Changing dynamics in the criminal world, new government control strategies and fast technological advances are forcing organized crime groups to update their drug trafficking techniques.
Below, InSight Crime details five of the most inventive strategies adopted by Latin American criminal groups in an attempt to outwit authorities.
Criminal groups in several countries in the region have used ambulances to transport cocaine and marijuana, taking advantage of the low probability that authorities will detain emergency vehicles, even in border areas.
In Argentina, for example, the Gendarmerie stopped an ambulance in April and found 400 kilograms of marijuana in a hidden compartment in the vehicle. The suspects went so far as to have a false patient with them as well.
Months later, authorities broke up an international operation that allegedly smuggled up to four shipments of marijuana per month into Argentina from Paraguay, one of the region’s most prolific producers of the drug.
But Argentina is not alone. In Colombia’s La Guajira department bordering Venezuela, authorities recently uncovered a smuggling ring that also used ambulances. It had allegedly been charging $500 per kilogram of cocaine for its members to transport the drug, which would then be shipped from the Caribbean coast.
2. The ‘Ant Plan’ in Buses
Often used to refer to smuggling methods involving breaking shipments up into very small batches, when the so-called “ant plan” is used to transport drugs, it traditionally depends on drug “mules” traveling by air. However, tighter security at airports has increasingly forced the practice into land transportation, where controls tend to be more relaxed.
In August, a fatal bus accident near Quito, Ecuador, left 24 people dead and 22 injured. But the tragic deaths were not the only reason the event grabbed headlines. Authorities investigating the crash found more than 637 kilograms of marijuana hidden in the bus.
A few months later, a joint effort by Colombian, Peruvian and Chilean security forces dismantled a group known as the “Beetles” (Los Escarabajos) that allegedly recruited cyclists to transport marijuana out of Colombia. The trip took over 20 days, and the group compensated each cyclist with approximately $1,200.
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The cyclists who were apprehended traveled through more heavily monitored areas to avoid arousing the suspicion of security forces.
The group also transported the drugs by bus.
There are clear similarities between the cases involving the Beetles and the narco-bus, such as the routes they used and how the recruiters paid their respective drug mules’ lodging, food and travel expenses. But authorities are still working to determine whether those allegedly involved belong to the same criminal structure.
3. Camouflaging in Legal Shipments
From tropical flowers and fruits like pineapples, bananas and mangosteen to Virgin Mary sculptures and World Cup replicas, criminal groups still follow the age-old method of using international trade to disguise their illegal shipments. At ports scattered across Latin America, drug traffickers hide their products inside items set to be exported in shipping containers.
As InSight Crime has reported, informality, corruption and a lack of controls in many of these ports — maritime, air and land — are attracting drug trafficking groups to use them as platforms for selling their product in lucrative international markets.
Moreover, the inability of authorities to inspect shipments — especially at sea ports, which move a lot of international trade — means that they inspect a minuscule number of containers destined for Europe or the United States.
4. Chemical Masking
Using chemical processes to change the appearance of cocaine has been one of the cartels’ most commonly used techniques for trafficking the drug since the days of Pablo Escobar. And it remains both a go-to strategy for criminal organizations and a headache for authorities.
Nearly 40 years have passed since “acid” washed jeans were exported from Colombia to the United States with cocaine dissolved into the fabric to later be separated through a chemical process.
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Now, criminal groups are using professional chemists to teach them new ways to temporarily mix cocaine and other drugs with oils, plastics, metals and — more recently — pet food, in order to transport them undetected.
5. Air Transport Alternatives
For at least the last decade, organized crime groups have sought alternatives to typical planes, helicopters and light aircraft because they have become more easily detectable for authorities and less profitable.
The increased use of drones combined with lagging legislation to regulate them in the region has been a boon to organized crime groups that traffic cocaine internationally. And authorities have been hitting roadblocks in curtailing their use.
A 2014 report from an interior source at the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) indicated that over the past few years, it had registered hundreds of cocaine-laden Mexican drones crossing the US-Mexico border. The report warned that criminal groups had gone so far as to commission custom-made drones designed to carry more drugs.
Authorities seem unprepared to heed such warnings, however, and criminal structures still use the new strategy unhindered in order to move their product.
In 2016, Colombian police reported the country’s first case of a criminal group using a drone to transport drugs into Panama.
In 2017, US authorities arrested a man who attempted to move several kilograms of methamphetamine via drone from Tijuana, Mexico to San Diego, California. The man testified that he had made at least five trips with the drone in recent months.
With an abundance of new and increasingly sophisticated strategies, criminal groups seem likely to go on undermining authorities’ attempts to halt their illegal activities.
Although US President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall between the United States and Mexico is apparently intended to curb drug trafficking and illegal immigration, organized crime groups’ use of drones and other creative strategies to transport drugs will likely continue to call the effectiveness of such controversial proposals into question. Meanwhile, authorities remain caught up in a Sisyphean race against criminal groups in the so-called war on drugs.