Mexican drug cartels shift operations to Colombia; Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia suffer ‘spillover effect’
By Robert Sherman
Much attention has been put on fixing the problems of drug cartels in Mexico, with the U.S. and European nations putting pressure on the Mexican government to crack down on them. This has led some cartels’ operations to shift back to Colombia, where the illegal drug trade through the Caribbean and South Florida was a dominant business in the ’80s and ’90s.
“These people are much more brutal than you ever want to see on television. They’re much more violent,” financial crime consultant Kenneth Rijock said.
Rijock used to help launder the Colombian cartel’s money. He witnessed their rise to power — and also their retreat to the shadows.
“By the mid-1980s, law enforcement had come into South Florida with a vengeance,” Rijock said, which led to pressure on Colombia. Ultimately the U.S. squeezed the cartels and took down drug lord Pablo Escobar, but the business never died. The cartels just picked up shop.
“They geographically moved their operation west, away from the Caribbean, and into Mexico — and that’s basically been the route ever since,” Rijock said. Now, the Mexican cartels run the show, producing drugs such as fentanyl in house, then sending them across the border into the U.S.
However, the pendulum is swinging away from Mexico, as drug lords in the country are getting arrested. The notorious El Chapo, who formerly ran the Sinaloa cartel, is now behind bars, and his son was arrested earlier this year.
Other kingpins, such as El Coss, of the Gulf Cartel, are now also locked up.
“There’s right now a significant amount of pressure that is being carried out all over Latin America, but Mexico has been the focus,” Professor Eduardo Gamarra, of Florida International University, said.
And with that, the spotlight is coming back to Colombia. Colombian President Gustavo Petro last month announced the capture of Sinaloa cartel members caught trying to outsource their production of fentanyl to the country.
“These cartels run themselves like a Fortune 500 business,” Derek Maltz,a retired Drug Enforcement Administration official, said.
Drug cartels are also extending their reach into Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. “There’s a spillover effect in the countries near Colombia,” says Gamarra. “Drug-related crime has soared in Ecuador’s port cities in the past three years, with Guayaquil’s murder rate increasing six-fold since 2019.”
He added that Ecuador is a “tale of two countries,” with crime remaining relatively low in the Andean region.
Rijock hopes the U.S can prevail but says the cartels will always be a step ahead.
“They’re like chess players. and they have an infinite budget, which in the legitimate world, we don’t have,” Rijock said. “And they’re bloodthirsty.”