- The Washington Times - Monday, November 27, 2000

MEDELLIN, Colombia U.S.-led agents have arrested thousands of people and seized tons of drugs in the world's biggest anti-narcotics operation a venture that involved hide-outs in snake-infested bunkers and powerboat chases worthy of James Bond.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) coordinated the drug bust, named Operation Liberator, which took place across the Caribbean this month. Officials from Britain and 30 other countries were involved.
Powerboats, modified helicopters, highly trained sniffer dogs, trackers and spy aircraft were used to trap suspects. Cocaine laboratories were smashed and heroin-poppy fields were burned.
Some agents had tracked their quarry for months along mountain goat trails in Venezuela and Colombia and on tracks across the desert near the U.S.-Mexican border.
Other agents hid in caves where tons of cocaine had been bagged and made ready for loading onto ships. Some posed as buyers, setting up meetings in restaurants with suspected dealers or parachuted into jungle encampments located with the help of satellites.
One trail ended in a speedboat chase complete with volleys of bullets similar to the opening sequence of the latest Bond film, this time with the Orinoco delta as a backdrop rather than London's Docklands. The agents finally forced the two boats laden with cocaine onto an island, although the crews escaped.
More than 39,000 searches were carried out in three weeks of raids unprecedented both in scale and the extent of cooperation among countries.
Michael Vigil, the Caribbean director of the DEA, said 2,876 persons were arrested, more than 20 tons of cocaine seized and $42 million in other assets confiscated.
Agents also dismantled 94 drug factories, seized 82,170 Ecstasy tablets and burned 9 square miles of poppy, coca and marijuana fields.
Some of those arrested were kingpins of the drug world, such as Martires Paulino Castro, who is accused of running a network from St. Martin in the West Indies to New York, and shipping two tons of Colombian cocaine to New York every month.
Named after Simon Bolivar, the champion of Latin American freedom, Operation Liberator was the fourth and most extensive in a two-year program of raids. A raid two months ago led to the capture of Ivan De La Vega, thought to be the leader of the biggest cocaine-trafficking operation in Colombia, along with $910 million worth of cocaine, much of which was destined for Scotland.
Among the goods seized in the operation were a selection of speedboats used by smugglers, known as "go-fasts," painted blue to make them difficult to spot at sea.
At the naval base of the historic Colombian city of Cartagena, Capt. Jose Gabriel Escobar, the commander of the Atlantic coast guard, which took part in the operation, pointed out an impounded go-fast moored alongside the naval workshop.
"This baby would not stop," he said. "We have no boats fast enough to catch her. It took four Special Forces men abseiling from a helicopter to capture her. She was carrying half a ton of coke."
Capt. Escobar said it is almost impossible to catch the go-fasts.
"The drug traffickers usually scuttle the boats once the load has been delivered," he said.
"What's a boat worth less than $70,000 when you are making more than $20 million pure profit for even a small load?"
Although a senior British Customs official said Operation Liberator had landed "a crippling blow" on the narcotics industry, the business is so large and decentralized that the raids may have had only limited effect: The street price of drugs in New York remains unchanged.
The seizure of 20 tons of cocaine is not even a dent in supply compared with the estimated 700 tons of cocaine leaving Colombia every year.
Even so, the operation has been heralded as beginning a new era in international cooperation.
"This operation succeeded because of the relaxation of sovereignty issues that many times in the past had acted as a barrier to law-enforcement operations," said Mr. Vigil.

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