The recent seizure of 20 tons of cocaine from two “fishing boats” manned by Russian and Ukrainian crewmen has raised concerns that Mexican drug smugglers are doing business with the Russian mafia.
U.S. intelligence sources believe drug cartels in Mexico, considered among the worlds most ruthless, have followed the lead of Colombian cocaine smugglers to form alliances with the Russian mob and other Eastern European crime organizations. Led by the Arellano-Felix cartel in Tijuana, the sources said those alliances have been firmly established and involve the shipment of both cocaine and heroin.
Colombian drug cartels discovered the Russian mafia as early as 1992. The Russians, who operated from New York, Florida and Puerto Rico, moved quickly to help the Colombians import drugs into Europe through Italy. The Russian mobsters, many of them former KGB agents, controlled numerous banks in Moscow and established others in Panama and the Caribbean to launder hundreds of millions of dollars in illicit drug profits — for themselves and the Colombians.
The partnership gave the Colombians a new market for their cocaine and heroin, nearly all of which previously had been destined for the United States, and opened up for Russian organized crime what one U.S. intelligence official described as a “a bank vault.”
It also provided the Colombians with access to sophisticated weapons, intelligence-gathering equipment and other military hardware, including as many as a dozen airplanes now being used to ferry drugs out of the country. At one point, the Cali drug cartel in Colombia planned to buy a Russian submarine for drug smuggling, a scheme that was foiled by U.S. undercover agents.
The Mexican connection, according to the sources, has followed the same path: Russian weapons and other equipment for drugs, along with a split of the profits.
Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman, New York Republican and member of the House International Relations Committee, said new global cartels ultimately could be capable of “buying entire governments, commercial trade zones in emerging democracies and eventually undermine established Western markets and the stable world financial commercial trading system.”
The rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by the Spanish acronym FARC, has looked to the Russians for arms to equip its ever-growing army. The FARC is believed to have paid with cocaine for thousands of AK-47 assault rifles. U.S. intelligence sources have estimated that more than half of the 700 tons of cocaine produced in Colombia every year comes from areas under FARC control.
The Russian mafia, known as the “Red Mafiya,” has been a top priority of both the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the FBI.
Last week, a fishing boat carrying more than 13 tons of cocaine was towed to San Diego after it was intercepted on the high seas in the countrys largest-ever maritime drug seizure. The 152-foot Belize-flagged ship Svesda Maru and its crew of 10 Russians and Ukrainians were taken into custody after U.S. Coast Guard officials discovered cocaine in a secret compartment beneath the ships holds.
In March, an indictment was filed against 10 crew members of the vessel Forever My Friends, also registered in Belize. That case also is pending in U.S. District Court in San Diego. Federal authorities said agents seized seven tons of cocaine hidden on that ship, manned by a crew of eight Russians and Ukrainians.
DEA Agent Errol Chavez, who heads the agencys San Diego office, said smugglers on the Svesda Maru must have had the permission of the Arellano-Felix drug cartel in Tijuana to be transporting cocaine so close to its territory.
The Arellano-Felix cartel has maintained its position as Mexicos leading drug smuggling organization through sheer force, and has survived for more than 15 years because of its access to weapons and its willingness to use them. U.S. drug agents believe the organizations ties to the Russian mafia go a long way to ensuring its longevity.
Mexico is the largest transshipment point of South American cocaine bound for the United States. DEA officials believe 65 percent of the cocaine produced in South America reaches U.S. cities via the U.S.-Mexico border and that Colombian cartels rely on Mexican groups in Guadalajara, Juarez, Matamoros, Sinaloa and Tijuana to smuggle cocaine into this country.
The DEA has said that Mexican drug lords have established themselves as “transportation specialists” for the shipment of cocaine across the border. Many also are involved in smuggling heroin, marijuana and methamphetamines. The addition of the Russian mafia to that equation, U.S. intelligence sources said, increases the problem.