Who Controls Colombia’s Enduring Heroin Trade

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A news report describing a fragmented heroin production in southwest Colombia has placed a renewed focus on who is controlling the country’s diminished but enduring heroin business.

Family clans and small independent groups are still in control of heroin production in Colombia’s southern Nariño and Cauca departments, El Espectador reported on August 22.

These groups “have specialized in trafficking small quantities that are easier to hide,” Rymel Arley Estévez Araqu, the head of the Antinarcotics Police’s heroin investigation unit, told the newspaper. Heroin is then smuggled into Ecuador via the so-called “anti-trafficking” method before being shipped to the United States.

The wholesale price of a kilo of heroin on the US market hovered above $53,000 in 2016, nearly double that of cocaine, according to the most recent available data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). In comparison, a kilo of opium gum is bought for just 1.2 million pesos ($400) from Colombian farmers.

A source who asked to remain anonymous concurred that the industry appeared to remain fragmented.

“Indeed, the heroin trade is controlled by small criminal structures,” InSight Crime was told. “Some process the opium gum into morphine, others will process [morphine] into heroin, and yet others will take care of smuggling it.”

This contrasts with recent information that the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) guerrilla group had moved in on the heroin business in the southwest of the country. InSight Crime was warned early 2017 during fieldwork in the area that the ELN was planning to extend its control from opium poppy cultivation to the heroin production process, and Colombia’s anti-narcotics police told El Tiempo in August 2017 that their principal target was now Rodrigo Yepes Mejía, alias “Gustavo” or “HH,” the commander of the 200-strong Southern Comuneros Front (Comuneros del Sur) reportedly in charge of the heroin market in the area.

“We are going to impede Yepes Mejía’s plan to position himself as the main power in the heroin trade,” General José Ángel Mendoza, then director of the anti-narcotics police, told El Tiempo.

Government data shows that Nariño is one of Colombia’s two opium poppy-producing departments, with an estimated 300 hectares cultivated in 2016. Along with Cauca’s estimated 162 hectares of opium poppy, Colombia could produce some 1.5 metric tons of heroin a year, according to El Tiempo. Colombia’s opium poppy cultivation has drastically dropped since the early 2000s when it stood at more than 4,000 hectares.

InSight Crime Analysis

The uncertainty surrounding who controls the heroin business in southwest Colombia is the result of the difficult access to production areas and the important criminal shifts that have recently taken place.

The heroin trade in Colombia has traditionally been the preserve of small specialized trafficking clans rather than armed groups and major drug cartels. But there is some evidence that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) had a role in heroin production in Nariño prior to their demobilization.

As such, alleged ELN attempts to control the trade would be in line with the trend of the guerrilla fighters capitalizing on the departure of the FARC to strengthen their presence and involvement in the drug trade in parts of Nariño. The aforementioned source told InSight Crime that the ELN may be levying a criminal tax on independent heroin producers, which could explain some of the confusion surrounding the current state of the trade.

SEE ALSO: ELN News and Profile

The issue of the heroin trade has largely been overshadowed by Colombia’s booming cocaine production and the peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC).

The question of the ELN’s degree of involvement in the heroin business would impact production and trafficking patterns. And it could also hold ramifications for the negotiations of the rebel group’s intermittent peace talks with the Colombian government.

*This article was written with assistance from InSight Crime’s Colombia Team and was updated on August 29 to reflect ongoing developments. 

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