Colombia: SOA instructors served narco mafia

The Colombian Army’s Third Brigade, based in Cali, was deeply penetrated by drug trafficking mafia, according to a recent criminal investigation. “What the prosecutors’ investigation has shown as it progresses,” reported Bogota’s Semana magazine Aug. 4, “is that ‘Don Diego‘ [a drug mafia kingpin] didn’t just buy these officers in exchange for one-time favors, but that many of them belonged to his organization. They were part of the mafia and put their jobs in the Army at its service.” Brigade commander Leonardo Gomez Vergara resigned Aug. 16 as a result of the investigation, and a dozen other officers have been arrested or are under investigation.

Colonel Alvaro Quijano—who served as an instructor at US Army School of the Americas—was arrested on August 15, while the former chief of the brigade’s operations, Lt. Colonel Javier Escobar Martinez, has also been arrested and accused of mobilizing army units to protect the drug trafficker. Javier Rico Escobar graduated from the SOA in 2003, having studied “counter-drug operations” there. Quijano, former commander of Colombia’s Special Forces en Valle Department, and another accused officer, Major Wilmer Mora Daza, taught “peacekeeping operations” and “democratic sustainment” at SOA in 2003.

The Valle army ‘special forces’ provided security to the capo, according to the daily El Tiempo, but also guarded drug shipments that left Colombia via the Pacific Ocean from Chocó in the north to Nariño near the Ecuador border. US military officials have claimed that a reason a US military base is needed in Manta, Ecuador is to intercept increased drug trafficking in the eastern Pacific.

The commander of the Army’s Third Division (Gen. Hernando Pérez Molina, another SOA grad), to which the Third Brigade belongs, was relieved of his post. The Third Division’s command staff had been vetted to receive US military assistance as of July 2006, according to the State Department.

Last year, Colombian army officers from the Third Brigade ambushed an elite, US-trained anti-drug squad in the Valle town of Jamundí, killing ten policemen. The leader of the attack, Colonel Bayron Carvajal, now under arrest, was also a graduate of the SOA.

The Third Brigade’s collaboration with the mafia is apparently no isolated case. Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos admitted that more than 150 military officers have been suspended in the last year, accused of collaborating with drug traffickers. Among them was the Colombian Navy’s Rear Admiral Gabriel Arango Bacci, who is suspended and under investigation for helping drug traffickers to evade naval patrols by Colombian and U.S. ships in the Caribbean. Criminal investigators saw a red flag when last year traffickers were found with naval documents showing the locations and operations of Colombian and U.S. ships in the area. The evidence against Arango includes receipts from traffickers for $500,000, with his verified fingerprint and signature. Arango was commander of the San Andrés and Providencia Islands naval area; his unit was vetted to receive US military assistance.

John Lindsay-Poland for the FOR Colombia Program, Aug. 23

See our last posts on Colombia and the SOA.

  1. Calabria’s ‘Ndrangheta in partnership with Colombian cartels
    From The Independent, Aug. 20, 2007:

    Calabrian Mafia is ‘Europe’s top crime gang’
    The head of Italy’s anti-Mafia task force has said that the criminal gang behind the deaths of six men in Germany is now the most powerful crime syndicate in Europe.

    The ‘Ndrangheta, or Calabrian Mafia, is blamed for Wednesday’s murder of six Italians in Duisburg.

    Pietro Grasso, Italy’s anti-Mafia commissioner, said the killings demonstrated that it was now operating globally. Other experts warned that the ‘Ndrangheta was also active in Britain, where it controlled the flow of Colombian cocaine.

    Mr Grasso said it was clear that the ‘Ndrangheta, which for years has been relatively unknown compared with the much more famous Sicilian Mafia, Cosa Nostra, “has now assumed major economic power, especially in international drug dealing”.

    The ‘Ndrangheta is thought to control almost all of Colombia’s cocaine exports to Europe, which flow through the port town of Gioia di Tauro in Calabria, southern Italy.

    “This organisation is now all over Europe and even has a hand in politics,” said Mr Grasso. He added that “no country in the world” would stop it, until the international banking system became less opaque. “We can find the drugs and the people, but we cannot track the money. There is no doubt that money is moving to Colombia, so why can we not see it?” he asked.

    “We have increased the number of our raids and checks enormously, but the strategy is absolutely useless. The people who traffic drugs make sure they do not violate the banking norms over the transfer of capital, and they act openly and with the help of major financial experts.”

    There are thought to be 73 clans within the ‘Ndrangheta, which is pronounced “en-drang-ay-ta”.

    The latest report from Italy’s secret services show that it has become the country’s largest criminal organisation, with an estimated 10,000 men compared with the three to four thousand in Cosa Nostra. The report also said the syndicate has “uncontested” control over the drug market.

    Antonio Nicaso, the author of Blood Brothers, a book on the ‘Ndrangheta, said it was the only truly global Italian crime syndicate.

    “The ‘Ndrangheta has been very adept at modernising itself. It uses the internet to recycle the money from its activities and holds a monopoly on Colombian cocaine into Europe. They have direct links with the Colombians and with terrorist organisations. It is almost certainly involved in the UK as well,” he said.

    Unlike the Sicilian Mafia, which is organised into families, the ‘Ndrangheta uses a system of arranged marriages to enmesh its members into a tight set of relationships.

    The second ‘Ndrangheta war from 1985-91 claimed 700 lives and several blood feuds are still running today.

    See our last posts on Italy and the ‘Ndrangheta.