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Grim outlook for S. America war on drugs as submersibles multiply

April 29, 2011 at 4:32 PM   |   Comments

BUENOS AIRES, April 29 (UPI) -- Anti-narcotics operations in Latin America face new setbacks as organized crime gangs use increasing numbers of submersible craft to avoid detection and profit from multimillion-dollar shipments of hard drugs into North America.

Law enforcement agencies in Central and South America and the Caribbean are also facing stepped-up violence from heavily armed gangs pushed out of Mexico by a government crackdown.

Rather than eliminate intermediary supply routes for cocaine, heroin and other contraband narcotics to the United States and beyond, the U.S.-aided operations have encouraged drug overlords to use their significant resources to expand operations further south.

The drug traffickers have also switched from airborne operations, now increasingly detectable by intelligence-gathering satellite and land-based tracking devices, to underwater traffic using submersible craft.

Until recently the organized crime submersible transport vehicles were dismissed by law-enforcement agencies as crude contraptions. Not anymore. The drug gangs are seen as fully resourced corporations with vast networks among manufacturers, communications experts and dealers in paramilitary equipment.

Argentina this week celebrated the capture of an individual it described as the brain behind operations involving manufacture and deployment of U.S.-bound submersible craft bearing cocaine worth tens of millions of dollars.

But the claim of a key arrest that could threaten continuity of the criminal operations couldn't be substantiated. Security sources also told news media the threat from submersibles was far too widespread for a single arrest to have a major impact.

Officials said Ignacio Alvarez Meyendorff, a Colombian citizen, was suspected of working for the Colombian Norte del Valle drug cartel. Alvarez denies the allegation.

Norte del Valle was contained -- but not entirely crushed -- in a series of U.S.-aided Colombian government operations aimed at the drug cartels in the country. U.S. indictments and other data showed that from 1990-2004 the Norte del Valle cartel exported cocaine worth more than $10 billion from Colombia to Mexico and then to the United States for resale.

After fragmentation and leadership disputes, the cartel spawned other organized groups, some of which later became cartels with serious firepower and lucrative corrupt connections in regional governments.

As the anti-drug operations on ground and from the air intensified the cartels began finding alternative means of shipping contraband merchandise to a vast nexus of U.S. and other North American networks serving their agents and customers.

Organized crime gangs insinuated into regional government offices and in Colombia managed to wiretap anti-narcotics communications between Colombian and U.S. officials, indictment papers showed.

Now more and more drug traffickers are using sophisticated submersible craft to avoid detection. The submersibles can go to some depths but cannot dive deep. However, analysts said that may change as the crime gangs improve their technologies.

Argentine Deputy Security Minister Miguel Robles said Alvarez was arrested Sunday with help from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration but the arrest wasn't made public until Wednesday.

Robles said Alvarez was in charge of the logistics behind an underwater smuggling scheme and of perfecting the system. Alvarez denied the allegation.

Alvarez, detained as he arrived in Buenos Aires on a flight from Tahiti, has been living in Argentina since 2005.

The first drug submersible was sighted in 1993 and one was caught by the U.S. Coast Guard in 2006. Officials said an average of one out of 10 was detected during operations and others got away and made connections with agents in Mexico and U.S. counterparts.

In November authorities seized one submersible in Ecuador and new information led officials to link the craft's manufacture with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a radical guerrilla group alleged to be using drug money to fund its violent campaign against the government.

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