The Flow of Drugs and Blood in the Amazon Tri-border Region

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Deep in the Amazon, where Colombia, Brazil and Peru meet, the once crime saturated Colombian city of Leticia enjoys relative tranquility, while Brazilian neighbor Tabatinga is rocked by drug trade violence.

The tri-border region’s geographical position leaves it at the heart of a booming drug trade facilitated by porous borders, a fluid population and disparate resources between the three nations.

Across the Amazon River from Leticia, drug traffickers take advantage of Peru’s inadequate state presence to grow and process coca. Drugs flow from the area into regional and international markets, with Brazil’s Amazon capital, Manaus, a key transit point situated a three day riverboat ride from the tri-border area. The drugs also fuel local micro-trafficking, with sales concentrated in poor border communities.

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Sitting at Colombia’s southernmost extremity and accessible only by river or air, Leticia — the capital of the state of Amazonas — was once used as a place of business for some of the region’s most infamous traffickers, with a flourishing open air drug market overseen by a powerful local cartel during the so-called “drug trafficking bonanza” of the 1970s and 1980s.

A frontal assault by Colombian law enforcement took down the Leticia Cartel in the 1990s, and US aid throughout the 2000s has contributed to creating a comparatively well-equipped security service.

Leticia exudes an air of tourist-friendly calm, and with nine murders in 2013 among a population of 40,000, its homicide rate of 22.5 per 100,000 is far below the national average of 31.5 per 100,000 (xls).  

Across the border sits the city of Tabatinga with a population of roughly 55,000, which police in Leticia say witnessed 48 homicides in 2013 — a rate of 87.3 per 100,000, comparable to some of the most violent cities in the world. However, this rate represents a year on year reduction in homicides, with 60 murdered in 2012.

According to Coronel Gildardo Anibal Taborda Blanco, police commander for the state of Amazonas, the majority of the murders in both cities are the result of score settling between rival drug trafficking organizations, with at least six of Leticia’s 2013 killings drug-related assassinations.

Taborda says many of those killed in Tabatinga were Colombians linked to the drug trade, highlighting the fact that while the Colombian side of the border may be comparatively calm, Colombians are deeply involved in the business.

The insecurity in Tabatinga is well known, with visitors to Leticia warned about it by both officials and members of the public. It is also fueled by the limited opportunities a frontier settlement can offer, with disaffected youth becoming willing foot soldiers for criminal organizations.

“Now as soon as they can ride a motorbike and shoot a gun, sometimes as young as 12 or 13, they are out killing for 200 or 300 reais [$88 or $132],” said a 20-year-old resident of Leticia who left his family home in Tabatinga two years ago and asked not to be named. “In the past you’d hear of assassins earning big amounts, but now they are killing for almost nothing.”

Santa Rosa in Peru, an island of under 800 people in the middle of the Amazon River, is the third settlement that makes up this territorial confluence, and it is the jungle area on this side of the border that is the main production hub. 

In an attempt to combat corruption, police based in the city of Iquitos — the regional capital 250 kilometers away — are rotated in and out of Santa Rosa every six months, but it’s a token gesture in the face of pitiful resources. Just 14 anti-drug police, including a commanding officer, are stationed in the village. They have one boat and have to provide their own uniforms.

Amazon drug routes

A Multinational Business

A Peruvian anti-drug official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the production operations they encounter are often run by Colombians or Brazilians. On the Colombian side, security services and government officials in Leticia are all keen to emphasize that the groups commonly associated with drug trafficking in Colombia do not maintain a presence in the area.

SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles

According to Taborda, guerrillas play no part in the drugs passing through the tri-border area. There are also no elements of the drug trafficking paramilitary successor groups known as the BACRIM (from the Spanish abbreviation for “criminal bands”), though Taborda says traffickers commonly mimic their tactics to spread fear.

This assertion is supported by Colombian NGO Indepaz’s 2013 “Report on Narcoparamilitary Groups” (pdf) — which charts the presence of BACRIM across the country and makes no mention of Leticia or the Amazon region.

Instead, the trade is overseen by smaller organizations, with bases of operations often located downriver in Brazil or in Peru, where much of the area’s production occurs and where security forces are ill-equipped to meet the challenge.

“When we find them, there are more of them than us and they have modern weapons,” said a Peruvian police officer based in Santa Rosa who wished to remain anonymous. “Sometimes we just have to wait for them to leave before we go in to their area,” he added.

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According to Dr. Hector Daniel Rios Sora, Leticia’s Secretary for Government and Social Order, while Colombia seeks to assist Peru through daily coast guard patrols between 5 AM and 6 PM, many drug carrying craft move outside those hours.

“Unfortunately, there is not an adequate control at night,” said Rios.

Captain John Carlos Florez Beltran, the Commander of Colombia’s Southern Fleet, says the production found in Peru and Colombia is the work of small, often family-based groups living a subsistence lifestyle from coca paste production.

“Many of the people working in this do not have money, they are doing it to feed their families,” said Florez, whose forces destroyed 31 coca paste production facilities in 2013, seizing 124 kilos of paste and detaining 19 traffickers in the process.

The crops are processed into coca paste in simple laboratories, which Florez says are generally maintained by three or four families. This product is then often transported to high-tech laboratories in Brazil, where cocaine hydrochloride (HCl) is manufactured.

“There are no HCl laboratories in this part of Colombian territory that I know of,” said Florez. “The labs we find are small and rudimentary, for the production of coca paste.”

The paste is bought by trafficking groups that have established influence over cultivation areas. One family-based operation known as “Los Amaringos” was dismantled by Colombian security forces in late 2013.

Some of the trafficking organizations, however, are more developed and led by powerful drug barons, with Colombian police blaming many of the drug-related killings in the tri-border area on two warring criminal groups.

For several years an organization led by Colombian Carlos Alberto Ramos, alias “Cali,” has battled a group known as “Los Caqueteños.” Another powerful group from the region was struck a blow in September 2013, with the capture of Jesus Ardela Michue, alias “Chocolate,” the last of three Peruvian drug trafficking brothers to be arrested.

According to Florez, traffickers take advantage of the open borders, freely crossing between countries to avoid capture. It makes close working relationships and intelligence sharing among the three nations imperative to successful law enforcement, he said.

But detection is made more difficult by the manner of transportation, with drugs generally carried by small boats in modest quantities from production points mainly in Peru. It’s a river bound version of the “hormiga” (ant) system, with large numbers of “mules” each carrying small amounts of drugs. As a transportation method, it’s practically impossible to stop.

“They bring it (…) camouflaged in blocks of cheese, in false bottomed boats, in small quantities of five, ten or 20 kilos,” said Florez.

The Micro-trafficking Aspect

Like other drug transit hubs, Leticia and Tabatinga are home to a sizeable micro-trafficking economy, concentrated in impoverished border communities, with neighborhoods Barrio La Union and Barrio Colombia focal points for Colombian police actions.

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Irregular housing flouts a law preventing construction close to the border, with only occasional boundary stones serving as a reminder of the frontier bisecting the communities. On a map Leticia and Tabatinga appear as one big urban sprawl and movement between the cities is limitless.

It’s a setup that micro-traffickers have long taken advantage of, using properties that straddle the border as sales points to allow easy escape beyond the jurisdiction of any police operation.

“We’d come through the front door and they’d run into the kitchen,” said Superintendent Javier Rodriguez of the Colombian police. “But the kitchen’s in Brazil, so we couldn’t enter.”

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Micro-trafficking

According to Secretary Rios, like the farmers growing coca and producing paste, a lot of those involved in micro-trafficking are poor people supporting their families. Among them are displaced people, he says, who arrive in Leticia after being persecuted by armed groups elsewhere in the country. 

“We are not able to offer enough alternatives, enough work, to the displaced,” says Rios, who himself originally arrived in the city as a victim of displacement. “Many [involved in micro-trafficking] are assassinated, they pay with their lives by choosing that way to try and look after their family.”

Authorities are keen to frame the micro-trafficking phenomenon as something distinct from large scale drug trafficking, but it is a difficult narrative to digest. While impoverished families may be among those on the frontlines, the trade is overseen by organized criminal structures at least linked to, if not the same as, the groups that transport drugs in and out of the area.

An example of such a structure emerged in February 2014, when Colombian authorities dismantled a Peruvian-led gang known as “Los Incas,” which imported marijuana into the tri-border area from the southeast Colombian state of Cauca. While much of the marijuana was sold on the local market, Colombian police reported it was also transported on to Manaus, a keystone of the Amazonian drug route.

Cooperation the Key

The situation in the Tri-Border region has forced Colombian and Brazilian police into a new level of cooperation, launching coordinated raids as part of an initiative begun in December 2013 called “Frontera Segura” (Secure Border). “Now if we come and they jump out the window, they find themselves surrounded by Brazilian police,” said Colonel Taborda.

Taborda stresses his support for his Brazilian counterparts. “This is our problem and together we will resolve it,” he said, emphasizing the early success of the coordinated raids and his hopes for deepening cooperation in the future. 

But the reality is, no matter what level of collaboration is established, the sheer scale of the Amazon region makes stemming the flow of drugs an impossible task. Even if security services from the three countries could seriously dent the trade in the area, it would simply shift to the next accommodating zone, and the flow of drugs and blood would go on.

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