I conducted a Risk Security Assessment in Pasto in February 2007 and it was one of the most challenging.
Pasto is a nice town in the south of Colombia, not far from the border with Ecuador. Pasto is the major town in the green Nariño region, home of allegedly the best coffee quality produced in the country. The green hills and the perfect microclimate make this region ideal to grow a rich full bodied coffee. In the nearby of the town lies the active volcano Galeras. Seismic activities at a low level have continued at Galeras, with small explosions occasionally dusting nearby villages and towns with ash. The volcano has continued to be well studied, and predictions of eruptions at the volcano have improved. One phenomenon, which seems to be a reliable precursor to eruptive activity, is a low-frequency seismic event known as a tornillo event. These have occurred before about four-fifths of the explosions at Galeras, and the number of tornillo events recorded before an eruption is also correlated with the size of the ensuing eruption. Recently, on February 14, 2009, the volcano erupted and some 8,000 residents were evacuated, and there were no immediate reports of injuries or serious property damage. As in 2005, the city of Pasto was blanketed by a layer of ash after the volcanic explosion (due to the direction of the wind). The local authorities ordered two water treatment plants near Galeras to shut down. On March 13, 2009, Galeras erupted twice. Ash fell on Pasto and some other towns near the volcano, where an evacuation was ordered but reportedly ignored. No injuries or damage were reported.
When I visited the location in 2007, in my RSA report within the natural disaster chapter I described the risk posed by the proximity of downtown office and operations to the volcano. In fact it erupted before my visit and well trained staff were able to evacuate from building precisely and smoothly.
I revised the special “Volcano Galeras” contingency plans and provided recommendation about the conduction of regular practical evacuation exercises in order to mitigate the risk. The next post on this blog is going to be a technical one about Natural Disasters Contingency Plans.
Still the threat is there and in these circumstances timing is essential, regardless the fact that the last eruption took place at one flank of the volcano not involving directly the city.
“Expect the unexpected” is the baseline of every successful RSA.
Regarding the guerrilla factor, it must be said that the area is very strategic for guerrillas and generally speaking for all armed actors. In fact the routes leading from Pasto to the Pacific Ocean are precious for criminal organizations because represent the direct access to the sea and to the departure places to export drugs to Central America or USA.
One of the most famous ports used by drug traffickers is Buenaventura, located miles from the western cordillera of the Andes mountain range and the major city of Cali, the department's capital. Buenaventura has had a notorious history plagued by drug trafficking, violence, and the presence of guerrilla and paramilitary groups. In the last two years, the amount of reported homicides has doubled. The murder rate that is 24 times that of New York City, making it a crime rate of 175.2. To counter the violence, the Colombian government has set up a marine Special Forces unit in the worst area of the city. During my visit drug cartels were having an armed confrontation in the city streets.
From Buenaventura drug is loaded on “Go Fast” boats which in hours can reach the Mexican shores transporting up to 5 tons of drug. Usually these boats are refueled during the night by fishing boats. Once mission is accomplished the Go Fasts (worth more than $100.000) are abandoned and the crew can return back Colombia via flight.
Buenaventura is also famous for the handmade submarines which have been created to skip the radar/sonar signals. Those “narco submarine” (also called narco sub, drug sub, Big Foot submarine and Self-Propelled Semi-Submersible (SPSS)) are home-made marine vessels built by drug traffickers to smuggle their goods. They are used by Colombian drug cartel members to export cocaine from Colombia to the United States. They are typically made of fiberglass, powered by a 300/350 hp diesel engine and manned by a crew of four. With enough cargo space to carry two to ten tons of cocaine, they also carry large fuel tanks, giving them a range of 2,000 miles (3,200 Km). Because much of its structure is fiberglass and it travels nearly below the sea surface, the vessel is virtually impossible to detect via sonar or radar. Narco submarines also have an upper lead shielding to minimize their 'heat signature' and evade infrared sensors. The newer models have piping along the bottom to allow the water to cool the exhaust as the ship moves, making it even less susceptible to infrared detection. About a third of the 600 tons of cocaine coming out of Colombia each year leaves via the Pacific coast and a significant amount is being carried in semi-submersibles. In late January 2009, a Sri Lankan Army task force found three semi-subs being built by Tamil rebels in the jungles of Mullaitivu. With this discovery, the LTTE became the first armed organization to develop underwater weapons. I will write an interesting article about my SRA in the post conflict Sri Lanka soon.
The Nariño region is thus located between the inner Putumayo region and the sea. Putumayo is covered by heavy Amazonic forest in which is cultivated and elaborated a large quantity of cocaine. Besides it serves as safe haven for guerrilla and paramilitaries. The region is difficult to control by government forces. The area is well known for a massive deployment of anti personnel mines used by guerrilla to protect their coca cultivation areas and presence of transformation labs. Pasto can be considered a middle risk site for the reasons exposed above.
Pasto represented a security challenge for two main reasons above exposed: natural disaster threat and presence of guerrilla and drug cartels. As said, the next article will explain how to make a successful assessment of threats posed by natural “force majeure”. Regarding the guerrilla factor, the argument will be divided in different chapters and exposed in future posts.
This semi-summersible is 20 mts long and 5 mts wide.It can transport up to 10 tons of cocaine (street value $700m) - Courtesy darkgovernment.
Road assessment: a building just destroyed during drug cartels war on the route Pasto - Buenaventura