Colombian navy Lt. Cmdr. Luis Acosta describes his job as a daily cat-and-mouse game with drug traffickers.
Acosta, captain of the 140-foot coastal cruiser Punta Arditas patrolling Colombia's Pacific coast, and crew are tasked with stopping gangs from smuggling cocaine out of swamps and mangroves to consumers in North America.
Acosta, whose brand-new $16-million ship is based in a scenic bay west of the port city of Buenaventura, has chalked up some impressive victories. Working with informants, sophisticated radar and high-speed coast guard boats to give chase, he has seized 2.3 tons of cocaine with an estimated value of tens of millions of dollars in four operations since taking command in January.
"It's a battle of wits in which each side is constantly adjusting to the methods of the other," the 39-year-old Bogota native said. "Lately we have had some victories."
Acosta's job has gotten more complicated because of drug runners' technological innovations and the rapid expansion of Colombian cocaine production. Authorities expect that production will accelerate as a result of sharp increases in the acreage of illegal coca farmed and the government's indefinite suspension of aerial spraying of coca crops with herbicide because of health concerns.
In April, Acosta's crew seized two 20-foot boats and arrested two suspects on board carrying nearly a ton of cocaine between them. They also had one of the latest high-tech tools employed by drug dealers: buoys used by European fishermen that emit Internet-controlled electromagnetic signals. Traffickers can activate them with laptops to find packages thrown overboard or to track a shipment's progress.
In December, other Colombian navy crews came across a more worrisome innovation: an unmanned torpedo-like craft under construction in a jungle inlet 100 miles south of Buenaventura that, once launched, could have been guided by remote control. The 5-foot-long vessel was capable of carrying about a third of a ton of cocaine.
Narcos' remote-control technology represents a troublesome advance in oceangoing smuggling methods, which have evolved from placing drugs aboard container cargo and in high-speed outboard craft called "go-fast" boats to launching semi-submersible boats capable of carrying 5 tons or more of cocaine and which glide just below the surface to avoid radar detection.
Unmanned vessels afford traffickers less capacity per shipment — the vessel discovered late last year had a maximum cargo capacity of 600 pounds — but more legal security in the sense that there is no crew to give evidence if captured.
"Unmanned embarkations of drugs could become the new reality," Colombian navy fleet commander Adm. Hernando Wills Velez said in a speech during the International Drug Enforcement Conference in Cartagena, Colombia, last month. "Once they are on the high seas, it would be very difficult to detect them."
Equally alarmed was Jay Bergman, the Drug Enforcement Administration's Bogota-based agent in charge of Andean operations. The prospect of remote-controlled drug vessels is "a logical technology progression" from the semi- and fully submersible vessels that Colombian drug smugglers have been using for most of the last decade.
"For prosecutors and investigators, remote-controlled vessels are an absolute nightmare. Even if you make the seizure of the drugs, there are no captured defendants to testify against the larger trafficking organization. It's a free pass for the organization," Bergman said in an interview. "The fact we haven't seen one operational yet only means they're probably already happening."
Colombian drug traffickers are not just improving their odds of eluding capture; they also have produced much more cocaine over the last year, most of which is shipped out via the Pacific and Caribbean coasts.
Colombian illicit drug operations produced an estimated 442 metric tons of cocaine last year, up 53% from the 293 metric tons estimated for 2013, according to the annual United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime study of cocaine production released in Bogota this month. It was the highest estimated output since 2007 after many years of declines seen since 2000, the start of the U.S. anti-drug and -terrorism aid program called Plan Colombia.
The now-suspended spraying program, which used the herbicide glyphosate, was the country's single biggest eradication weapon against coca, which is cocaine's base material.
Colombian Justice Minister Yesid Reyes Alvarado, nevertheless, said at a news conference held by the U.N. office that the efficacy of spraying was doubtful. The acreage of illegally farmed coca was up 44% in 2014 despite a 13% year-over-year increase in area sprayed with glyphosate. Thus, Colombia regained the dubious ranking of No. 1 coca grower in the world, out-harvesting Peru, where crops in 2014 shrank 14% in acreage.
Authorities attributed the sharp rise to increased planting of coca in national parks and in indigenous reservations where spraying has always been off limits.
"We have won some important battles, but the 40-year drug war has not been won," Reyes Alvarado said, noting that President Juan Manuel Santos is among several leaders in the region who are arguing for a new strategy for drug policy, including the possible decriminalization of drug use and more emphasis on subsidizing alternative crops.
At the International Drug Enforcement Conference, Santos said that despite successes "by any measure" including drug loads captured, capos extradited and coca acreage eradicated, billions of dollars have been spent on an unwinnable drug war.
"After so much effort, I feel as though we are on a treadmill neither going forward nor backward," Santos said. "And so my question is, is this the best we can do? … We should look for a new focus involving many elements to build an integral strategy."
Despite smugglers' innovations and prevailing political uncertainty, Acosta, a 19-year navy veteran, is proud that the Pacific fleet has seized 25 tons of cocaine so far this year. He's also proud of his new ship. It's outfitted with the latest computerized systems that tell him what sorts of craft are in the water and where they are headed.
Increasingly, his interdiction efforts are aimed at stopping boats from going south to Ecuador, where he says they have better chances of eluding capture as the cargoes make their way north to the U.S. market. Some smugglers' boats go south as far as Ecuador and then turn back north as a way to avoid Colombian patrols.
"We don't always win. We are constantly changing our tactics so the narcos won't know too much about our operations," Acosta said. "But with good intelligence and the means to act, the cat is going to get the mouse, I assure you."