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Russia Becoming Principal Market for Colombian Cocaine
Cali El Pais in Spanish
29 November 2001
[translation for personal use only]
29 November 2001
Unattributed report: "The Moscow Connection"

The former Soviet Union has become a drug trafficking destination. Contacts continue notwithstanding the fall of the major [Colombian] cartels.

The former Soviet Union, even more than the United States itself, is becoming the principal market for Colombian cocaine.

At the start of the past month of September, an infiltrated agent of the Russian Federation Security Service was able to expose a network that specialized in trafficking cocaine to Eastern Europe. Five Russians have been arrested, and the Colombian Office of the Prosecutor General, together with the DEA [US Drug Enforcement Agency], is after the steps of 10 Colombians nationals believed to the main suppliers of cocaine to the markets of Europe and Asia.

According to the Colombian authorities, Russia is turning into a sort of "new gold" for Colombian drug traffickers who have been down on their luck since the end of the 1980's when the Mexican cartels wrested control of the main routes to the United States away from them. "In Russia, Colombian 'drug traffickers' have been able to secure total control of the market," an Interpol source pointed out.

The issue is of such magnitude that, according to information from the Russian Embassy in Bogota, no less than 40 tons of Colombian cocaine is being shipped each year to ports of the former Soviet Union. "Barely five percent of the cocaine entering our country is discovered by the authorities. Russian borders are very vulnerable because of the lack of security, a situation the drug Mafia has been able to take advantage of," pointed out former Russian Ambassador Ednan Agaev. The rationalization that explains this situation is more than evident: a kilo of cocaine in Moscow costs three times more than in New York City.

According to intelligence reports, "with such high profit margins, and weak border and maritime controls by the Russian authorities, the Colombian cartels are making a killing." In 1997 alone, according to Anti-Narcotics Police reports, sufficient cocaine arrived to Russia to "supply the world market during the first years of the new millenium." Profits being made by drug traffickers have been estimated at $600 million annually.

Even though alcohol dependency has traditionally been viewed as one of Russia's main problem, the fall in the control structures implemented by the Communists has led to a wave of misgovernment that is reflected in a huge increase in the number of cocaine and heroin consumers. In Moscow alone, there are close to 2,000 discotheques, and nightclubs opening their doors each night where it is possible to obtain a catalog of drugs, from Colombian cocaine up to -- despite the ongoing conflict -- Afghan heroin.

Figures released by the International Council of Narcotics Control, JIFE (an organization ascribed to the UN), estimate that 15 percent of the 150 million inhabitants of the Russian Federation have used some sort of illegal drug at least once in their lifetime. Close to three million Russians use drugs on routine basis. There are even cities such as Kaliningrad where, according to official Russian statistics, close to 30 percent of its two million inhabitants can be considered as drug addicts.

The 'potential' of the Russian market was discovered by the Colombian cartels during the early years of the past decade following the collapse of the Soviet regime. At the time, small criminal groups started expanding thanks to the trafficking of weapons, basic commodities and, of course, illegal drugs originating from the countries along Russia's southern border, included among them, Afghanistan. Since 1992, Colombian authorities have been recording the contacts that were taking place between Julian Castano, alias 'Caliche,' allegedly one of the most trusted men of Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, and a man identified as 'Sylvester," head of one of the main Russian criminal groups: the Solntsevo cartel.

'Caliche' and 'Sylvester' set-up an elaborate, large scale, distribution network that used Russian ports for shipments that required greater draft.

Simultaneously, they came up with a network of 'decoys' - especially 'mules' - the arrest of which was specifically planned to distract the federal authorities. According to DAS [Administrative Department of Security] reports, the huge earnings resulting from the business was divided evenly between the Colombians and the Russians.

Moscow and St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) have since become the main centers of drug consumption in the entire Russia. A major portion of the close to 50,000 violent deaths that have been taking place each year in the Russian Federation have been attributed to the expansion of the business between both country's criminal groups.

What the authorities are currently investigating is why the 'Russian connection' has been able to maintain itself even after the decline of the large Colombian cartels, and the arrests of some of its main contacts in Moscow. Everything would seem to indicate that middle and small cartel leaders have 'inherited' the business, which includes the participation of all the 'small cartels' operating in country and, probably, the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] guerrilla.

Precisely, the Russian intelligence agencies are sure that one of the 'currencies' of choice used by Russian Mafia to pay for drug shipments, are light weapons that were left lying around by the thousands after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In concrete, Russian intelligence sources point out that many of the weapons stolen from the country's official depot located in Georgia and Ukraine -- negotiated by former agents of the now-defunct KGB -- are in the hands of terrorists groups in Chetchenya, Afghanistan, and Turkey. "Likewise, it has been possible to establish that Russian and Colombian criminal groups negotiated several shipments of drugs that were paid for with short and long-range weapons, that were later sold in Central America or directly to subversive groups of the country," the intelligence report points out.

The arrests that were made in September in Moscow, and the investigations currently being conducted in Colombia, will serve to gauge the true extent of the connection that has transformed Russia into the new drug trafficking center of the world.

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