By hiding cocaine in coffee cargo, Colombians risk hurting product's prestige

April 20, 1991|By Ana Arana | Ana Arana,Special to The Sun

BOGOTA,COLOMBIA — BOGOTA, Colombia -- The woody aroma of a coffee shipment masks a far more precious commodity: cocaine.

Increasingly, Colombian traffickers are using coffee shipments to smuggle large amounts of cocaine into the United States and Europe. In the process, they are threatening to tarnish the carefully cultivated image of Colombia's most important export.

All Colombian commodities have been used at one time or another to smuggle cocaine, but traffickers had previously steered clear of coffee, according to law enforcement officers and Colombian coffee officials.

However, the trend changed last year, when U.S. customs and drug enforcement officials reported seizing nearly 4 tons of cocaine that entered the United States concealed in coffee shipments.

Data for the amount of cocaine smuggled into Europe using coffee as a cover are incomplete, but available reports show that at least 2 tons of cocaine reached Spain and Germany that way over the last six months.

Law enforcement officials suspect that

the amount of cocaine smuggled into the United States and Europe may total six to 10 times the amount seized.

In all seizures, police found plastic-wrapped packages of cocaine dumped carelessly inside the shipping containers -- truck-sized cargo carriers that can be loaded directly onto tractor-trailers or railroad cars -- along with the coffee sacks.

"It is obviously being done at the port, either before [the coffee sacks] are put into the containers, or while the containers are waiting to be loaded on the ships," said a law enforcement source in Miami.

On arrival in Europe or the United States, the cocaine is extracted from the containers by people who work in the port.

Because coffee exports are a multimillion-dollar business in Colombia, with millions of coffee sacks shipped each year, surveillance at the receiving end of the trade is a mind-boggling affair, said law enforcement sources. More than a thousand shipping containers of coffee leave Colombian ports every month.

"The coffee odor masks the cocaine's smell," said Howard Cooperman of the U.S. Customs Service in Miami. That makes such shipments hard for drug-sniffing dogs to detect.

"We don't know if the traffickers used this method all along and we didn't detect it, or if it is a new trend," said another law enforcement source.

U.S. law enforcement personnel have been pressuring coffee officials in Colombia to tighten security at Colombian ports. Colombian coffee officials say they are cooperating, but they face many obstacles.

"Coffee is not like flowers, which are easier to control because they come from the farm to the airline company," said Jose Cardenas, president of Colombia's Federation of Coffee Growers.

Cut flowers are a major Colombian export.

Cocaine concealed in Colombian flower shipments disappeared two years ago, after growers installed sophisticated surveillance equipment near their farms and at the loading docks of cargo airline companies.

The coffee federation says its growers enforce strict security measures, primarily in the form of quality-control checkpoints for coffee shipments.

On leaving the mill, the coffee is inspected by police at roadside checkpoints, then received at the port by a member of the coffee federation. Before putting the coffee in the containers, the federation representative checks the beans again, loads them and welds the container shut.

However, Miami law enforcement sources say that holes remain in this security system, even after a string of seizures in 1990.

The coffee federation spends $1.5 million a year in security, but its control ends after the coffee arrives at the port and is placed in sealed containers.

Authorities say cocaine is hidden by loaders at the port. Most of the cocaine found in the United States was smuggled out of the Pacific port of Buenaventura, where corruption is rampant.

The smuggling of cocaine in coffee exports could affect the image of Colombian coffee abroad, Mr. Cardenas said. Colombia spends $40 million a year on a U.S.-based advertising campaign in which Juan Valdez, a fictitious coffee picker, sells the virtues of Colombian coffee: dependability and good flavor.

"For the last 10 years, we have worked hard to keep cocaine from tarnishing the image of our coffee. This is a very unfortunate event," lamented Mr. Cardenas.

The presence of cocaine in coffee shipments will also make coffee exports more expensive, coffee experts said, because of delays during searches at ports of entry.

Exporters complain that during searches they have to pay to unload the shipment and transport the containers to another location, where customs officials check them.

"We are afraid if this trend continues, it will cause undue delays in our exports," said Gilberto Arango Londono, a coffee expert.

Coffee exports constitute about 6 percent of Colombia's gross national product and 30 percent of all its exports.

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