Colombia units use U.S. techniques to bust drug operations

Jose Fernando Lopesierra, left, and brothers Diego and Enrique Baez are presented to the media in Bogota in March 2011. The brothers' criminal organization smuggled an average of 5 tons of cocaine a month to Central America and Mexico, U.S. law enforcement sources say.
(Guillermo Legaria / AFP/Getty Images)

CARTAGENA, Colombia — Under cover of a moonless night in early July, the crew took no more than five minutes to load more than a ton of cocaine on a motorboat beached on a deserted shore of the Guajira peninsula in northeastern Colombia. Equipped with three 200-horsepower engines, the “go-fast” craft then roared off toward the Dominican Republic, the first stop on the drugs’ way north.

But they’d been detected long before. Informants working for a top-secret group of Colombian agents, trained and equipped by U.S. counter-narcotics agencies, had penetrated the smugglers’ inner circle. They knew where the dope was loaded — and where it was headed.

A few hours later, Dominican police were waiting as the boat approached the eastern shores of Hispaniola. The captain, desperate to escape, beached the boat but was killed in a shootout. Police later recovered 1,690 pounds of cocaine, and authorities in Colombia guessed that the same amount had either been dumped at sea or passed off to another boat.


The cops who broke the case are members of a 45-person Cartagena cell of a U.S.-vetted force called the Sensitive Investigative Unit, or SIU. Using the “crown jewels” of American technology and training to make the crucial connections in the drug gangs’ spider-web chains of command, the force has racked up impressive successes in the drug wars, and at a fraction of the cost of the $8-billion U.S. initiative called Plan Colombia.

The SIU program in Colombia, first launched in 1997, increasingly is being used as a model for other countries fighting drug mafias: The Drug Enforcement Administration has set up SIUs in 11 other mostly Latin American countries, including Mexico, but also Afghanistan, Thailand and Ghana. Eight other countries are on the waiting list.

The head of the Cartagena SIU group is a 37-year-old police major who works in one of the most dangerous trafficking zones in Colombia. To preserve his anonymity, he asked to be called Maj. Marino.

Before he joined the group, Marino was an officer in the “Junglas,” the tough anti-narcotics tactical commandos modeled after the British SAS and U.S. Army special forces. There, he spent seven years destroying cocaine laboratories, carrying out drug raids, providing security for coca-spraying aircraft missions and arresting traffickers.

He thrived on the adrenaline of being a commando, but as time went on, he became more interested in “the investigative part. I wanted to know more than we were able to establish as Junglas.”

“We’d seize a lab, arrest the low-level people there, who would always say it belongs to ‘Carlos,’ but of course we could never find Carlos. We would only get one small part of the case and never knew where the drugs were going or who got the money,” Marino said during an interview in Cartagena. “Now I know how to make the connections.”


The Cartagena agents spend much of their time in a nondescript office in this Spanish colonial city sitting before computer screens monitoring wiretaps, the time-consuming foundation of most major drug busts.

“Raids take surveillance and analysis,” Marino said. A female colleague, a money-laundering expert, added: “In the past, we’d just have a meeting and based on our malicia indigena, or gut feeling, we’d decide, ‘Let’s go.’ We now realize we need a technique, to sit down and plan, to decide who collects evidence, which weapons to bring, where is the nearest hospital, when to inform the police. There is a whole checklist of things.”

The Colombian SIU agents, who total more than 300 countrywide, are direct descendants of the bloques de busqueda, or search blocks, set up in the early 1990s with U.S. help to hunt down the notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.

But the drug gangs, under pressure from inside and outside Colombia, aren’t the vertically integrated cartels they were in Escobar’s day. The rising power of Mexican mafias and their control of U.S. distribution have in effect turned Colombians into their suppliers, authorities in Colombia say.

Colombian traffickers have fragmented into a “decentralized syndicate of organizations,” the Pentagon’s Southern Command chief, Gen. Douglas Fraser, said in a recent interview in Miami.

These days, the bulk of Colombian drug trafficking is controlled by about half a dozen bacrims, which is Spanish shorthand for bandas criminales, or criminal bands. The bands often specialize in — and provide to the highest bidder — one facet of trafficking services.

Unlike other anti-narcotics officers in Colombia, the SIU agents focus strictly on complex cases and taking down entire trafficking organizations.

The DEA shields the agents, who have all undergone U.S.-supervised polygraph and drug testing, from being called upon by their superior officers to “put out fires. We build them their own firehouse,” said Jay Bergman, Andean chief of the DEA in Bogota, the Colombian capital.

The U.S. equips them with technology and training and provides access to the “crown jewels,” which in George Smiley parlance means the DEA’s intelligence database. The SIUs have been involved in 70% of the major drug seizures, kingpin arrests and indictments brought against Colombian traffickers in recent years, said recently retired Colombian National Police commander Gen. Oscar Naranjo, who as a young major was part of the search block that pursued Escobar.

All told, they receive only about $5.5 million a year in U.S. funding, but have averaged at least $250 million in cash and asset seizures annually since 2007.

“That’s like a fortyfold return on investment,” Bergman said.

To confront the increasingly powerful and violent traffickers there, Mexico’s SIU program may soon receive a boost. Naranjo, was hired as an advisor to Enrique Peña Nieto before the latter won the presidential election, said in an interview that he has recommended expanding the SIUs’ footprint in Mexico.

“We found special units can deliver serious blows that make a difference very quickly, and SIUs will be a central part of that,” Naranjo said. “We want to assimilate that model.”


Two months before the Guajira case, Marino was sitting in a classroom at the DEA training academy in Quantico, Va., halfway through his five-week SIU training course.

He was one of 37 Colombian agents enrolled, along with 22 Paraguayan anti-drug police. The DEA purposely includes different nationalities in the courses so that the agents can establish “transnational contacts,” said James Farnsworth, the DEA’s international training director.

That day, Marino was learning about Pen-Link intelligence mining software. Used in tandem with wiretaps and programs provided by phone companies, the software enables agents to make connections between caller numbers to slowly assemble cases, sometimes over two or three years. The software also ties phone data and vehicle license plates to callers’ criminal records.

With Pen-Link and the three or four other software programs like it, agents can construct an “organi-gram” of a drug-trafficking organization showing what DEA agents describe as a trafficking band’s five major components: production, security, coordination, transportation and finances. Using cellphone tower data, the software also can find callers within a few yards’ accuracy.

“I can do a lot with just one phone number or vehicle plate to start a comprehensive investigation,” Marino said between classes. “With patience, we can use call traffic to tell us who the leaders are, how people get paid, when shipments are scheduled.”

Before their official designation in June, Marino’s team members had already been regarded by the DEA as SIUs in everything but name based on their spectacular results over the previous three years.

In 2011, they gathered intelligence that led to the seizure of a total 25 tons of cocaine and to the arrests of drug kingpins Diego and Enrique Baez, whose criminal organization smuggled an average of 5 tons of cocaine a month via go-fast boats to Central America and Mexico, U.S. law enforcement sources say.

A major Baez client is alleged to have been the Sinaloa cartel run by Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman, perhaps the world’s most wanted criminal.

But the use of the U.S.-vetted agents within anti-narcotics forces is not universally applauded. Adriana Beltran of the Washington Office on Latin America, a policy watchdog group that has been critical of U.S. military and anti-drug aid to the region, said past cases in Central America have shown such agents sometimes are later corrupted because they aren’t adequately monitored.

“Putting competent people within a corrupt structure is not necessarily a good thing,” Beltran said.

Assistant Secretary of State William R. Brownfield said that in some instances, the U.S. has few other options. In some Central American countries where drug mafias have compromised the government, armed forces and judiciary, vetted agents such as SIUs have proved to be U.S. counter-narcotics forces’ only allies.

“The SIUs answer the question, what do you do when your institutions have been badly penetrated and corrupted?” Brownfield said in an interview in Washington. “Do you wait until your institutions have been swapped out and changed, which is to say something that takes generations? Or do you bring in a completely new cadre, train them up, get them deployed and keep them from being penetrated?”

The son of a humble potato farmer in the southern Colombian state of Nariño, Marino is proud of what he and his team have achieved.

“Getting into an SIU means you are in a select group and you have gotten results,” Marino said. “You’re not just anyone.”

Kraul is a special correspondent.