The shipments can be as small as 300 kilos (and occasionally even smaller) or as high as two or five tons. The smaller the amount, the more likely the route is being tested before sending a large amount that could be seized by enforcement agents, or stolen by rival cartels. Drugs are also sent in smaller shipment sizes by land through Central America. Again, these smaller shipments are often used to test the security of a given route at a given time.
Lesson number three is that narcotics transportation is a highly developed business model, with granular attention paid to all facets of a multi-dimensional supply chain. And the individuals running these businesses are very good at what they do.
Until the demise of the large Colombian cartels (Medellín and Cali) in the 1990s, Colombian traffickers set prices and transportation conditions throughout Central America. But by the turn of the century, Mexican trafficking organizations began taking over and setting prices. In the early part of the last decade, the norm was for the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas to organize trafficking along the Atlantic coast, while the Sinaloa Cartel trafficked along the Pacific coast. However, territorial divisions are no longer as solid as they used to be. To wit: the Sinaloa cartel has established partnerships with other organizations operating on the Central American Atlantic coast for a few years now.
In the 1980s, the Medellín Cartel and its leader Pablo Escobar trafficked cocaine through the Bahamas and from there to Florida. When the U.S., blocked that route, Escobar shifted his primary transportation routes to Nicaragua. There he found some assistance within the Sandinista government, but prolifically with the CIA-backed Contras. By many reports (see: The Dark Alliance series written by Gary Webb and published in 1996 by the San Jose Mercury News, or the book length investigation, Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and The Press by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair) the CIA, working at cross-purposes with the DEA, facilitated the shipment of illegal drugs as a means of funding the Contras’ war against the Sandinista government.
One particularly amusing, if disheartening, story is that of freelance pilot Michael Tolliver, who told CBS news in 1989 that he had been a drug smuggler for years and was recruited into the Contra supply operation by a man he identified as “Mr. Hernandez,” widely believed to be an alias for Feliz Rodríguez, the CIA agent in charge of the Contra supply routes from El Salvador (and famous for leading the team that tracked down and killed Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Bolivia in 1967).
Tolliver said he flew a DC-6 loaded with guns and ammunition from Butler Aviation in the Miami Airport to Aguacate, a U.S.-controlled Contra air base in Honduras. He was paid $70,000. After a three-day layover, he returned to find his aircraft reloaded with 25,000 pounds of marijuana, which he then flew back to Homestead Air Force Base near Miami.
CBS tracked the plane back to a company called Vortex, which was one of four airlines hired by the U.S. State Department to supply the Contras, using money designated by Congress as “for humanitarian aid” only.
Toward the end of the decade, Escobar was also trafficking through Cuba, using small planes flown by young Nicaraguan pilots to carry drugs into the U.S. Escobar, like other traffickers, had not put all his cocaine kilos in one basket. That way, if one route was closed, he had many others and was not out of business with one stroke.
For instance, the Cuban operation was shut down because the military officer who enabled it was executed by the Castro government when discovered.
Which brings us to lesson number four: narcotraffickers are apolitical and will work within the contours of global and business conflict. Their business model provides “dark money” to whomever is in need and can offer them safe passage, be they revolutionaries, governments on the left or the right, or agencies and individuals within governments with their own, often covert, agendas. And in Latin America, conflict and corruption are virtually limitless resources.
Escobar was killed in a 1993 anti-narcotics mission, and the cartel he had built fell apart, its business soon absorbed by the rival Cali Cartel whose bosses, the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers, were extradited to the United States and convicted in a Miami courtroom in 2006. As a condition of their conviction, they were forced to surrender $1.6 billion in assets, but were not required to assist in other investigations.
In the years prior to their arrest and conviction, the Cali Cartel developed a business arrangement with the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel. At the time, the hinge holding them together was a Central American transportation company run by a Guatemalan trafficker, Otto Herrera. Herrera provided sea transportation from Colombia’s Pacific coast to El Salvador or Mexico, land transportation from El Salvador to Guatemala and Mexico, and air transportation from Colombia and Venezuela to Guatemala and Mexico.
From there, the Sinaloa Cartel took over final transportation to the United States.
Importantly, besides the transportation of cocaine from South America to Central and North America, this Colombian-Mexican business arrangement, facilitated by the Guatemalan Otto Herrera, also managed the reverse flow of cash, in bulk, first into Mexico, where a portion of it was wire-transferred to Florida and / or Oklahoma and used for the purchase of large planes. Planes that were then flown to Colombia or Venezuela. The planes, now legally owned, further facilitate the business model, as they are available for the future shipment of cocaine.
Herrera was arrested in Mexico City in 2004, where he escaped one year later from a maximum security prison, and was arrested again in Bogotá, Colombia, in 2007. Although his was an important route for the Sinaloa Cartel and its leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the drug flow for his organization did not stop.
The arrest of several Guatemalan associates of the Sinaloa Cartel had little to no impact on the overall business of the cartel: Mauro Salomon Ramírez (October 2010), Juan Ortiz López (March 2011), Waldemar Lorenzana Lima (April 2011), Byron Gilberto Linares Cordón (June 2011), and Elio Lorenzana Cordón (November 2011) are all under arrest and awaiting extradition to the United States. Salomon Ramirez and Ortiz Lopez are to stand trial in Tampa, Florida; the rest will face justice in Washington, DC.
In February of this year, 35 members of the Galeano clan were arrested in Colombia, suspected of running one of the main routes out of Venezuela and into Honduras. From there, drugs were then sent to Guatemala (to the Lorenzanas and Mendoza families, linked to drug trafficking by U.S. authorities) by land or sea on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and then to Mexico. Even under heightened scrutiny, the trade continues largely unabated.