More than 50 members of Colombia's "Bandas Criminales" drug gangs have been indicted on US charges they used planes or custom-built submarines for cocaine smuggling, US and Colombian officials said Friday.
The roundup of dozens of suspects is seen as the most important bust yet by a US team -- cooperating closely with Colombian authorities -- set up in February to smash a narcotics network that has gained notoriety for its unconventional underwater trafficking from South America to the United States.
In announcing the indictments of 56 traffickers, US Attorney for the Southern District of Florida Wifredo Ferrer spoke of the "proactive strategy" that allowed US and Colombian authorities to hone in on the "Bandas Criminales."
"Our common goal is simple: target the BACRIM leadership, dismantle their narco-trafficking operations, and eliminate the threat they pose to the security of the region and the international community," Ferrer said.
Two separate operations were conducted. In Operation Under the Sea, 22 people were charged for what the US Department of Justice described as "participation in a drug trafficking organization that built and used fully submersible and semi-submersible submarines to transport cocaine from Colombia to Central America, with the ultimate destination being the United States."
Colombia has seized more than a dozen of the illicit submersibles since 2009.
The nearly undetectable vessels can carry several tons of drugs and can be easily abandoned or sunk by traffickers, who can then pose as castaways.
In early August, authorities in Honduras announced they intercepted a Colombian drug submarine containing 7.5 tons of cocaine -- a record seizure for the country.
Operation Seven Trumpets -- focusing on traffickers who used US-registered planes to transport tons of cocaine from clandestine South American airstrips to similar landing sites in Central America, and eventually on to the United States -- led to 34 of the indictments, the Justice Department said.
If convicted, all 56 suspects face up to 60 years in jail.
Neither US nor Colombian authorities revealed where any of the operations took place.
In Bogota, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said at least 30 people were arrested. Among them were four "big guns" including Alvaro Suarez, who once served as a pilot for Pablo Escobar, the elusive Medellin cartel drug lord who was killed in a shootout with Colombian police in 1993.
The country's national police chief General Oscar Naranjo said Friday that the latest operations also led to the seizure of 21 airplanes, five tons of cocaine and $1.5 million.
Ninety-five percent of cocaine consumed in the United States comes from Colombia, the world's largest producer of the drug.
Washington and Bogota are key allies in the drug war, with ongoing military aid under the $6-billion Plan Colombia program that has been in place since 2000.
Guillermo Legaria: AFP
Yahoo News 2nd Sept 2011
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