Do El Salvador Seizures Signal Pacific Cocaine Surge?

Alex Papadovassilakis  |  Jan 19th, 2022
This story by Alex Papadovassilakis originally appeared on InsightCrime.org on January 12th, 2022.
Salvadoran Navy
Photo by @nayibbukele

El Salvador’s Navy has seized record amounts of cocaine recently, indicating a possible resurgence of maritime trafficking off the country’s Pacific coast.

The latest interdictions occurred at the close of 2021 when authorities intercepted two drug submarines carrying more than four tons of cocaine, according to a January 3 government news release.

The haul capped off a year in which authorities seized nearly 12 tons of cocaine, a massive jump from the 2.9 tons seized in 2020 and 1.4 tons in 2019, according to official figures published by state media.

Most of the cocaine was discovered on vessels in waters off El Salvador’s Pacific coast, such as a trio of go-fast boats intercepted in mid-November with 2.5 tons of cocaine. Another boat was captured in July with 1.4 tons.

While El Salvador’s coast has been actively used by drug traffickers moving South American cocaine north for decades, the maritime route had appeared to be dormant after record seizures by El Salvador’s Navy in 2017 and 2018.

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El Salvador’s spike in maritime cocaine seizures comes alongside a return of trafficking on the country’s Pacific coast and US collaboration to improve enforcement.

Enhanced patrolling had led traffickers to steer clear of El Salvador’s Pacific, resulting in a “sustained decline” in maritime trafficking in 2019 and 2020, according to US State Department anti-narcotics reports and representatives of the El Salvador Attorney General’s Office.

Cocaine smuggling also shifted to overland routes through Central America, including in El Salvador, where in 2020, large quantities of drugs were discovered in trucks.

The recent string of maritime seizures, however, suggests that traffickers are returning to the Pacific route, a pattern seen elsewhere in the region, including off Panama.

The administration of President Nayib Bukele has been quick to take credit for last year’s massive drug haul, claiming it to be the result of his Territorial Control plan. That plan, though, has focused mostly on sending forces into the streets in gang-controlled neighborhoods.

The country’s Navy had continued strengthening in 2020, with the US State Department reporting that it was “in the process of increasing its coverage of coastal areas by enhancing maritime interdiction capabilities.”

US security forces have long been crucial in the country’s anti-drug efforts, operating a cooperative military monitoring center at an El Salvador airfield since the 2000s and frequently sharing information with authorities.

Indeed, El Salvador’s defense minister confirmed that the latest seizure was aided by US intelligence.

This story by Alex Papadovassilakis originally appeared on InsightCrime.org on January 12th, 2022.

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