Huge Cocaine Lab Bust Reveals Colombia’s Challenges for Peace

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Colombia’s seizure of a huge cocaine production complex is a clear sign that the drug trade is as strong as ever in the country’s far south, a lucrative crime hub that could pose a series of threats to the imminent “post conflict” era.

Authorities have destroyed 27 structures dedicated to the production of coca base and cocaine in Colombia’s remote southern region of Putumayo, according to a police press release. Cocaine labs in the Colombian countryside are typically rudimentary structures covered with plastic and equipped with low-tech hardware.

The laboratories were discovered near the Ecuadoran border during a five-day joint operation between the Colombian police, military forces and the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Together they produced an estimated 48 to 50 metric tons of drugs per year.

SEE ALSO:  Coverage of Cocaine Production

During the operation authorities seized 616 kilograms of cocaine, around 1 metric ton of coca base and nearly 60,600 liters of precursor chemicals, which would be discarded in nearby rivers during the production process.

The complex was allegedly owned by the Constru, a criminal organization made up of former paramilitaries and local criminals. From Putumayo the cocaine would be trafficked to Brazil and then Africa, or to Central America via the Pacific coast, according to the police report.

InSight Crime Analysis

Putumayo is one of Colombia’s biggest coca-producing regions, and the Constru have been involved in drug trafficking in the area for some time. This criminal network is believed to work directly with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), who sell the Constru coca base and provide protection for its operations. The guerrilla group keeps the majority of the proceeds, and contracts the Constru for killings and attacks.

However, this most recent police report states that a year ago, the Constru sealed an alliance with the Urabeños — the most powerful drug trafficking organization in the country — and is selling them cocaine in order to gain access to new trafficking routes.

It is unclear what this new alliance means for the Constru’s relationship with the FARC. Although a March 2016 report by the Ombudsman’s Office accessed by InSight Crime indicated that an alliance between the Constru and the FARC’s 48th Front still existed, it is possible that the Constru has switched allegiances as the guerrilla group nears a demobilization agreement with the Colombian government.

The FARC controls a large part of the nation’s drug trade and has been engaged in peace negotiations since 2012. Advances in the peace process have given rise to fears of a criminal power vacuum once the guerrillas turn in their weapons.

SEE ALSO:  FARC, Peace and Possible Criminalization

Considering these scenarios, the “post conflict” in Putumayo may play out in a number of ways. The steep profits generated by the southern department’s cocaine trade heighten the risk that local FARC units will ignore eventual calls to disarm and continue running their operations. And it would be hard to stop them from doing so — the Urabeños’ military presence in Putumayo is too weak to take on the FARC, or to defend the Constru from any retaliation by the guerrilla group against this new alliance.

Should the FARC in Putumayo choose to demobilize rather than criminalize, however, the Constru is well placed to step in to the void the insurgents leave behind.

Indeed, an inevitable nationwide shift in Colombia’s criminal dynamics has already been set into motion. While alliances between armed actors do contribute to the relatively smooth operation of the drug industry, violent clashes are occurring between a number of rival groups over control of FARC territories.

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