BOGOTA (Reuters) - A criminal gang capable of smuggling 10 tonnes of cocaine a month for Mexico's bloody Sinaloa cartel has been dismantled following the arrest of 36 suspects, Colombian authorities said on Friday.
The arrests have been hailed as a success of cooperation between Colombia and the United States, which has contributed with billions of dollars in aid to help the Andean country fight drug smugglers with links to Marxist guerrillas.
"I want to sincerely congratulate ... the public prosecutor's offices (of Colombia and United States), the police, the army (and) the air force, because this shows that our fight against drug trafficking is delivering accurate blows," President Juan Manuel Santos told reporters.
He said 36 people had been arrested in the operation, which followed on from the detention of 19 suspects last month that belonged to a gang that built submarines to smuggle cocaine out of Colombia, the world's top producer of the narcotic. He did not disclose where the arrests took place.
Some 21 aircraft were confiscated in the latest operation, which crushed a smuggling ring that supplied cocaine to Mexico's Sinaloa cartel, the most powerful organized crime gang in the Americas.
"This operation between the United States and Colombia has a direct impact that should relieve violence and drug trafficking in Central America and Mexico," said General Oscar Naranjo, the head of the Colombian police.
The security forces seized 5 tonnes of cocaine, more than $1.5 million in cash, and arrested some "big shots" who worked for the ringleader, Daniel "Mad" Barrera, who remains at large.
"The United States and Colombia are fighting against a new threat, the narco-trafficking organizations, and we'll dismantle them," Wifredo Ferrer, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, told reporters in Bogota.
Those organizations have tried to fill the void left by the fall in recent years of the Norte Valle Cartel and the dissolution of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, a paramilitary group, the U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement.
They are becoming a leading supplier of cocaine to Mexican cartels, in particular the violent Sinaloa group, which experts say moves up to two-thirds of drugs into the United States.
The Andean country has attracted billions of dollars in foreign direct investment over the last decade, boosting oil and coal output after U.S. military aid helped it deal crippling blows to leftist guerrillas and cocaine cartels.
Santos' economic policies have won Colombia investment grade status from the three leading rating agencies, but the achievements have been tarnished by a recent increase in violence by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), including attacks on foreign oil companies.
The rebels remain strong in some remote areas of the nation of 46 million people, aided in part by involvement in the cocaine trade and alliances with other armed groups.
Santos vowed in early August to improve intelligence gathering, and said troops should break into smaller units for greater versatility in fighting the FARC.
He appointed a new defense minister earlier this week, among growing criticism that the armed forces are failing to thwart attacks from guerrillas.
Additional reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Editing by Cynthia Osterman