This is a source for analysis, interviews, and commentary on security in Latin America. Herein you will find rumors, the results of off the record interviews, and information you'll not find in international or United States news media.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Organized Crime, Smuggling, and Operation Twin Oceans

Today's show covers organized crime in the Americas, smuggling in Colombia, Riots in Brazil, and our favorite leader, Hugo Chavez.

My plans to talk about Bolivia’s self-eradication program were put on hold as I got deeper and deeper into the world of smuggling and organized crime in Colombia and Panama. I am currently working on an eight-part series on smuggling in the Americas. The first piece on Buenaventura, Colombia has been published, and I expect to publish a piece on Panama City early next week.

Today I would like to share with you information about Operation Twin Oceans, a Colombian drug trafficker known as Don Pablo, Riots in Brazilian prisons, the arrest of a Tijuana Cartel boss, and a little tidbit about everyone’s favorite topic, Hugo Chavez.

Let’s get started.

Operation Twin Oceans is the tail end of a long series of operations inaugurated in late 2002. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, also known as the DEA, jumped on board with this string of operations when it deemed the target, Pablo Rayo-Montano as a worthy target in October, 2005. Don Pablo was a Colombian drug trafficker who leveraged his land holdings in Panama and private navy to consolidate shipments of cocaine and move multiple tons of packaged cocaine from Colombia to Mexico and other destinations.

Don Pablo got started in Buenaventura, Colombia, the country’s busiest port city in terms of volume. Over time, Don Pablo won more clients for his consolidation and shipping business as the Colombian drug trade fractionalized from large organizations to dozens of baby cartels.

At the height of his business, Don Pablo moved up to 20 tons of cocaine a month, mostly to contacts with either the Sinaloa or Gulf Cartel in Mexico, that county’s two top drug smuggling organizations. Enter Operation Twin Oceans.

The DEA, working with partners in eleven countries, operated an intelligence gathering network that eventually led to Sao Paulo, Brazil. Don Pablo is believed to have fled to Brazil after a previous intelligence operation, dubbed Buenaventura No. 1 came close to dismantling his operation. Operation Buenaventura No. 1 focused on the smuggling links between Panama City and Buenaventura, Colombia. Invariably some members of Don Pablo’s organization were caught in the drag net.

It’s possible some of them gave up information that eventually led authorities to the Panamanian marina services company, Nautipesca, which was one of the country’s top marina services companies as well as Don Pablo’s principle front for a massive money laundering service that he offered to his clients. Call it an added value service.

With enough information to arrest Don Pablo, the DEA came knocking on the door of the Brazilian Federal Police in mid-May this past year. As many of you probably know, the second week of May was not a pleasant time for the Brazilian Federal Police. There were in the middle of a nearly two-week long siege on over 100 prisons. Riots had broken out on May 14 setting ablaze a series of riots in prisons across the state of Sao Paulo. On the streets, members of the First Capital Command, a Brazilian prison gang, were targeting cops at will, killing them on sight. As the mess dragged on into the week, cops retaliated killing dozens of suspects members of the First Capital Command. For Don Pablo, it would have been the perfect environment to hide out and maintain a low profile until things blew over in Panama.

Again, enter Operation Twin Oceans. With information in hand, the DEA made its case to the Brazilian Federal Police. Soon after Brazilian officers braved the extremely dangerous situation on the streets of Sao Paulo to serve an arrest warrant on Don Pablo, who was probably pretty surprised to find the DEA and Brazilian Federal Police knocking on his door in the middle of the prison riots.

Such mega-operations make me think of the DEA’s operations and efforts to take down Colombia’s first mega-drug trafficking organization. The Medellin Cartel, run by Pablo Escobar, feel apart after Escobar took multiple bullets in the chest, but the truth is his power over Colombian drug trafficking had begun to fade long before Escobar’s death.

A group of men who called themselves People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar, or Los Pepes, were secretly helping the DEA and Colombian authorities pull apart Escobar’s network by fighting fire with fire. Los Pepes broke the law. They set off bombs, murdered people, and – generally speaking – used the same terror tactics on Escobar that he used on his enemies. Two members of Los Pepes went on to form the Cali Cartel, another, known as Adolfo Paz, went on to become a notorious paramilitary chieftain, known as one of the first Colombian drug traffickers fully integrate with the country’s paramilitary forces.

The absence of the Medellin Cartel made way for the grand entrance of the Cali Cartel, an organization run by men who learned from Escobar’s mistakes. In a similar fashion, the recent arrest of Javier Arellano-Felix, a ranking member of Mexico’s Tijuana Cartel, may eventually lead to the dismantling of this Mexican drug smuggling dynasty.

But maybe not. Javier was a younger brother of a brood of Arellano-Felix siblings that have run the Tijuana Cartel since the early 80s. At one point, the Tijuana Cartel was the top dog in Mexico with complete control over smuggling routes into California, a principle market for cocaine in the 1980s.

By March, 2002, the tide had turned. Benjamin Arellano Felix, Javier’s older brother entered prison. Another brother, Ramon, was killed that year. Leadership is belived to have fallen into the hands of younger brother Eduardo and sister, Enedina – the former a doctor, the ladder an accountant. Under their leadership, the Tijuana Cartel has become more of a business, not as ruthless as it’s past antics would lead you to belive. Meanwhile, the Gulf and Sinaloa Cartels have increased their size and power significantly. The arrest of Javier Arellano-Felix puts a dent in the Tijuana Cartel’s enforcement arena, and his arraignment on US soil means he’s just as dead as his brother Ramon. It’s highly likely Javier will serve multiple life sentences once the courts and a jury of his peers have had a chance to sift through all the evidence the US Dept of Justice has on that guy.

Which leads me to my point here. The Tijuana Cartel’s days are numbered. Sooner or later the Gulf or Sinaloa Cartel will take over Tijuana. It is a border crossing that is second only to Nuevo Laredo in terms of volume of daily trade. When that happens, the group that holds both Nuevo Laredo or Tijuana, and it could be either the Sinaloa or Gulf Cartel at this point, will have consolidated smuggling operations into the United States from California to eastern Texas – it’s a business that generates tens of billions a year in tax-free dollars. Quite possibly as much as twice what the Mexican government earns from annual oil revenues.

Speaking of oil, let me finish by making mention of Hugo Chavez. As he would have it, the word Chavez has remained constantly in international headlines for weeks. It seems the media can’t get enough of this guy. Venezuelan presidential elections will be held in December, but already there is much activity in Venezuela.

Most importantly, it appears the once fractionalized opposition has managed to rally around one man, Manuel Rosales. He is the former governor of the state of Zulia, and has resolved to beat Chavez at his own game: appeal to the poor.

Many casual observers of Chavez’s Movement for 21 Century Socilialism fail to realize that the socialist movement is rotting at the core. Chavez’s most ardent supporters in 1998 are not asking why he is spending more money on regional and international programs while bridges fall and people remain jobless at home.

Rosales is playing on this growing sentiment to gain a portion of the chavista vote, while hoping he can attract to voting booths the millions of Venezuelans who have continued to abstain from voting in silent protest. It’s certain that in a year of many presidential elections, the Venezuelan election will be the most passionate. The outcome could range from peaceful and cheerful even to downright bloody and a welcome mat to civil war. I guess if that happens, the region’s drug smugglers will have one more option for places to keep a low profile. Don Pablo has certainly learned that Brazil is not an option.

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