Operation Conquistador, Feds Unveil New Strategy

Operation Conquistador, Feds Unveil New Strategy
Posted by FoM on March 29, 2000 at 22:41:47 PT
Web Exclusive By Joseph Contreras
Source: Newsweek
The 33-foot "go-fast" boat roared out of the Franco-Dutch Caribbean island of St. Maarten two weeks ago and plotted a course for Trinidad. Built for speed and favored by drug runners throughout the Caribbean, the boat was manned by a crew of two Dominicans and a Colombian. Their plan: to rendezvous on the high seas with a so-called "mother ship" stuffed to the gills with cocaine. 
The two boats kept their appointment and the go-fast boat crew took on board a metric ton of coke with a wholesale value of up to $12 million. The boat then headed northwest towards Puerto Rico, where the crew planned to unload the shipment. But unbeknownst to the three low-level traffickers, their movements had been tracked from the moment they left the shores of St. Maarten by local lawmen working in conjunction with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. In the late morning of March 14, the U. S. Coast Guard patrol boat Matinicus intercepted the vessel 107 miles south of Puerto Rico and took into custody its crewmen and illicit cargo.That proved to be the largest single seizure of Operation Conquistador, a 17-day international counter-narcotics offensive spearheaded by the DEA that sets new standards for multilateral cooperation in the drug war. Revealed today at a San Juan press conference, Operation Conquistador was simultaneously launched in 25 countries in the Caribbean and Central and South America on March 10. During the ensuing two and a half weeks, law enforcement officials from the Panama Canal to the Bolivian altiplano pooled their resources and shared their intelligence in an unprecedented assault on the Caribbean transshipment routes that funnel cocaine, heroin, marijuana and other illegal drugs from South America to consumer markets in the United States and western Europe. "Operation Conquistador was a great success in accomplishing its objectives of making progress towards a comprehensive regional strategy," says Michael Vigil, the Special Agent in Charge of the DEA's Caribbean Field Division, who helped coordinate the multinational endeavor. "Although the arrests and seizures were extremely impressive, they were secondary to having 26 countries working with one another."Conquistador was not the first operation of its kind. A similar initiative, code-named Operation Columbus, brought together 15 different countries in the region last November and generated more than 1,000 arrests. But Conquistador's number of drug seizures, arrests and confiscations of property and assets dwarfs anything that came before in international anti-narcotics work. Authorities arrested 2,331 individuals, searched 7,376 residences, vessels, vehicles and aircraft belonging to suspected traffickers and seized 4,966.6 kilos of cocaine hydrochloride (HcL), 55.6 kilos of heroin, 14.3 kilos of morphine base, 362.5 metric tons of marijuana, 3,370 dosage units of dangerous drugs and 73.4 kilos of hashish oil. And that's not all: Authorities also netted more than 100 tons of solid chemical precursors and tens of thousands of gallons of the liquid variety used for manufacturing and processing heroin, cocaine and other controlled substances. Ninety-four cocaine labs were destroyed during the operation and coca leaf with a production potential of nearly 26,000 kilos of cocaine HcL was also eradicated.Huge seizures of this sort are certainly impressive, but they often do little to affect the going price for hard drugs. Not so in this instance, say DEA officials. According to Vigil, the price of a kilo of cocaine in the Caribbean more than doubled this month as a direct result of Conquistador, rising from between $8,000 to $12,000 per kilo in early March to about $25,000 per kilo by the start of this week. Vigil says that six "solid players" in the big-fish category of drug traffickers were arrested during the past three weeks, though he declined to provide their names or any other details about the suspects beyond their nationalities of Colombian, Haitian and Dominican. The lion's share of arrests and seizures occurred on land, and the only major South American player in the international narcotics trade that did not take part in Conquistador was Peru. "A sense of self-esteem was evident in many of the smaller countries in the Caribbean," says Vigil. "In the spirit of continued cooperation, [these] countries will focus on joint initiatives that will maximize the disruption of drug trafficking organizations."Still, before the feds break out the bubbly, a few sobering reminders may be in order. The Caribbean accounts for only about one-third of all the narcotics of Latin American origin that are pouring into the United States. And Operation Conquistador is merely one victorious battle in a war that authorities appear to be losing across the Western Hemisphere. In 1990, Colombia, long considered to be the world's largest source of cocaine hydrochloride, produced about 65 metric tons of the stuff. Last month a Central Intelligence Agency estimate revealed that cocaine production in Colombia hit 520 metric tons in 1999, a trend that prompted President Clinton's drug policy czar, Barry R. McCaffrey, to acknowledge before a Congressional subcommittee that "we have a drug emergency in Colombia." That's a state of affairs unlikely to change anytime soon, no matter how many international operations federal authorities are able to launch. Is a $1.3 billion Colombia aid package—including 63 U.S.-made helicopters and other military hardware—smart policy, dirty politics, good business or a costly mistake? Join us for Politics Talk, Thursday March 30 at noon E.S.T. Submit Questions Early: Talk: Newsweek, March 29, 2000 © 2000 Newsweek, Inc. Direct Link To The Above Article: Articles:The Other Drug War - Newsweek Drug Busts Set DEA Records
Home Comment Email Register Recent Comments Help

Post Comment

Name: Optional Password: 
Comment: [Please refrain from using profanity in your message]
Link URL: 
Link Title: