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Colombia seizes tons of cocaine in raid

A special anti-drug commando unit raids a jungle lab in a southwestern state. A new generation paramilitary group is suspected of running the facility.

March 07, 2009|Chris Kraul

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — Colombia's anti-narcotics police seized 5.7 tons of cocaine and cocaine base in a raid early Friday on a jungle laboratory reportedly run by the Black Eagles, the largest of the new generation of paramilitary groups terrorizing part of the South American nation.

The raid occurred in Narino state in Colombia's southwest, a coastal zone that has become a battleground for drug traffickers, right-wing militias and leftist rebels.

All are struggling to impose control on a strategic patch of geography where coca is grown, converted into cocaine and shipped to North American consumers.

The laboratory was seized by the "Junglas" special anti-drugs force in the mountainous Cumbitara municipality. The commandos were supported by Black Hawk and Huey helicopters and took gunfire as they descended on the traffickers' camp.

Police said it was the first seizure of a lab run exclusively by the Black Eagles, one of the armed groups that have arisen to replace the 31,000 paramilitary fighters who demobilized in a government-sanctioned peace process that ended in 2006. According to a study by the New Rainbow Corporation, a peace group based in Bogota, the Colombian capital, the Black Eagles account for nearly half of the estimated 10,000 "new" paramilitary fighters.

Police found 4 tons of refined cocaine and 1.7 tons of cocaine base, which is convertible to more than 1 ton of pure cocaine. The lab complex, which had its own power plant and housed 50 workers, was capable of producing an estimated 5 tons of pure cocaine a week, authorities said.

Civilians in Narino have been caught in the middle of the intensifying conflict between such armed groups and government forces. Last month, 17 members of the Awa indigenous community were killed near their central Narino settlement by leftist rebels for allegedly collaborating with Colombian armed forces.

Dozens of civilians lose their lives or limbs every year to crude, homemade land mines placed by the rebels, known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

Last year the state, which includes rugged Andes mountains and a labyrinthine mangrove coastline, led the nation with 22,531 residents displaced by warfare and drug trafficking, a reflection of the lack of public order.

This year, Colombian police have seized 12 tons of cocaine, off the pace for 2008, when armed forces found 119 tons over the year. One ton of cocaine has an estimated street value in the U.S. of $25 million.

Friday's seizure was the second large cocaine bust in nine days. On Feb. 26, Spanish police stopped a fishing boat off the Canary Islands loaded with 5 tons of cocaine and arrested five Venezuelan crew members. Venezuela has become a key transit zone for cocaine leaving Colombia for Europe.

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chris.kraul@latimes.com

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