Russian crime syndicates and military officers are supplying sophisticated weapons to Colombian rebels in return for huge shipments of cocaine, U.S. intelligence officials told MSNBC.com. A senior intelligence official described the smuggling ring as “literally an industry” that threatens to overwhelm the Colombian government and turn the U.S.-backed fight against the Colombia cocaine cartels into a losing proposition.
The Clinton administration is trying to escalate the long-running war on Colombia’s cocaine cartels, and a $1.7 billion aid package to the South American nation is under consideration in Congress. U.S. intelligence officials, all of whom spoke to MSNBC.com on condition of anonymity, said the scope of the Russia-to-Colombia smuggling ring took them by surprise and remains unknown to all but a few high-ranking figures in the American government.
In short, an alliance of corrupt Russian military figures, organized crime bosses, diplomats and revolutionaries has been moving regular shipments of up to 40,000 kilograms of cocaine to the former Soviet Union in return for large shipments of deadly weaponry.
The intelligence officials said the smuggling ring works like this:
Russian-built IL-76 cargo planes take off from various airstrips in Russia and Ukraine laden with anti-aircraft missiles, small arms and ammunition.
The planes, roughly the size of Boeing 707s and a mainstay of the modern cargo industry, stop in Amman, Jordan, to refuel. There, they bypass normal Jordanian customs with the help of corrupt foreign diplomats and bribed local officials.
After crossing the Atlantic, the cargo jets use remote landing strips or parachute air-drops to deliver their cargo to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The guerrilla group is challenging the authority of the U.S.-backed Colombian government, and its guerrillas provide security to Colombia’s cocaine cartels.
The planes return loaded with up to 40,000 kilograms of cocaine. Some of this is distributed as payment for the arms to the diplomatic middlemen in Amman. The rest is flown back to the former Soviet Union for sale there, in Europe and in the Persian Gulf.
Officials close to the investigation cited intelligence intercepts that show the IL-76 cargo planes use Royal Jordanian Airlines cargo facilities in Amman, where airline officials are bribed to ignore false cargo manifests. While in Amman, the planes are cleared for transit under diplomatic cover originating from a Spanish-speaking embassy in Amman, according to U.S. intelligence officials. The officials refused to specify which embassy was involved. The officials noted there are two Spanish speaking embassies in Amman - Spain and Chile. A third, that of Portuguese-speaking Brazil, often conducts business in Spanish.
InsertArt(891846)“They’re using diplomatic authority to get that stuff in,” said a senior U.S. intelligence official close to the investigation. “If they’re not using a [diplomatic] pouch, they’re using diplomatic authority to clear the shipment. This is a big operation. There are a lot of people involved - it’s literally an industry.”
The Spanish-speaking embassy official in Jordan, whom the intelligence officials would not identify by name, has the power to clear diplomatic shipments and may also be able to authorize embassy funds when additional money is needed to move the shipments through Amman. Still, while the embassy contact may have a high rank, intelligence sources said they do not think the scheme is operating with the knowledge of the country involved or Jordan’s government.
REBELS AND CARTELS
Once the plane has refueled in Amman, officials said, it then proceeds from Jordan to various landing strips throughout South America, where shipments are coordinated by a renegade Peruvian military officer.
A senior U.S. intelligence source has identified by name three men alleged to be directly involved in those shipments. Luiz Fernando Da Costa, working under the alias Fernandinho Beira-Mar, is one of Brazil’s most wanted narco-traffickers. For the past four years, Da Costa has used the town of Pedro Juan Caballero in Paraguay as his base of operations. According to U.S. intelligence, Da Costa runs arms received from Fuad Jamil, a Lebanese businessman operating in the same Paraguayan town. The official said Jamil uses a legitimate import company as a front.
While most of the weaponry goes directly to FARC, a smaller amount is parceled off to other guerrilla groups. Among them is Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed movement best known for its guerrilla activities in southern Lebanon. U.S. intelligence officials say the group has set down roots among the Arab immigrant communities of Paraguay, Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil and frequently uses legitimate business operations to cover illegal arms transfers.
Within Colombia, arms deliveries to rebel guerrillas are coordinated through the town of Barranco Minas, the headquarters for the FARC’s 16th Front. The 16th Front is lead by Tomas Medina Caracas, who operates the arms ring under the alias Negro Acacio.
PAYING OFF THE SMUGGLERS
The FARC rebels, who control the distribution of the arms, pay the smugglers with cocaine. The drug is then loaded onto the planes for the return journey through Amman. Hundreds of thousands of kilos of cocaine have been smuggled over the last two years.
According to drug enforcement officials, cocaine can bring more than $50,000 per kilo in Europe. The involvement of Russian organized crime in its smuggling is well established, and the most common gateway is Spain, where European drug enforcement officials say the bulk of Colombian cocaine and heroin enters the continent. Intelligence officials confirmed that because of Spain’s pivotal role in the European drug trade, their suspicions in Amman focus on Spain’s embassy.
Some of the cocaine is delivered under diplomatic cover to intermediaries in Jordan, where it finds its way onto the streets. The majority of the cocaine shipment continues on to Russia and Ukraine, where it feeds the growing appetite for the drug, or is sold in other lucrative markets in Europe and the Persian Gulf.
A POWERFUL UNDERGROUND ALLIANCE
The smuggling ring brings together two powerful and destabilizing forces that have become key targets of U.S. foreign policy: the deep-seated corruption of the former Soviet states and Colombia’s spiral toward drug-induced anarchy. For Russia and Ukraine, billions of dollars in International Monetary Fund, World Bank and direct aid is at stake. Scandals over the alleged misuse of such loans already have sparked investigations in the U.S. Congress.
For Colombia’s backers in the United States and advocates of increased U.S. aid, the revelations are particularly ill-timed. Congress is considering a $1.7 billion drug-interdiction aid package for Colombia, including sophisticated Blackhawk helicopters. Among the weapons being supplied to FARC, intelligence officials said, are rocket-propelled grenade launchers (RPGs) and Russian SA-model shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft weapons similar to the U.S. Stinger missiles.
As U.S. soldiers learned in Somalia, both RPGs and missile launchers can bring down a Blackhawk helicopter, even in the untrained hands of rebel armies.
”[The guerrillas] get the RPG to explode in the vicinity of the tail rotor, which gives the helicopter its horizontal stability,” said a U.S. Army official. “All that has to happen is for the tail rotor to become a bit unbalanced or for a hydraulic line to be cut, and that helicopter is coming down. It takes good aim and cases full of RPGs, but it’s been done many times.”
U.S. intelligence officials say the arms-for-drugs ring has been operational for two years. MSNBC.com first broke the story of large arms shipments to FARC rebels last October, and it was that shipment that drew the attention of U.S. intelligence agencies to what they eventually concluded was a major trafficking ring. That single drop last October was said by U.S. intelligence officials to have delivered $50 million worth of AK-47s deep inside FARC-held territory. U.S. authorities ultimately apprehended one of the traffickers, the officials said.
Since that time, the intelligence officials said, arms traffickers have refined their operation. While the IL-76 is designed to drop large loads by parachute, that method requires favorable weather and specially trained flight crews. After repeated problems with air drops, traffickers seek to avoid detection by using a variety of existing runways where they can bribe officials to allow the cargo in. The IL-76 also is capable of landing at rough, remote landing strips.
The size of the cargo is staggering; the IL-76 is used to transport troops, arms and tanks for the Russian military. In one hour, a trained ground crew can unload, refuel and reload a plane bearing 90,000 pounds of cargo, U.S. military officials say. That’s equivalent to 5,400 rifles and 360,000 rounds of ammunition, along with shoulder-held missiles and RPGs.
RUSSIA, FROM RED TO GRAY
The scale of the smuggling underscores the enormous challenge that law enforcement authorities face in the former Soviet Union, where Soviet-era intelligence operatives in many cases made a seamless transition from Cold War spying or military intelligence into organized crime. “The source of the weapons [smuggled into Colombia] is both organized crime and military,” a U.S. intelligence official said. “There is a tremendous gray area between the two in Russia and the Ukraine.”
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, many KGB and other Soviet security agents appropriated bank accounts, companies and contacts used for covert operations, and turned them instead into conduits for their own organized crime activities, including arms and drug trafficking.