Pubdate: Mon, 24 Dec 2012
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2012 Los Angeles Times
Author: Chris Kraul, Los Angeles Times


U.S.-Vetted Sensitive Investigative Units Rack Up Impressive
Successes In The Drug Wars Using American Technology And Training At
A Relatively Low Cost.

CARTAGENA, Colombia - Under cover of a moonless night in early July,
the crew took no more than five minutes to load more than a ton of
cocaine on a motorboat beached on a deserted shore of the Guajira
peninsula in northeastern Colombia. Equipped with three 200-horsepower
engines, the "go-fast" craft then roared off toward the Dominican
Republic, the first stop on the drugs' way north.

But they'd been detected long before. Informants working for a
top-secret group of Colombian agents, trained and equipped by U.S.
counter-narcotics agencies, had penetrated the smugglers' inner
circle. They knew where the dope was loaded - and where it was headed.

A few hours later, Dominican police were waiting as the boat
approached the eastern shores of Hispaniola. The captain, desperate to
escape, beached the boat but was killed in a shootout. Police later
recovered 1,690 pounds of cocaine, and authorities in Colombia guessed
that the same amount had either been dumped at sea or passed off to
another boat.

The cops who broke the case are members of a 45-person Cartagena cell
of a U.S.-vetted force called the Sensitive Investigative Unit, or
SIU. Using the "crown jewels" of American technology and training to
make the crucial connections in the drug gangs' spider-web chains of
command, the force has racked up impressive successes in the drug
wars, and at a fraction of the cost of the $8-billion U.S. initiative
called Plan Colombia.

The SIU program in Colombia, first launched in 1997, increasingly is
being used as a model for other countries fighting drug mafias: The
Drug Enforcement Administration has set up SIUs in 11 other mostly
Latin American countries, including Mexico, but also Afghanistan,
Thailand and Ghana. Eight other countries are on the waiting list.

The head of the Cartagena SIU group is a 37-year-old police major who
works in one of the most dangerous trafficking zones in Colombia. To
preserve his anonymity, he asked to be called Maj. Marino.

Before he joined the group, Marino was an officer in the "Junglas,"
the tough anti-narcotics tactical commandos modeled after the British
SAS and U.S. Army special forces. There, he spent seven years
destroying cocaine laboratories, carrying out drug raids, providing
security for coca-spraying aircraft missions and arresting

He thrived on the adrenaline of being a commando, but as time went on,
he became more interested in "the investigative part. I wanted to know
more than we were able to establish as Junglas."

"We'd seize a lab, arrest the low-level people there, who would always
say it belongs to 'Carlos,' but of course we could never find Carlos.
We would only get one small part of the case and never knew where the
drugs were going or who got the money," Marino said during an
interview in Cartagena. "Now I know how to make the

The Cartagena agents spend much of their time in a nondescript office
in this Spanish colonial city sitting before computer screens
monitoring wiretaps, the time-consuming foundation of most major drug

"Raids take surveillance and analysis," Marino said. A female
colleague, a money-laundering expert, added: "In the past, we'd just
have a meeting and based on our malicia indigena, or gut feeling, we'd
decide, 'Let's go.' We now realize we need a technique, to sit down
and plan, to decide who collects evidence, which weapons to bring,
where is the nearest hospital, when to inform the police. There is a
whole checklist of things."

The Colombian SIU agents, who total more than 300 countrywide, are
direct descendants of the bloques de busqueda, or search blocks, set
up in the early 1990s with U.S. help to hunt down the notorious
Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.

But the drug gangs, under pressure from inside and outside Colombia,
aren't the vertically integrated cartels they were in Escobar's day.
The rising power of Mexican mafias and their control of U.S.
distribution have in effect turned Colombians into their suppliers,
authorities in Colombia say.

Colombian traffickers have fragmented into a "decentralized syndicate
of organizations," the Pentagon's Southern Command chief, Gen. Douglas
Fraser, said in a recent interview in Miami.

These days, the bulk of Colombian drug trafficking is controlled by
about half a dozen bacrims, which is Spanish shorthand for bandas
criminales, or criminal bands. The bands often specialize in - and
provide to the highest bidder - one facet of trafficking services.

Unlike other anti-narcotics officers in Colombia, the SIU agents focus
strictly on complex cases and taking down entire trafficking

The DEA shields the agents, who have all undergone U.S.-supervised
polygraph and drug testing, from being called upon by their superior
officers to "put out fires. We build them their own firehouse," said
Jay Bergman, Andean chief of the DEA in Bogota, the Colombian capital.

The U.S. equips them with technology and training and provides access
to the "crown jewels," which in George Smiley parlance means the DEA's
intelligence database. The SIUs have been involved in 70% of the major
drug seizures, kingpin arrests and indictments brought against
Colombian traffickers in recent years, said recently retired Colombian
National Police commander Gen. Oscar Naranjo, who as a young major was
part of the search block that pursued Escobar.

All told, they receive only about $5.5 million a year in U.S. funding,
but have averaged at least $250 million in cash and asset seizures
annually since 2007. 
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