Colombia’s drug trafficking paradise: the San Andres Islands
Colombia’s Caribbean archipelago of San Andrés has been a smuggling hub for centuries, serving as a hub for illegal activity between mainland Colombia and Central America. Today, these highly strategic islands remain a privileged stage of organized crime.
The sunny island of San Andrés, located 110 kilometers from the Nicaraguan coast and about 720 kilometers from the Colombian mainland, has seen an upsurge in violent crime over the past decade.
Behind this lies a long history of criminal activity. Transnational drug traffickers have used the 52.5 km² archipelago of San Andrés for decades, Providence (Providencia) and Santa Catalina, to transport tons of illicit goods north to the United States, while contraband moved in the opposite direction. The repercussions of the trade hit the local population the hardest.
Pirates, contraband and cartels
Colombia’s remote archipelago has been a smuggling hub for at least a century.
“In… San Andrés and Providencia, there is a historical memory… of pirates and buccaneers, and a smuggling tradition that has its roots in the early twentieth century, due to its proximity to the Panama Canal”, reads- we in a recent report (pdf) called “Multiculturalism and border security in the archipelago of San Andrés and Providencia” by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES).
SEE ALSO: Caribbean Coverage
Decades later, a larger player discovered that the islands were ideal for drug trafficking to the north. The Cali cartel began to take hold in the archipelago in the late 1980s, according to Inge Helena Valencia’s FES report.
The great appeal of San Andrés – aside from the lax controls on shipping movements and lower costs – was in the locals themselves.
San Andrés Island
“San Andrés has a peculiarity: its sea is very rocky,” said deputy lawyer Gustavo Restrepo Ortiz, who lived in San Andrés in the 80s and 90s. “The islander is the one who knows which exit route to take , it is he who would drive the fast boats. ”
Due to their specialty in navigating Caribbean waters, locals were hired to transport gasoline out to sea to refuel large ships loaded with illicit cargo. They would end up hauling drugs themselves, making the three-hour speedboat trip to Nicaragua or the overnight trip to the Mexican coast.
Locals were generally tolerant of illegal activities taking place on their islands, as these had not had a great impact on the safety of citizens in the early years.
The Cali cartel continued to dominate trafficking in San Andrés until its dismantling in the mid-1990s. But the dynamic would change completely with the demobilization of the Colombian umbrella paramilitary organization (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC) in the middle. 2000s, which led to the creation of a series of dissident groups that would be qualified as “criminal gangs” (criminal bandas – BACRIM).
BACRIM takes over
BACRIM has set its sights on San Andrés as part of its new expansion process, according to a 2013 report by the Bank of the Republic of Colombia on violence and drug trafficking in the archipelago (pdf).
In 2010, San Andrés had a recorded presence of Paisas, Urabeños and Rastrojos, who would fight for control of extortion and trafficking routes. Though there is different versions Of what happened during this time of turmoil, César Sarmiento, of the Organized Crime Unit of the Attorney General’s Office in Medellín, told InSight Crime that this resulted in a dispute between the Rastrojos and the Urabeños.
In 2012, drug movements across the islands were coordinated by two local families, according to the prosecutor, who worked on a case in San Andrés in 2014. Mainland traffickers were meeting to organize shipments to the archipelago from the islands. port cities of Cartagena. or Barranquilla. One of the two clans then asked his people to transport the drug from San Andrés to Mexico, where it was delivered to the contacts of the Colombian traffickers of the Sinaloa cartel. The drugs would then continue their journey to the United States, by sea or land. To ensure the family did not steal the cargo, a family member would travel with the drugs as insurance and return to the islands once the transaction was finalized.
Drug trafficking routes from Colombia, based on Colombian navy data (FES report)
For a long time, these two families worked side by side without incident.
“The problems started with the arrival of the Rastrojos,” said Sarmiento.
The Rastrojos reportedly decided they wanted to smuggle drugs through San Andrés, but refused to pay taxes to established family networks. They found a way around this problem by teaming up with one of the families. The other clan, now alone and without financial means to match its rivals, sought an ally.
“This is when the Urabeños enter,” said the prosecutor. “It is also when the dead started to appear in Cartagena.”
According to Sarmiento, the victims of the “barbaric clashes” between the two groups would be killed in San Andrés and thrown in the mainland coastal city of Cartagena so as not to attract too much attention from the security forces. Most of the dead were members of the Rastrojos, who would ultimately be defeated, Sarmiento said.
SEE ALSO: The victory of the Urabeños – The new face of Colombian organized crime
Prosecutor Victor Arroyave also worked on a case in San Andrés until 2015. While there, Arroyave told InSight Crime, the Urabeños were “the only criminal organization” present on the island.
Trouble in paradise
With the arrival of BACRIMs in the late 2000s, rates of murder and other types of illicit activity began to rise on the previously calm islands.
“The arrival of violent practices from the continent introduces new dynamics such as fear, threats, torture and assassinations,” says the FES report. “Violence is being imposed as a new way of resolving conflict … in a society that had not traditionally used it.”
San Andrés would be initiated into a modus operandi generally associated with Colombian paramilitaries. For the first time, the inhabitants were hired as “mini-bosses”, assassins, extortionists, lookouts, messengers and for other “dirty jobs”.
Arroyave said the base salary for a local Urabeños infantryman was around $ 489 (COP 1,500,000), while carriers could earn more.
SEE ALSO: Urabeños News and Profile
As a result, the young men of the islands were the first victims of the drug trafficking boom in San Andrés. Out of a population of around 77,000, more than 300 people in the department are behind bars in the United States and Central America, according to the FES report. About 100 others have been killed as a result of the “settling of scores” and more than 60 people have died on the high seas in the past five years.
The impact on the small neighboring island of Providence – where traffickers rely on locals to transport drugs on the high seas – is perhaps even more strongly felt. According to a BBC Documentary 2015, as many as 800 men from Providence were lost at sea or imprisoned abroad, more than a quarter of the male population.
Nevertheless, Sarmiento believes that the situation in San Andrés is now much calmer than it was for a reason: “because there is only one left. [criminal] group on the left. “
Drug money and modernization
Drug trafficking in San Andrés has had a ripple effect throughout the island and a significant impact on its economy.
Colombians have long associated the archipelago with what is known as “San Andresitos”: commercial areas on the mainland that are teeming with contraband and are often used to launder illicit money. In the past, criminals would use drug dollars to buy anything from televisions to cigarettes and washing machines in the San Andrés duty-free zone and resell them for Colombian pesos on the mainland.
Nonetheless, San Andrés’ smuggling rush only lasted until the late 1990s, when tighter tax controls made it unprofitable, Sarmiento said.
While drug money is now mainly laundered in mainland Colombia, certain practices have had a lasting impact that particularly affects tourists in San Andrés.
As the drug money poured in, restaurants, jewelers, casinos, malls and money changers appeared.
“San Andrés has been modernized with drug money,” Ortiz said.
One of the last capos of the Cali cartel, José Nelson Urrego, was the owner of the Sunrise Beach Hotel – one of the most luxurious on the island.
The Urabeños also control activities such as microtrafficking which finds a ready market in the flourishing tourism industry. They tax the organizations of migrant smugglers who stop in San Andrés on their way to the United States.
Why San Andrés?
For drug trafficking to continue on the islands despite an increased presence of the police, army and navies over the years, official complicity is essential.
As the Colombian Navy knows the whereabouts of their ships – and those belonging to their American counterparts – having sailors as moles has long been a crucial asset for Colombian traffickers, Sarmiento said. At least 55 members of the San Andrés police and navy have been fired for collaborating with traffickers, according to the FES report.
For the island’s young men looking to make a decent living, there are few alternatives to drug trafficking.
“San Andrés is really lacking in employment opportunities,” said Arroyave. “Its inhabitants live from tourism.”
In Providence, drug trafficking is just a way of life for many young men.
“The sea is our economy, whether it is legal or illegal,” a fisherman from Providence told the BBC.
Others blame the adrenaline of commerce. “The rush for quick money. That’s what… marked San Andrés, ”said Ortiz, adding that before, Standard Islanders were content with what they earned from fishing.
Today, the deputy prosecutor said, there could be between 500 and 800 residents working for trafficking organizations in one way or another.
But in the tight-knit community of the archipelago, local attitudes also have a lot to do with why it is difficult to break the roots of drug trafficking on the islands.
According to a 2014 surveySan Andrés was more accepting of drug trafficking than any other Colombian city, with 42% of respondents saying they had no problem with traffickers in the region. Only 24 percent rejected the corrupt practices.
InSight Crime attempted to contact a number of locals, but found people were unwilling to comment on the drug trade. The apparent lack of cooperation from the local population can significantly affect the effectiveness of law enforcement.
“We were forced to leave the island,” Arroyave remembers. During his team’s pursuit of 17 traffickers – the majority from San Andrés – residents threatened to “stink” during the hearing, so he was transferred to Cartagena.
“The community denies the facts,” concluded the prosecutor.