daunting latticework of inlets and swamps, the Bay of Buenaventura experiences rapidly shifting tides with as much as 18 feet of variance a day, which can confuse or strand all but experienced boatmen.

The nearly constant cloud cover -- Buenaventura averages 320 days of rain each year -- limits aerial surveillance, leaving traffickers free to build speedboats capable of carrying 2 tons of cocaine per trip. They also have fashioned towable “submarines,” such as the 30-foot-long craft seized near here in December that was capable of hauling as much as 3 tons of cocaine.

“The narcos all want the five-star life, but they have no choice now. They have to be here,” said one Colombian coast guard officer, describing the less-than-luxurious conditions of life in this sweltering coastal city. He asked not to be named because of security concerns.

Drug traffickers are helped by this city’s history of corruption and deeply rooted social problems. Buenaventura always has been a magnet for contraband, with notoriously corrupt port officials.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe called Buenaventura city manager Adolfo Chipantiza a crook last year during a community council meeting here and urged that he be arrested. Chipantiza allegedly tried to return a load of captured cocaine to its narco owners last year, and spent much of this year under house arrest until he was exonerated by a magistrate last month. The Uribe government said it would appeal the judge’s action.

Meanwhile, Buenaventura Mayor Saulo Quinones surrendered to police last week to answer charges filed by a special anti-corruption prosecutor that he misappropriated city funds.

Aggravating the situation are high unemployment rates among the largely Afro-Colombian population, and the influx of 40,000 people who have fled the civil war raging in Colombia’s rural areas.

The social instability has made the city fertile ground for the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish initials, FARC.

Counter-narcotics officials say the rebels pay youths $200 a month to be undercover “shorts and sandals” members of the group’s urban militia. They work as lookouts and perform the small logistical tasks essential to moving cocaine out of the city and bringing in the tons of chemicals required to process it. Often barely teenagers, the youths also act as hired assassins.

The spate of bombings June 22 has been described by local police as FARC’s retaliation for the army’s sniper killing June 5 of the group’s Buenaventura commander, Milton Sierra, as he made a predawn river crossing. The charismatic rebel leader, better known by his nom de guerre, J.J., allegedly was responsible for militias and drug trafficking in the region.

Uribe has recognized the roots of Buenaventura’s problems and recently announced new jobs, education and housing programs to improve the standard of living. But the tradition of corruption in Buenaventura will make the area difficult for police to control in the short term, despite the 800 additional officers Uribe dispatched this year.

Malfeasance also has tainted the coast guard, which in 2006 was forced to fire eight of its members in the Buenaventura section on suspicion of tipping off drug traffickers about patrols and raids.

The guard launched the recent Buenaventura raid only after U.S. counter-narcotics officials operating in Colombia encouraged them to act on information the Colombians had obtained about the lab. They sped to the camp aboard U.S.-supplied “Midnight Express” speedboats capable of outrunning the narco-traffickers’ craft, which apparently were preparing to ferry the drugs to Central America or Mexico, en route to the U.S. market.

The patrol boats navigated a labyrinth of mangroves using U.S.-provided hand-held global satellite positioning monitors. Once at the targeted site, a special group of trackers used 8-foot-long metal rods to probe the newly turned earth, and before long found the cocaine, buried in metal containers. Inside were dozens of 50-pound watertight bales bound in plastic and bearing the “brands” of various narco-traffickers.

U.S. officials speak of the Colombian coast guard admiringly.

“The Colombian police and the military are in the eye of the storm because of the convergence of opposing forces,” said one U.S. official in a tersely worded assessment. “They are holding their ground.”

Another U.S. counter-narcotics agent was more effusive in his praise last month during a visit to Buenaventura, noting that the Buenaventura coast guard detachment had seized 26 tons of cocaine this year, as well as more than 20 speedboats.

“The courage and commitment that these guys display amid difficult conditions is admirable,” the agent said.