By Luis Jaime Acosta
BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia and the U.S. drug agency have broken an airport drug ring in the world's No. 1 cocaine producer that sent up to 2 tonnes of cocaine monthly to Mexico and the United States, police said on Thursday.
Colombian police supported by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency nabbed 26 suspected traffickers, four of whom are wanted for extradition to the United States, in Colombia's coastal cities of Barranquilla and Santa Marta as well as Monteria in the northwest and the capital Bogota.
"This structure dedicated to drug trafficking had set up a true mafia company sending aircraft from Colombia to Central America, destined for Mexico and the United States," said General Oscar Naranjo, head of Colombian police.
"This operation has also led to capture five civil aeronautic officials based in the north coast that facilitated these operations," he said.
The trafficking group, which used the aviation officials to authorize the drug flights, allegedly was headed by Jesus Lopez, alias "My Blood," who had been part of outlawed, right-wing paramilitary groups, officials said.
Colombia, where drug traffickers take advantage of dense jungles and forests and a weak state presence in some areas, has received billions of dollars in aid from Washington to fight drug output, rebels and cartels.
Colombia's new criminal gangs -- made up of a kaleidoscope of former paramilitary commanders, ex-cartel members and others -- ship tonnes of cocaine monthly through Central America and Mexico to the United States, and to a lesser extent to Europe.
In many Colombian provinces, criminal bands and leftist rebels team up in the drug trade since FARC and ELN guerrilla groups, which control the majority of coca production while gangs are better known for handling transport.
In the past decade, the United States has poured $5 billion dollars into Colombia to fight drugs with military equipment and crop eradication programs but Bogota still struggles to stem its illegal drug trade.
(Writing by Jack Kimball; Editing by Bill Trott)