FARC’s Cocaine Sales to Mexico Cartels Prove Too Rich to Subdue
Jan. 20 (Bloomberg) -- Mexican drug cartels are getting cocaine from Colombia’s biggest guerrilla group in a deal that increases the security threat to both nations, according to a document captured by Colombian military intelligence and to a government official in that country.
The pact to bypass middlemen has given Reyes’s group, known as the FARC, an opportunity to double its profit by selling directly to the Mexican cartel, said the government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The FARC earned at least $1 billion and maybe several times that amount in the past year, according to officials familiar with the group. The arrangement has strengthened the cartels at a time when they are under pressure from an offensive ordered by Mexican President Felipe Calderon, the Colombian official said.
“That would be a catastrophic quantum leap in terms of the internationalization of the FARC’s drug-trafficking patterns,” Jay Bergman, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Bogota- based director for the Andean region, said in a phone interview. “It would cut out the traditional drug-trafficker middleman and increase the amount of money the FARC would be able to earn per kilogram -- profit that would be spent on bullets and armament to perpetuate the insurgency.”
The new drug revenue has helped the FARC, which morphed from a Marxist, peasant insurgency into the world’s biggest cocaine producer, to remain a threat to the government of President Alvaro Uribe and mitigate the damage to its finances inflicted by a seven-year army offensive.
Colombia produces more than 90 percent of the cocaine that enters the U.S., the leading market for the drug, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. The Colombian government says the FARC is the country’s biggest cocaine trafficker. An estimated $17.2 billion of illegal drugs, a figure about equal to the annual military budget of Canada, flows to the U.S. via Mexico every year, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
“I’ve heard the FARC derives somewhere between $1 billion and $2 billion a year from the trade,” Michael Braun, who stepped down in 2008 as the DEA’s operations chief, said in a phone interview from Alexandria, Virginia. “I happen to believe that number is woefully underestimated.”
U.S. Drug Consumption
An estimated 20.1 million Americans aged 12 or older, or 8 percent of the population, used drugs in 2008, the government’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health found. A 2006 Justice Department report, citing 2002 data, estimated the economic cost of drug abuse in the U.S. at $181 billion annually.
The Reyes plan sought to change the rebels’ practice of selling cocaine to gangs that Colombian investigators say served as middlemen. Instead, the FARC would send drugs directly to the Mexican cartel on consignment, in effect financing the deals and assuming the risks of shipping in exchange for an opportunity to double its profit, according to the Colombian official.
Reyes was looking for new ways for the FARC to do business after Uribe’s military offensive, bolstered by $6 billion in U.S. aid, pushed the guerrillas into remote areas and increasingly into Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama, cutting their revenue from extortion and kidnapping.
The FARC, whose 45-year-long insurgency makes it the oldest guerrilla group in Latin America, has funded its fight for more than a decade largely with cocaine sales, Colombian investigators and DEA officials say. FARC leaders such as Alfonso Cano continue to say they are fighting for socialism through “class struggle” and are at war with imperialism.
Colombian officials said in March 2008 that Reyes’s laptops contained evidence that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez funneled at least $300 million to the FARC, which is designated a terrorist group by the U.S. State Department. Colombia’s raid into Ecuador, an ally of Venezuela, angered Chavez, who ordered tanks to the border and threatened to “respond decisively” to Colombian aggression.
Colombia also has accused Chavez of providing weapons and harboring guerrillas. While Chavez denies giving the FARC support, he has repeatedly demanded the international community recognize the group as legitimate “belligerents” and called the guerrillas a “real army” with political goals.
The FARC has had ties to Mexico’s cartels on and off since the late 1990s, Braun said in an interview last month.
Being able to get cocaine directly from the FARC would increase the power of one or more of the cartels such as the Tijuana, Sinaloa, Juarez and Gulf, said William Hutchinson, head of the DEA from 2001 to 2003. The groups face growing pressure from Calderon’s law-enforcement offensive, which has put tens of thousands of troops on Mexico’s streets.
“That may end up with increased competition and violence between the cartels” as they fight for control of Mexico’s lucrative market in the U.S., Hutchinson said in a phone interview from Rogers, Arkansas.
Mexico claimed one of its biggest victories last month after marines killed Arturo Beltran Leyva, one of the three most-wanted cartel kingpins, in a two-hour gun battle in Cuernavaca, 50 miles south of Mexico City. Police last week also arrested drug lord Teodoro “El Teo” Garcia Simental. The press office of Mexico’s defense ministry declined to comment for the story.
Mexico has experienced a surge in drug-related violence. More than 11,000 people have died in drug-connected killings since the beginning of 2008, a tally by daily newspaper El Universal shows. The bloodshed is cutting annual economic growth by 1 percentage point, according to Miguel Messmacher, the Finance Ministry’s chief economist.
In 2007, Reyes, then 59, was second-in-command on the FARC’s seven-man executive committee, operating along the southern border with Ecuador, according to Colombia’s Defense Ministry.
In his one-page letter, dated Aug. 4, 2007, Reyes reported that a Colombian emissary from a Mexican cartel, identified as “Camilo,” had come to a meeting at his camp.
Reyes described the man as an associate of Colombian drug trafficker Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia, known as “Chupeta,” who was extradited to the U.S. from Brazil in 2008. He was accused of smuggling $10 billion of cocaine into the U.S.
Two high-level FARC comrades also attended the meeting, Reyes wrote: Edgar Tovar, commander of the rebels’ 48th Front, which operates mostly in Ecuador, and Oliver Solarte, considered by Colombian intelligence as the rebels’ chief drug dealer and key financier for combat units inside Colombia.
Their discussion involved an initial deal for five tons of cocaine.
“They are offering the FARC to take the product to Mexico and Europe,” Reyes wrote in the letter, addressed to three other FARC commanders. Each kilo sent to Mexico “costs $3,500 and it sells for $9,000. That’s a profit of $5,500. For Europe, to send the product there and bring the money back, it will cost $15,000 and it sells for $30,000. The profit will be $15,000.”
Reyes proposed to his comrades that the FARC “invest” 250 million Colombian pesos ($125,000) in shipping 100 kilos (220 pounds) of cocaine as a trial run, to be sold to the Mexicans for a profit of 700 million pesos “if all goes well.”
The FARC would reinvest half the profit and send another 140 kilos, according to the letter. Reinvestment of half the profit in new shipments would continue as long as “authorized” by the FARC’s leadership, Reyes said in the letter.
“The Mexicans would have been able to cut the cocaine and make a lot more money,” Hutchinson said.
Five tons represents 2 percent to 3 percent of the cocaine smuggled into the U.S. each year, Hutchinson said.
Reyes’s role in the plan ended with his death March 1, 2008, when Colombian helicopter gunships and troops attacked his camp inside Ecuador.
Tovar and Solarte continued with the plan’s execution, according to the government official.
One of the computers contained another lead: a letter from Tovar that led authorities to about 30 kilos of depleted uranium stashed in Bogota. Police said it was connected to the FARC’s bid to branch into international terrorism with so-called dirty bombs, which use conventional explosives to spread radioactive material.
Solarte, known as “The Fatman,” controls outside contacts for the 48th Front, a group of more than 200 FARC fighters, and manages dozens of cocaine-producing laboratories, according to the government official.
Solarte’s success selling drugs overseas has led officials to compare him with the late drug baron Pablo Escobar and a deceased rebel commander known as Negro Acacio.
Acacio became notorious for establishing the FARC’s drug business and negotiating a 1999 purchase of 10,000 AK-47 assault rifles through Peru’s Vladimiro Montesinos, spy chief under then-President Alberto Fujimori, according to evidence that emerged during Montesinos’s criminal prosecution in Peru.
The Mexicans probably needed a new supplier to provide drugs on consignment after the traditional Colombian cartels found they weren’t getting paid, said Braun, the ex-DEA official. Stepped-up enforcement efforts by the Mexican and Colombian presidents have made transporting the merchandise more difficult and risky, he said.
“The FARC is marshaling a bigger slice of the action with Mexico but they may end up in the same boat as the traditional Colombian cartels,” Braun said. “They will find out the hard way that it’s too risky. The Mexicans will just have too much debt.”
--Editors: Fred Strasser, Andrew Barden
January 20, 2010, 01:44 AM EST
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FARC’s Cocaine Sales to Mexico Cartels Prove Too Rich to Subdue