Mexican Cartels Trade Guns for Cocaine, Fueling Violence in Colombia | WKZO | All Kalamazoo

By Luis Jaime Acosta

BOGOTA (Reuters) – Mexican drug cartels appear to be shipping high-powered weapons to Colombia to buy shipments of cocaine, a trade that Colombian authorities say is fueling a deadly fight between rival traffickers for control of the roads of the country drug.

A multitude of machine guns, assault rifles and semi-automatic handguns are pouring into the South American country, a dozen Colombian law enforcement officials told Reuters.

Among the weapons appearing in the arsenals of traffickers is the Belgian-made FN Five-seveN pistol, sources said. Nicknamed the “cop killer”, the 5.7 caliber weapon can penetrate body armor.

Most of the 1,478 long guns confiscated from Colombian armed groups in 2020 and 2021 were manufactured abroad and smuggled, police say, along the same smuggling routes used to smuggle the drugs out.

Mexican drug gangs have easy access to weapons bought in the United States and have long-term business relationships with Colombian armed groups, from whom they have been buying cocaine for decades, Colombian authorities said.

Today, cartel emissaries are increasingly paying for cocaine shipments with guns, authorities say, in part to avoid having to move large amounts of cash across borders.

The mighty firepower of the arsenal provided by the cartel has potential security implications for Colombia. Heavy weapons in the hands of criminals endanger law enforcement and could further complicate the troubled implementation of a 2016 peace accord between Bogota and the rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Last year, 148 members of the Armed Forces and National Police were killed in Colombia, the highest figure in six years and a 57% increase from 2020, according to Defense Ministry figures.

“What the illegal armed groups in Colombia are doing is using Mexicans to match and surpass the state armed forces in terms of armament,” said an official from the Center for Counterterrorism Information and Weapons Tracing. (CIARA) of the police.

“In the future, this could have serious implications, such as an increase in hostilities,” according to the official, who said that armed groups could use the weapons not only against law enforcement, but in battles against them. with each other.

The agency allowed the person to speak to Reuters on the condition that they not be identified.

Colombian police say they have an ongoing dialogue with their American and Mexican counterparts about keeping weapons out of the hands of drug traffickers.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) declined to comment, while the Mexican government did not respond to questions from Reuters.

MEXICAN CONNECTION

Colombian authorities say the battle for control of their country’s drug trade is being waged between former FARC members who reject the peace deal; guerrillas from the still active National Liberation Army (ELN); and members of a plethora of criminal syndicates, including Clan del Golfo, Colombia’s largest cartel.

Although the dissidents of the FARC and the ELN espouse some of the same Marxist ideals, and sometimes allied themselves against the government at the height of the civil war, they now regularly fight among themselves and compete with criminal gangs for dominate the lucrative drug routes, security officials said.

Encounters between law enforcement and these groups reveal powerful weapons.

In mid-December last year, the Colombian army carried out an operation against FARC dissidents in the southwestern province of Narino, a major coca-producing region. The military said it captured 16 people and seized a cache of weapons, including 24 US-made M16 assault rifles and AR-15 semi-automatic rifles.

Similar loot was found at another FARC dissident camp in the southern jungle province of Caqueta in 2019, according to the military: an M60 machine gun, an AR-15 rifle with an extra range for a sniper elite and a dozen assaults. rifles, including M4 and M16.

Authorities said they believe the weapons were supplied by Mexico’s Sinaloa, Zeta and Jalisco New Generation cartels, all of which have emissaries on Colombian soil.

Their representatives are present in 11 of Colombia’s 32 provinces, according to a 2021 police intelligence report seen by Reuters.

The Sinaloa cartel, once led by imprisoned ringleader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, has the widest geographic reach and deepest connections to Colombian armed groups, according to the report.

Some 55 Mexicans have been charged or convicted of drug trafficking offenses in Colombia in the past three years, according to the national prisons agency.

Colombia’s national police said last week they had captured Brian Donaciano Olguin, a Mexican national they said was the Sinaloa Cartel’s most important go-between with FARC dissidents, calling his arrest an emissary of the largest cartel to date. Reuters was unable to contact Olguin or determine if he had a lawyer.

Mexico’s warring drug gangs have stockpiled weapons-grade weaponry at home, alarming officials in their own country.

Last year, the government of Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador prosecuted gunsmiths, accusing them of facilitating arms trafficking, which the gunsmiths deny.

U.S. gunsmiths support tougher enforcement of existing laws, including jailing people who steal and smuggle firearms, said Mark Oliva, director of public affairs at the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a group firearms industry trader, in an email.

Guns are a handy form of currency for gangsters.

Paying coke suppliers with guns, rather than bulky cash, helps Mexican cartels launder profits and move cash more easily, said Gen. Fernando Murillo, head of DIJIN, the division of investigation by the Colombian National Police.

“Every day (doing) drug trafficking through cash payments becomes more difficult. So now they are using different methods: a Mexican cartel could pay off with sophisticated weapons,” Murillo said.

SPECULATE

Until the 1990s, Colombian guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries widely used Russian-made AK-47s left over from wars in Central America, police and armed forces officials told Reuters.

As the drug trade grew and became more lucrative, armed groups upgraded to newer AK-47s, US-made M16s and AR-15s, and Israeli-made Tavor assault rifles, police officials said. While some weapons cost as little as $500 in Colombia, machine guns can fetch up to $5,000, they said.

Leaders of the Segunda Marquetalia, a dissident FARC group, have repeatedly appeared in YouTube videos armed with Tavor assault rifles likely supplied by Mexican cartels, according to the CIARA Police Center.

The US DEA estimates that Colombian criminal groups earn about $10 billion a year from drug deals.

The southward flow of weapons comes as Colombian provinces like Norte de Santander, on the border with Venezuela, and Narino and Cauca, on the Pacific coast, have seen an increase in coca production and associated violence by armed groups, despite US-backed efforts by President Ivan Duque to reduce narcotics production.

The Clan del Golfo alone transports some 20 tons of cocaine a month for clients such as the Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels, according to Colombian police, who say the Clan’s gangster allies in Medellin used the FN Five-gun. seveN in internal conflicts.

It is possible that some weapons supplied by cartels enter Colombia via Venezuela, according to Colombian police and military officials.

Dissident leaders like Ivan Marquez, who heads Segunda Marquetalia, are meeting in Venezuela with envoys from Sinaloa and Jalisco, Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas, the national police chief, told Reuters.

Bogota has long accused the Venezuelan government of providing safe haven for Colombian armed groups, including dissidents, allegations denied by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

The Venezuelan government did not respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta in Bogota and Tumaco, Colombia; additional reporting by Diego Ore and Drazen Jorgic in Mexico City, Vivian Sequera in Caracas and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; editing by Marla Dickerson, Julia Symmes Cobb and Daniel Flynn)

Martin E. Berry