World News

FACTBOX-Smugglers' tactics ever changing in drugs war

(Reuters) - Latin American drug gangs are constantly trying new routes and tricks to move billions of dollars of narcotics to the United States and Europe despite eradication programs and a U.S.-led push to increase seizures.

Here are some facts on how drug smuggling methods have changed over the past three decades.

* In the 1980s, Colombian cartels sent huge cocaine shipments on fishing and cargo boats through the Caribbean into south Florida. A U.S. crackdown then forced the cartels to rely more on Mexican smugglers, who turned to small aircraft to fly drugs to remote landing strips in Central America and Mexico for transfer overland to the United States. Some planes were even flown straight across the U.S. border.

* Mexican kingpin Amado Carrillo was known as “Lord of the Skies” in the early 1990s for using stripped-down Boeing 727 passenger jets to move tonnes of cocaine north. He died in 1997, apparently during a botched plastic surgery.

* Airborne drugs reached such a peak that Guatemala’s northern Peten jungle has been described by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration as an “aircraft graveyard” filled with trashed or discarded drug planes.

* Sophisticated U.S. radars and air interdiction programs mean oceans are once again the favoured tactic. The Pacific’s long, craggy coastline is especially popular. About 90 percent of all U.S.-bound cocaine moves through Mexico and Central America, most of it along the Pacific or Caribbean coasts.

* Drug gangs use vessels ranging from high-speed boats to cigarette cargo ships, sometimes leaving cocaine packages in the ocean for local traffickers to bring ashore in small fishing boats. At some point in the journey, loads are often transferred to trucks that then rumble north.

* Smugglers have packed consignments into frozen squid, tins of food and childrens’ toys. Others have melted cocaine down into plastic chairs and tables.

* Specialist mechanics in Mexican border cities have workshops dedicated to making hidden compartments in vehicles, secreting drugs into car door panels, tires and even engine manifolds.

* Drug traffickers also use sophisticated tunnels with lighting to smuggle narcotics under the border and into the United States. Police have discovered more than 40 such tunnels since the September 11, 2001, attacks.

* Colombian traffickers have in recent years set up networks in west Africa, hiding behind import and export businesses to smuggle cocaine to Europe, often inside cans of food or blocks of marble. They also smuggle drugs through Venezuela and on to Europe aboard planes and ships via Haiti, the Dominican Republic and other islands in the Caribbean.