Colombia’s narcotics smuggling is going hi-tech with drone deliveries

Finding new avenues to beat the system.
Finding new avenues to beat the system.
Image: Reuters/John Vizcaino
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Colombia’s drug dealers are taking to the skies with drones.

The world’s largest producer of cocaine is reportedly using unmanned aerial vehicles to transport drugs to Panama. On Nov. 15, Colombian authorities confiscated one such vehicle, which they suspect was being used to ferry small shipments of cocaine from a jungle region in Colombia to the neighboring country.

The police uncovered 130 kilos (286 pounds) of cocaine, as well as parts of an aircraft (which were ready to be assembled) buried in the sand near the town of Bahía Solano on Colombia’s northwest coast, General Jose Acevedo told Panama’s english language daily El Siglo (link in Spanish). “The drone was used to carry cocaine to Panama, it had the capacity to transport 10 kilograms (22 pounds) per journey and it traveled a 100 kilometer (62 mile) distance,” Acevedo said.

The regional police commander attributed the drugs to criminal group Clan del Golfo, or “Gulf Clan.” The gang of 1,200 to 5,000 men primarily functions as a drug trafficking group.

Tech-savvy smugglers have been caught using drones. In January 2015, an unmanned aerial vehicle crashed on the US-Mexico border. It was loaded with over six pounds of crystal meth, Tijuana police told CNN. The incident reportedly marked the first time US Customs and Border Protection had intercepted any narcotics-smuggling drones.

The Colombian government and the UN have been embroiled in a decades-long war on drugs in the region. The average annual area in the country with coca crops fell by nearly 19% when comparing the periods 1998-2008 and 2009-2014, according to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime.

However, Colombia has once again reclaimed the top spot as the world’s largest producer of cocaine. It produced 442 metric tons of pure cocaine in 2014, up from 290 metric tons in 2013. The Andean nation experienced a boom in production for a host of factors, including a spike in prices and new growing technologies. In addition, El Niño caused a major drought, which led some farmers to turn to the more resilient coca crop.

In 2014, Colombia’s production accounted for 52% of global coca bush cultivation, the UNODC noted. The total area under coca bush cultivation in Colombia amounted to 69,000 hectares, up from 48,000 the year prior.

The same drones that are being used in crimes can be used to fight them: Brazil’s military and police have already been using Israeli drones to monitor drug trafficking in its border regions, and small drones dispatched by the navy keep watch on illicit coastal activities. In Colombia’s capital city Bogota, security secretary Daniel Mejía hopes to introduce aerial photography and videography (link in Spanish) to crack down on crime in real-time.