#NarcoFiles: The cocaine route that links the PCC and the FARC through the Amazon

Allan de Abreu, Eduardo Goulart and Vinicius Madureira / Piauí

Vaupés, also known as Uaupés, is a river with dark, fast-flowing waters that originates in Colombia, meanders through the Amazon and empties into the Río Negro, in Brazilian territory. along its shores 24 indigenous ethnic groups, including the Karapanãs and the Makunas, coexist with cocaine traffickers, most of whom are dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The border with Brazil is part of a lucrative international drug trafficking route. The scheme was the subject of a confidential investigation by the United States government and the Colombian Army that detailed, for the first time, how one of these criminal groups works to supply the PCC (First Capital Command) with tons of cocaine by air. and through the Vaupés.

Piauí and UOL had exclusive access to intelligence reports transmitted to the Public Ministry of Colombia and obtained by the investigative journalism consortium OCCRP within the framework of the #NarcoFiles investigation, the new criminal order, of which Narcodiario is a part. The documents show the path followed by cocaine leaving Colombia, passing through Manaus, the Caribbean and ending up in the hands of consumers in Europe.

The investigation began in 2020, from information transmitted to the Colombian Army and the Brazilian Federal Police by the Anti-Drug Agency (DEA), North American police specialized in the fight against drug trafficking. Americans drew attention to a cocaine buying and selling scheme in the region known as “dog’s head”, in the extreme northwest of Brazil, where the country borders Colombia and Venezuela (the place got its nickname because, on maps, its shape resembles a dog with its mouth open).

According to preliminary information provided by the Americans, the person who served as a bridge between the FARC dissidents and the PCC criminals was a Colombian named Nelson Jaramillo Quiceño, better known as Quality. It was his responsibility to guarantee that Colombian criminals, based in the departments of Guaviare and Vaupés, could pass batches of cocaine to Brazilian criminals, based in Manaus and São Gabriel da Cachoeira.

Born in San José del Guaviare, 400 kilometers from the capital Bogotá, Calidad was part of a group of paramilitaries known as the “Yari self-defense forces,” who operated in southern Colombia in the early 2000s. They were militias that fought against the FARC guerrilla in the jungle. In 2003, Calidad was investigated for his involvement in the murder of four people, including a teenager, but he ended up acquitted due to lack of evidence. Six years later, he was arrested red-handed by the Brazilian Army while transporting four tons of cement aboard a boat on the Vaupés River, near Iauaretê, an Amazonian town near the border with Colombia. The sale of cement is controlled in Brazil, since The product can be used to transform coca leaves into base paste. Therefore, authorization from the PF is required to export it. Calidad did not have the paperwork and was detained by the military. Days later he was released from prison thanks to a habeas corpus.

Due to the tons of cement, Calidad was charged by the Federal Public Ministry for smuggling. The case is being processed in Brazilian courts and has not yet resulted in a ruling. In January 2015, the Colombian was arrested again in flagrante delicto, this time for a crime against the tax system in the state of Amazonas. The report did not obtain details of the case, which is being processed in secret.

Since then, Calidad lives in São Gabriel, where he owns a barbershop and a restaurant, or in Yavaraté, a Colombian town on the border with Brazil. According to investigators, she approached the main FARC dissident group. After the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the guerrilla in 2016, The FARC became a political party, but some of its members chose to remain in the jungle, carrying out kidnappings and drug and weapons trafficking.

These dissidents, called “residual organized armed groups” by the Colombian Army, are divided into several fronts, classified by numbers. Number 1, with whom Calidad became friends, It is made up of around four hundred men, who for a long time were under the command of Miguel Botache Santillana, Gentil Duarte and Géner García Molina, known as Jhon 40.

Gentil Duarte was murdered in Venezuela in May 2022. His partner, Jhon 40, is a known criminal. Following the “corridos” fashion, As popular songs that praise drug traffickers are called, Jhon recorded two songs telling his own story. They are called Gringo Bandido and Damn Government. This story was told in a report by The New York Times which focused on the musical genre, already well established in Colombia and Mexico.

Front number 1 controls the production and trafficking of cocaine in the departments of Meta, Guaviare and Vaupés, territory that covers 6,700 hectares planted with coca leaves, according to the most recent report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). According to intelligence reports from the Colombian Army, the cocaine produced by the group was transported in boats across 520 kilometers between the cities of Miraflores and Mitú, in Colombia. From there, The drugs were sent to Manaus by plane of Aerovías Regional del Oriente (ARO), an air taxi company that has a fleet of nine aircraft. The military suspects that smaller lots were carried by boats that crossed the Vaupés and Negro rivers to Manaus, hidden in shipments of flour, meat or fish.

In Manaus, according to the Colombian Army, Calidad negotiated the sale of cocaine with members of the PCC, who, in turn, sent the drugs – possibly sent on planes – to the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. From there, Cocaine was trafficked to European ports. The intelligence documents do not say which countries received the Colombian cocaine. Nor do they identify the members of the PCC involved in this criminal logistics.

The Solimões River is the main entry point for cocaine that reaches Brazil through the Amazon, according to the Federal Police. In recent years, this route has been dominated by the Comando Vermelho, forcing the rival PCC faction to seek alternative routes, such as Río Negro. This route brings some advantages for criminals, such as the lower police presence (while in Solimões there are at least five Civil and Federal police checkpoints, in Negro there are only two), the low population of the region and the large number of islands, with emphasis on the Anavilhanas archipelago, which makes police work difficult. Even so, In just over a year, between 2020 and 2021, 3 tons of drugs were seized along the river, according to PF records.

Teams from the 30th Infantry Battalion of the Colombian Army, based in Mitú, intercepted conversations in Spanish of unidentified members of the scheme. “There are 22 packages but I couldn’t move them here. It’s complicated”, said an interlocutor, on January 17, 2021. Four days later, new suspicious dialogue: “Yesterday the hat people arrived and everything was ready, these guys ask for more.” The last conversation transcribed by military intelligence is from January 24 of that year: “The food was sent, but they did not send the money.”

At the same time, the plan was also investigated by Brazilian authorities. In July 2021, agents from the Manaus PF Narcotics Repression Police Station (DRE) were sent to São Gabriel to follow Calidad. The Colombian, however, was spending time in the neighboring country, and that is why the investigation did not advance. The Colombian army, apparently, was more successful.

In September 2021, The Colombian army discovered that Calidad was transporting fuel on a boat from São Gabriel to Yavaraté. According to investigators, he intended to supply the village’s generator in Colombia and, in doing so, allow communication, via WhatsApp, with former FARC guerrillas and members of the PCC. The Colombian Army also confirmed that some planes from the air taxi company ARO took off from Mitú airport without transporting passengers or cargo. The suspicion is that These aircraft landed on clandestine airstrips on the banks of the Vaupés River, where they were loaded with cocaine.

Months after the telephone interceptions, in August 2021, Calidad met with the manager of ARO, Camilo Esteban Ávila Morales, and the then mayor of Mitú, Carlos Enriques Peñagos Celis, a partner in the same company. Investigators affirm that the reason for the meeting was to discuss a contribution of 130 million pesos – just over 30,000 euros – from the criminal group in Morales’ campaign for federal deputy. He was elected in March 2022.

Other clues were added to the investigation. An informant told the military that Morales and Celis, visibly drunk in a bar, were celebrating the shipment of a shipment of cocaine to Brazil. In the conversation they would have talked about the plan to buy a new plane with the proceeds from the trip. “Sometimes, in a state of intoxication, [ Celis ] says it sends many shipments of cocaine hydrochloride to Manaus, Brazil, and that currently controls flights in partnership with Camilo Esteban Ávila Morales,” states a report from the 30th Infantry Battalion of the Colombian Army.

According to the military, Calidad, Morales and Celis would have been acquiring rural properties in the Mitú region in the names of relatives, which raised suspicions that they were laundering money through land transactions. In November 2021, the investigation reports say, Calidad met in Manaus with members of the PCC to negotiate new shipments of cocaine. Three months later, the Colombian Army discovered that the group was working together to transport 560 kg of cocaine from Mitú to the border with Brazil, crossing the Vaupés.

Given this evidence, the Colombian Public Ministry obtained, in January 2022, judicial authorization to monitor one of the Calidad phones. However, the device was no longer used by the person under investigation, as prosecutors discovered a month later. The investigation remains in the hands of the Public Ministry. The report repeatedly requested information about the progress of the case, but there was no response from either the prosecutors or the Colombian Army. As the investigation is being carried out in secret, it is not known if the suspects have been reported to court or if there have been any new discoveries in the case. There are no public criminal actions against Calidad, Morales and Celis for drug trafficking in Colombian courts.

The Negro River, through which tons of cocaine pass / Marizilda Cruppe-Piauí

The report contacted Calidad via WhatsApp on October 12, but did not receive a response at the time of writing. It was not possible to contact him by other means. Mayor Celis and Deputy Morales were contacted by email, but they also did not respond to questions, which were sent repeatedly. The space remains open for possible demonstrations.

This article is part of ‘NarcoFiles: the new criminal order’, a transnational journalistic investigation into global organized crime, exploring how it innovates and spreads around the world. The project, led by OCCRP with the support of the Latin American Center for Journalistic Investigation (CLIP), began with a leak of emails from the Attorney General’s Office of Colombia that was shared with media around the world. Journalists examined and corroborated the material along with hundreds of documents, databases and interviews.

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