Pubdate: Mon, 02 Apr 2007
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2007 Los Angeles Times
Author: Chris Kraul, Times Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Cocaine)


PANAMA CITY -- Call them "the not ready for prime time traffickers."

That's how Panamanian and U.S. authorities are describing alleged 
functionaries of a Mexican drug cartel that lost a $270-million load 
of cocaine in a colossal bust off Panama's Pacific coast last month.

In interviews here, officials were practically shaking their heads 
over the carelessness and inattention to detail by the Sinaloa-based 
cartel during the two months that a pair of alleged lieutenants spent 
in Panama City arranging the Colombia-to-Mexico shipment.

The big break in the case, officials said, came shortly after the two 
men arrived in town, when Panamanian police got a tip from a 
"walk-in" source in this city's huge shipping industry. His 
suspicions were apparently aroused by the fact that the men's company 
was leasing metal cargo containers in the free-trade zone of Colon -- 
but had no apparent plans to fill them with cargo.

But the classic moment came several weeks later, when U.S. Coast 
Guard officers and sailors boarded the ship the men had bought, a 
300-foot Panamanian-flagged cargo vessel called the Gatun.

Finding drugs on board was no sure thing, because traffickers find 
ingenious ways to hide their cargo behind false floors and walls, or 
submerge it in fuel tanks, or weld it inside heavy machinery, or 
embed it in cans of tuna or jars of marmalade.

But this time it was easy. U.S. Coast Guard and Panamanian officials 
noticed that customs seals on two of the 12 metal cargo containers on 
the Gatun had been improperly broken. When they opened the doors, 
bales of cocaine came tumbling out. Officials estimated the haul at 20 tons.

The biggest bonus for law enforcement officials may have been the 
laptop computer that one of the suspects, Jesus Mondragon, allegedly 
had in his possession when he was arrested at the airport in Panama 
City. Authorities say it contained a treasure trove of information 
that could lead to more arrests.

"I think he showed an excess of confidence," a top anti-drug 
prosecutor, Jose Abel Almengor, said in an interview.

Power Shift

The bust, and an emerging portrait of the cartel allegedly headed by 
Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada as a gang that at least in this case 
couldn't shoot straight, offers a snapshot of the changing roles in 
the region's drug trafficking. It appears that the assumption of 
power by Mexican cartels from Colombian traffickers -- who once 
exclusively managed the transit of big cocaine loads to Mexico or the 
U.S. -- is hitting some snags.

Whether Zambada's men botched the deal or not, the seizure has raised 
fears that a bloodbath could ensue in Panama if, as expected, Mexican 
gangsters revisit the scene to exact revenge and settle scores. 
That's been traffickers' practice in the past when cocaine loads were 
lost along the U.S.-Mexico border or in the Caribbean.

"It's obvious that something went wrong for the narcos," Almengor 
said. "In any business, when something goes wrong there are consequences."

Said one foreign counter-narcotics official: "This could stir things 
up quite a bit."

It all began this year, when the two alleged traffickers, Mondragon 
and Jose Nunez, both Mexican nationals, arrived in Panama. Officials 
say they came to set up a front company called Marine Management & 
Chartering whose real purpose was to buy the Gatun for $3 million and 
use it to move drugs.

The plan called for the ship to pick up cargo containers in Colon, on 
the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal, then transit the 50-mile 
waterway and sail south to pick up the multi-ton load of cocaine off 
the Pacific coast of Colombia.

The ship would then head north to deliver the drugs to the cartel at 
the Mexican port of Topolobampo in Sinaloa state, according to law 
enforcement sources here.

Containerized cocaine is no novelty. As much as four-fifths of all 
Colombian cocaine is shipped to the United States via Central America 
and Mexico aboard fishing vessels, so-called go-fast boats, or hidden 
on cargo ships like the Gatun. A decade ago, most traffic was 
airborne, before tighter aerial surveillance forced traffickers to 
change tactics.

But the tip about the men's apparent disinterest in actually putting 
any cargo in the containers kicked off an investigation that involved 
Panamanian authorities and members of a multinational 
counter-narcotics task force called Operation Panama Express, which 
includes the United States. The team investigated the company and 
began monitoring the two men's activities. Mondragon was found to 
have a U.S. criminal record for drug trafficking and robbery and to 
have used various aliases, officials said.

Colombians involved in narco-logistics are usually careful to use 
intermediaries who run seemingly legitimate businesses and who have 
no rap sheets, officials said. Colombians also send a second layer of 
"supervisors" to make sure their on-the-ground logisticians aren't 
cooperating with law enforcement, miscounting the drugs or otherwise 
making errors.

Red Flag

Before the March 18 bust, the Gatun had already made several trips 
from Guyana through the Panama Canal and then up the Pacific coast of 
Mexico to Sinaloa.

That raised another red flag because Guyana, on the Caribbean coast, 
has become a drug trafficking hub in recent years, as has neighboring 
Venezuela, according to U.S. and Colombian law enforcement authorities.

The task force tracked the Gatun as it traveled through the canal 
March 16, then veered south early the next day, allegedly to pick up 
the load of cocaine. Through unspecified surveillance methods, 
officials detected several trips by fast boats leaving Colombia's 
northwestern coast to offload drugs on the Gatun, which was anchored offshore.

The ship then turned north for Mexico.

Thinking the shipment was safely on its way, task force officials 
allege, Mondragon and Nunez left their mid-priced Panama City hotel 
that Saturday to catch a flight back to Mexico. They were arrested as 
they boarded a plane at Tocumen airport and charged with drug 
trafficking. They have denied any wrongdoing.

About the time they were arrested, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter 
Sherman, with the Panamanian government's permission, was stopping 
the Gatun off the Panamanian coast. The bust occurred the next day 
when Panama gave permission to search the vessel. The Sherman is one 
of half a dozen naval and Coast Guard vessels on call to intercept 
suspicious boats off the coasts of Mexico and Central and South America.

Like other Central American countries, Panama is seeing a surge in 
cocaine trafficking as well as criminal side effects such as gang 
violence and deadly turf wars. Government and business officials are 
concerned the country could lose its sobriquet of "the safest country 
in Central America."

In fact, the Gatun bust brought the year-to-date total of cocaine 
seized in Panamanian waters or territory to 40 tons, which by some 
estimates is more than 5% of all the cocaine Colombia produces in a 
year. The seizures already surpass the 32 tons taken during all of 
2006, Almengor said.

Officials fear the trend may be hard to reverse. Panama's proximity 
to Colombia and its robust economy provide perfect cover for the traffickers.

"Panama has financial institutions, the banking, the canal and the 
free zone that are attractive to honest investors," the foreign 
counter-narcotics official said. "But they appeal to delinquents too."
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