Jose Fernando Lopesierra, left, and brothers Diego and Enrique Baez are… (Guillermo Legaria / AFP/Getty…)
CARTAGENA, Colombia — Under cover of a moonless night in early July, the crew took no more than five minutes to load more than a ton of cocaine on a motorboat beached on a deserted shore of the Guajira peninsula in northeastern Colombia. Equipped with three 200-horsepower engines, the "go-fast" craft then roared off toward the Dominican Republic, the first stop on the drugs' way north.
But they'd been detected long before. Informants working for a top-secret group of Colombian agents, trained and equipped by U.S. counter-narcotics agencies, had penetrated the smugglers' inner circle. They knew where the dope was loaded — and where it was headed.
A few hours later, Dominican police were waiting as the boat approached the eastern shores of Hispaniola. The captain, desperate to escape, beached the boat but was killed in a shootout. Police later recovered 1,690 pounds of cocaine, and authorities in Colombia guessed that the same amount had either been dumped at sea or passed off to another boat.
The cops who broke the case are members of a 45-person Cartagena cell of a U.S.-vetted force called the Sensitive Investigative Unit, or SIU. Using the "crown jewels" of American technology and training to make the crucial connections in the drug gangs' spider-web chains of command, the force has racked up impressive successes in the drug wars, and at a fraction of the cost of the $8-billion U.S. initiative called Plan Colombia.
The SIU program in Colombia, first launched in 1997, increasingly is being used as a model for other countries fighting drug mafias: The Drug Enforcement Administration has set up SIUs in 11 other mostly Latin American countries, including Mexico, but also Afghanistan, Thailand and Ghana. Eight other countries are on the waiting list.
The head of the Cartagena SIU group is a 37-year-old police major who works in one of the most dangerous trafficking zones in Colombia. To preserve his anonymity, he asked to be called Maj. Marino.
Before he joined the group, Marino was an officer in the "Junglas," the tough anti-narcotics tactical commandos modeled after the British SAS and U.S. Army special forces. There, he spent seven years destroying cocaine laboratories, carrying out drug raids, providing security for coca-spraying aircraft missions and arresting traffickers.
He thrived on the adrenaline of being a commando, but as time went on, he became more interested in "the investigative part. I wanted to know more than we were able to establish as Junglas."
"We'd seize a lab, arrest the low-level people there, who would always say it belongs to 'Carlos,' but of course we could never find Carlos. We would only get one small part of the case and never knew where the drugs were going or who got the money," Marino said during an interview in Cartagena. "Now I know how to make the connections."
The Cartagena agents spend much of their time in a nondescript office in this Spanish colonial city sitting before computer screens monitoring wiretaps, the time-consuming foundation of most major drug busts.
"Raids take surveillance and analysis," Marino said. A female colleague, a money-laundering expert, added: "In the past, we'd just have a meeting and based on our malicia indigena, or gut feeling, we'd decide, 'Let's go.' We now realize we need a technique, to sit down and plan, to decide who collects evidence, which weapons to bring, where is the nearest hospital, when to inform the police. There is a whole checklist of things."
The Colombian SIU agents, who total more than 300 countrywide, are direct descendants of the bloques de busqueda, or search blocks, set up in the early 1990s with U.S. help to hunt down the notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.
But the drug gangs, under pressure from inside and outside Colombia, aren't the vertically integrated cartels they were in Escobar's day. The rising power of Mexican mafias and their control of U.S. distribution have in effect turned Colombians into their suppliers, authorities in Colombia say.
Colombian traffickers have fragmented into a "decentralized syndicate of organizations," the Pentagon's Southern Command chief, Gen. Douglas Fraser, said in a recent interview in Miami.
These days, the bulk of Colombian drug trafficking is controlled by about half a dozen bacrims, which is Spanish shorthand for bandas criminales, or criminal bands. The bands often specialize in — and provide to the highest bidder — one facet of trafficking services.
Unlike other anti-narcotics officers in Colombia, the SIU agents focus strictly on complex cases and taking down entire trafficking organizations.
The DEA shields the agents, who have all undergone U.S.-supervised polygraph and drug testing, from being called upon by their superior officers to "put out fires. We build them their own firehouse," said Jay Bergman, Andean chief of the DEA in Bogota, the Colombian capital.