Pubdate: Mon, 24 Dec 2012
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2012 Los Angeles Times
Author: Chris Kraul
Page: A1


Special Units Rely on American Technology and Training, Racking Up 
Impressive Successes 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 
traffickers. 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 connections."

Careful planning

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 busts.

"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.

"That's like a fortyfold return on investment," Bergman said.

To confront the increasingly powerful and violent traffickers there, 
Mexico's SIU program may soon receive a boost.

Naranjo, who was hired as an advisor to Enrique Pena Nieto before the 
latter won the presidential election, said in an interview that he 
has recommended expanding the SIUs' footprint in Mexico.

"We found special units can deliver serious blows that make a 
difference very quickly, and SIUs will be a central part of that," 
Naranjo said. "We want to assimilate that model."

Training in Virginia

Two months before the Guajira case, Marino was sitting in a classroom 
at the DEA training academy in Quantico, Va., halfway through his 
five-week SIU training course.

He was one of 37 Colombian agents enrolled, along with 22 Paraguayan 
antidrug police. The DEA purposely includes different nationalities 
in the courses so that the agents can establish "transnational 
contacts," said James Farnsworth, the DEA's international training director.

That day, Marino was learning about Pen-Link intelligence mining 
software. Used in tandem with wiretaps and programs provided by phone 
companies, the software enables agents to make connections between 
caller numbers to slowly assemble cases, sometimes over two or three 
years. The software also ties phone data and vehicle license plates 
to callers' criminal records.

With Pen-Link and the three or four other software programs like it, 
agents can construct an "organi-gram" of a drug-trafficking 
organization showing what DEA agents describe as a trafficking band's 
five major components: production, security, coordination, 
transportation and finances. Using cellphone tower data, the software 
also can find callers within a few yards' accuracy.

"I can do a lot with just one phone number or vehicle plate to start 
a comprehensive investigation," Marino said between classes. "With 
patience, we can use call traffic to tell us who the leaders are, how 
people get paid, when shipments are scheduled."

Before their official designation in June, Marino's team members had 
already been regarded by the DEA as SIUs in everything but name based 
on their spectacular results over the previous three years.

In 2011, they gathered intelligence that led to the seizure of a 
total 25 tons of cocaine and to the arrests of drug kingpins Diego 
and Enrique Baez, whose criminal organization smuggled an average of 
5 tons of cocaine a month via go-fast boats to Central America and 
Mexico, U.S. law enforcement sources say.

A major Baez client is alleged to have been the Sinaloa cartel run by 
Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman, perhaps the world's most wanted criminal.

But the use of the U.S.vetted agents within antinarcotics forces is 
not universally applauded. Adriana Beltran of the Washington Office 
on Latin America, a policy watchdog group that has been critical of 
U.S. military and anti-drug aid to the region, said past cases in 
Central America have shown such agents sometimes are later corrupted 
because they aren't adequately monitored.

"Putting competent people within a corrupt structure is not 
necessarily a good thing," Beltran said.

Assistant Secretary of State William R. Brownfield said that in some 
instances, the U.S. has few other options. In some Central American 
countries where drug mafias have compromised the government, armed 
forces and judiciary, vetted agents such as SIUs have proved to be 
U.S. counter-narcotics forces' only allies.

"The SIUs answer the question, what do you do when your institutions 
have been badly penetrated and corrupted?" Brownfield said in an 
interview in Washington. "Do you wait until your institutions have 
been swapped out and changed, which is to say something that takes 
generations? Or do you bring in a completely new cadre, train them 
up, get them deployed and keep them from being penetrated?"

The son of a humble potato farmer in the southern Colombian state of 
Narino, Marino is proud of what he and his team have achieved.

"Getting into an SIU means you are in a select group and you have 
gotten results," Marino said. "You're not just anyone."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom