The gradual demise of the Norte del Valle drug cartel will not stem the flow of narcotics from Colombia, but will enable the government to focus on the rebels and paramilitaries who are taking over the trade. Jeremy McDermott investigates.
The last of Colombia's big drug cartels, the Norte del Valle (NDV) group, is embroiled in a bitter internal struggle that will curtail if not end the power of the organisation.
However, its demise is unlikely to reduce the quantity of drugs leaving Colombia - estimated at up to 800 tonnes of cocaine and 10 tonnes of heroin every year - as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) and the paramilitaries of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia - AUC), now control around 70 per cent of the drugs leaving the country.
Their control of the drugs trade means that Colombian security forces must now destroy the military structure of the FARC and the AUC and take control of the 40 per cent of the country under their domination, if they are to stop the traffic. This means that for the first time the anti-drug policy of the USA and the counter insurgent strategy of the Colombian government are aligned.
The Norte Del Valle was the bastard son of the Cali cartel that turned on its parent. It was an association of drugs traffickers based in the province of Valle Del Cauca who worked together in controlling routes, pooling drug shipments and sharing resources. Unlike its predecessors of Medellin and Cali, the NDV cartel did not have a sole leader, though certain figures soon assumed more important roles within the organisation. In May this year US authorities issued indictments against nine NDV leaders accusing them of smuggling huge quantities of drugs since 1990.
"We now unseal charges against nine leaders of Colombia's most powerful cocaine-trafficking organizations, including a cartel allegedly responsible for exporting more than 500 metric tons of cocaine worth more than $10 billion from Colombia to the United States," read a US State Department press release.
Three of those leaders, all with US extradition orders, are now at war. Hundreds of people have been killed, and hundreds of properties have been seized and dozens arrested as the security forces enjoy an intelligence bonanza as the rival factions leak information on their enemies.
"The world of narcotrafficking is now in crisis," Police Colonel Oscar Naranjo told JIR. "What was once a monolithic structure known as the Note Del Valle Cartel has now fractured into at least three great blocks."
It is not clear how the war started. Some allege that it was over failed business deals, others claim it was due to elements in the NDV trying to make deals with US authorities and others believing they were going to be betrayed. Another theory is that NDV member Victor Patino, extradited to the USA in December 2002, began to sell out his former comrades and this led to a circle of bloodletting.
The three main protagonists in the war are Diego Leon Montoya alias 'Don Diego', Wilmer Alirio Varela alias 'Jabon', and Luis Hernando Gomez Bustamante, alias Rasguno.
Each of the rival NDV groups has their own wings of sicarios (assassins), traditionally used to protect shipments, intimidate and settle scores. Now they are involved in all out war with rival sicario wings. The 'Los Rastrojos' sicarios led by Diego Perez Henao, alias 'Diego Rastrojo', are in the service of Varela, initially contracted from former members of the paramilitaries to guard drug labs. They currently number over 200 and are engaged in open war with Montoya's 'Los Machos' sicarios.
FARC Takes Control
The NDV cartel as a force in the drugs trafficking world is finished. Although the three major players in the organisation, assuming rivals do not assassinate them, will continue to play an important role, they have been much weakened by the seizure of assets and the killing of key associates.
The era of the 'civilian' cartels is over, but they are quickly being replaced by the FARC.
The growth of the FARC since the early 1980s has been paralleled by the growth in drug crops in their areas of influence. Today the group earns at least 60 per cent of its income from drugs trafficking, an estimated $300m.
Initially the FARC simply charged taxes on drug cultivation and production in their areas. This evolved into a system known as the 'gramaje' (literally tax on grammes) in which a coca farmer paid a tax on every kilo of base, the raw material that is crystallised into cocaine, which he produced. The buyer then paid a tax on every kilo of base he bought.
Drugs traffickers often preferred to put their laboratories in guerrilla areas, preferably near camps, to ensure that the security forces were kept away. They would pay a tax on every kilo of crystallised cocaine that left the laboratory. If airstrips in guerrilla hands were used to fly out the drugs, the traffickers had to pay an 'airport' tax. This system evolved during the 1980s and up until the mid-1990s.
However, when the paramilitaries became a force to be reckoned with in the mid-1990s, a war started for the control of drug crops and the income derived from them. As a result the FARC moved further up the drug chain and established a monopoly on the sale of coca base. All coca farmers in their areas had to sell their produce to the FARC at a fixed price. The FARC would then deal directly with the buyers, ensuring that individuals linked to the paramilitaries were excluded.
The next logical step was to sell not the base, but the crystallised cocaine, ensuring the maximum revenue from the raw material was obtained. So the guerrillas established their own drug laboratories, as witnessed by JIR for the first time in 2000.
There are now more than 60 FARC front companies spread across the country, 40 of which are involved in drugs trafficking in one way or another. Within the seven guerrilla 'blocs' (divisions) there are at least two that now run drugs trafficking organisations that can be safely qualified as cartels:
Southern Bloc - Historically it was the area dominated by the Southern Bloc that held most of the drug crops and that was the cash cow of the FARC. It was here that the system of gramaje was first developed and perfected and it was here that an organisation based around the 14th Front led by Fabian Ramirez (real name Jose Benito Cabrera) developed into a cartel that controlled not just the growing and processing of drug crops, but their exportation. Ramirez's right hand woman, in charge of the daily running of the drug business and finances along with links with foreign buyers, was Nayibe Rojas Valderramaalias alias 'Sonia', who was interviewed by JIR in 2000. She was captured in a house near the town of Cartagena del Chaira, in the southern province of Caqueta, in an operation led by US-trained troops in February this year. Colombian Army intelligence believes she has been responsible for shipping 600 tonnes of cocaine to the USA since 1994 and has been a member of the FARC for more than 20 of her 35 years.
The DEA substantiate the Colombian allegations claiming that Sonia was in the Marriott Hotel in Panama in early 2002 where she met with four European drugs traffickers. Here the DEA said that Sonia stuck a deal to supply four tonnes of cocaine to the buyers in shipments of 500kg. US authorities later intercepted two of the shipments. The extent of the network was uncovered with information from a laptop computer that was allegedly in Sonia's possession at the time of her capture. So far 35 people have been arrested.
The USA presented an extradition order for Sonia in March. This has not yet been acted on as Colombian authorities want more information from Sonia who has so far refused to talk, denying involvement in drugs and terrorism and only admitting to being a member of the FARC.
Eastern Bloc - The head of the Eastern Bloc, the most powerful fighting force of the FARC, is El Mono Jojoy (real name Luis Suarez, although listed by the USA in an extradition order as Jorge Briceno Suarez). In the early 1990s, as part of his fight for status within the FARC, he developed his own cartel. This is now arguably bigger than that of the Southern Bloc and is based around the 16th Front led by 'El Negro Acacio' (real name Tomas Medina Caracas), also the subject of a US extradition order. El Negro Acacio runs the procurement and drugs infrastructure of the Eastern Bloc, the revenue from which pays for arms.
The most successful example of this was in 1999 when 10,000 AK 47s from Jordan were parachuted into the jungle in a deal done via Peru. A Brazilian drug lord, Luis Fernando Da Costa, paid $8m for the weapons. In April 2001, Da Costa was arrested in the eastern province of Vichada, next to the Colombian-Venezuelan border, during the army's Operation 'Black Cat'. This operation dismantled a large scale FARC drug production centre in the remote town of Barrancominas, which is built around 15,000 hectares of coca, 40 'kitchens' (where coca base is produced) and 12 laboratories (where the cocaine is crystallised). From documents captured in the operation and the interrogation of Da Costa, the security forces discovered that the FARC's 16th Front supplied Da Costa with up to 20 tonnes of cocaine, which was paid for in a mixture of cash ($10m per month) and arms, most of which were brought from Paraguay.
The drugs were gathered from several different fronts of the Eastern Bloc, among them the 1st, 7th, 10th, 30th and 44th. Another 16th Front member, alias 'El Negro Oscar' (real name Oscar Caracas Viveros,) now features among the DEA's most wanted.
Da Costa was deported to Brazil and is currently in prison, but a Brazilian known by the alias 'Leo Brasileno' has taken his place in the FARC. Intercepted guerrilla radio traffic has revealed Mono Jojoy talking about Leo in connection with a consignment of 400kg of cocaine to be paid for with weapons.
A further result of the Black Cat operation was the identification of another member of the 16th Front 'Carlos Bolas' (real name Eugenio Vargas Perdomo). He was arrested in June 2002 at Zanderij airport in the Surinam capital Paramaribo with a false Peruvian passport. With a US extradition order pending, Bolas was handed over to the DEA and flown to Washington, becoming the first guerrilla to be extradited. His arrest and subsequent interrogation revealed that the FARC had developed an export route via Surinam.
Bolas was accused of arranging the export of 257 tonnes of cocaine via Surinam to Mexico, Spain and Paraguay. US authorities have also traced him to Nicaragua and Honduras where arms were traded for drugs. He acted as an arms procurement officer for the FARC and was able to use the drugs gathered by the 16th Front and 'El Negro Acacio', as collateral and payment. The network was established as early as 1994 according to US sources.
The network also operated in Venezuela. This fact was exposed after one of the FARC negotiators, alias 'The Ambassador' (real name Enrique Rios Guzman), killed his two escorts and escaped with $5m earned from a deal with Venezuelan drugs traffickers. The money was intended as payment for the April 2002 delivery of 200kg of cocaine, according to Colombian security force sources. The Ambassador has been sentenced to death by the FARC, but appears to have escaped with the money.
Another mini-cartel within the Eastern Bloc is run by Jojoy's brother 'Grannobles' (real name German Suarez). This is based in Arauca, next to the Venezuelan border, and stretches into the neighbouring province of Norte de Santander.
Importance of the Safe Haven
The definitive stage in the FARC's involvement in the drugs trade came during the failed peace talks with the administration of former president Andres Pastrana (1999-2002). Pastrana gave the FARC a 42,000km2 demilitarised zone as a venue for the negotiations in the southern province of Caqueta. Here the guerrilla leaders were able to meet and plot without interruption or fear of capture. They used the time and the zone to maximum effect.
Not only did the haven become a centre for training, recruiting and organisation of finances, but also a drug production centre and depot, where drug export was co-ordinated, contacts made and strategy decided.
In 1999, satellite images registered over 6,000 hectares of coca crops in the zone. By 2002, that had increased to 16,000 hectares with 400 hectares of opium poppy. Air force intelligence also discovered several airstrips that had been cut out of the jungle to fly out multi-tonne shipments of cocaine.
When the peace process ended in February 2002 and the army invaded the zone, they discovered two huge cocaine laboratories capable of producing three tonnes of cocaine a week. Seven tonnes of drugs were seized with an estimated value of $185m. In August 2003, the then army chief General Carlos Alberto Ospina admitted that the FARC were still producing drugs in the former safe haven and said that intelligence indicated three tonnes of cocaine were being flown out of the zone every week, bound for Venezuela and Brazil.
During the period of the safe haven the FARC also sought out international drug connections. One example came to light in August 2000 when a Colombian doctor, Carlos Ariel Charry Gonzalez, with links to the FARC, was arrested in Mexico with Enrique Guillermo Salazar Ramos, a drugs trafficker connected to the powerful drug cartel of the Arellano Felix family, based in the border city of Tijuana.
The Mexican Attorney General's office and then anti-drug tsar Mariano Herran, has asserted there is evidence that Charry was the link between the FARC and the Arellano Felix clan and that drugs were moved up to Mexico and paid for with cash and weapons. Charry had bought a plane and investigations by Colombian authorities tracked shipments flown out of the FARC safe haven. The journey to Mexico was sometimes by aircraft, on other occasions by boat from the Caribbean coast.
Guerrillas and Drug Crops Disperse
In the face of the Colombian government's military offensive against the FARC, the group has broken down into units they term a 'guerrilla' made up of 26 fighters. At the same time, drug cultivation has dispersed as the US-sponsored aerial eradication programme, has forced growers to cultivate fields of less than three hectares, the minimum required to attract the attention of the spraying aircraft.
Last year the Colombian police fumigated over 130,000 hectares and satellite images showed a decrease in drug production of 30 per cent, prompting the USA to declare a turning point in the war on drugs in the Andes.
"There is a race, you spray and they replant, you spray and they replant," said David Murray, drug policy analyst at the White House drug tzar's office. "But at some point, they fall behind. They cannot replant as fast as we eradicate."
However, the evidence shows that production remains steady despite the recorded drop in cultivation. This can be explained in two ways. The first is that crops are now being sown in small fields, so small that they do not show up on satellite imagery and are often placed among plantain trees, making the coca bushes invisible to aerial surveillance. JIR did a tour around the southern province of Putumayo, hailed by the Colombian security forces as the success story of aerial eradication. The industrial size plantations that once predominated were gone, but travelling down the River Putumayo into the jungle JIR found hundreds of very small fields no more than half a hectare in area and not placed anywhere near each other. "What we have is an enormous fragmentation," said Sandro Calvini, director of the United Nations Drug Control Programme in Bogota. "It is obvious they are looking for areas that are hard to detect."
Another reason for stable production is that the coca farmers are employing more intensive farming methods using fertiliser and placing the bushes closer together. Also the introduction of more potent strains of the plant has meant that yields per hectare have risensignificantly.
US authorities deny this, despite the fact that the purity and price of cocaine in the USA has remained constant. They blame this on drugs traffickers, particularly the FARC, having a huge stockpile of drugs that they drip feed onto the market to keep prices steady, but that this will eventually run out.
Although the AUC was formed in 1997 it has roots dating back almost 30 years. In 1965, then President Guillermo Leon Valencia introduced legislation allowing for the creation of self-defence groups to fight against insurgency. The AUC like to trace their formation to thisdate. However, a more accurate date would be December 1981, when leaflets were thrown from a helicopter over the Cali football stadium announcing the formation of a vigilante group known as 'Death to Kidnappers' (Muerte a Secuestradores - MAS). This group was formed by the Medellin drug cartel in response to the kidnapping of a sister of the Ochoa brothers, second only to Pablo Escobar in the feared drug syndicate. The kidnappers were left-wing guerrillas.
As the drug lords of the Medellin grew in power and wealth, they began to buy up the best land in the country and, to protect these lands and themselves from guerrilla kidnapping and extortion, they absorbed local self-defence groups and merged them with the military wings of the cartel, forming the roots of the present day AUC.
Under the Castano brothers, first Fidel and then Carlos, the paramilitaries moved primarily to an anti-subversive role, as the brothers sought to avenge the kidnapping and then murder of their father by the FARC. Both, however, had been intimately linked with the Medellin drug cartel before turning on Escobar and making an alliance with the rival Cali cartel, setting up the PEPES (People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar). Whilst the security forces concentrated on finding and killing Escobar, the PEPES systematically murdered the drugs lord's support base, with family members, lawyers and known associates being found assassinated.
After the death of Escobar in 1993 domination of the drugs trade went to the Cali Cartel of the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers and then, after their incarceration in 1995, to the present day Norte Del Valle Cartel.
From 1998 Colombian drugs traffickers began to buy their way into the General Staff (Estado Mayor) of the AUC in order to secure protection and territory in which to live, and also to take advantage of the ideological facade that the paramilitary organisation lent them to their activities. Now with peace talks under way with the government, the traffickers are looking for amnesty and protection from extradition.
One of the first to join was Don Berna (Diego Murillo). Today Berna controls the Pacific and Calima blocs, making him the third most powerful member of the AUC in terms of troop numbers, and has extended his criminal empire using the military power of the AUC. He is now believed to be one of the top drugs traffickers in the country.
Loyal to Berna is the commander of the AUC's Bloque Mineros, 'Cuco' (real name Ramiro Vanoi Murillo), one of the negotiators in the current paramilitary peace process and wanted for extradition to the USA on drugs trafficking charges.
Soon after Berna joined the AUC, the Bloque Central Bolivar (BCB) was set up. This is now the most powerful element within the AUC with up to 6,000 members. Of its three leaders, Ernesto Baez (real name Ivan Duque) has an outstanding US extradition warrant for drugs trafficking, while Julian Montanez, better known in the underworld as 'Macaco' (real name Carlos Mauricio Jimenez) is under investigation by the DEA. The head of the BCB's 'Libertadores del Sur' bloc based in the pacific province of Narino, Pablo Sevillano (real name Guillermo Perez) has an outstanding US extradition warrant.
The second most powerful force in the AUC now is Bloque Centauros, allegedly bought by Miguel Arroyave for $6m when he was freed from prison in 2001 after being charged with drugs trafficking. This is the fastest growing organisation in the AUC and estimated to be more than 4,000 strong. Arroyave was known before his arrest in 1999 as the 'Lord of the Chemicals' as he handled the importation of precursor chemicals needed to process cocaine.
Another of the Castano brothers, who has now moved into a senior position within the AUC, is Vicente alias 'El Profe'. Unlike Fidel and Carlos he has not been involved in the military side of the paramilitary struggle and concentrated on drugs trafficking. Now he is one of the AUC negotiators. He has long had a US extradition warrant.
Other drugs traffickers helped set up paramilitary groups, but did not take any active role in their operations. These include: the Mejia twins, Victor and Miguel, (who have US extradition orders outstanding) who funded groups in the eastern province of Arauca with smuggling routes into Venezuela; Diego Montoya of the NDV cartel (US extradition order) who helped found Bloque Calima and now lives under the protection of paramilitaries in the Magdalena Medio; and 'Rasguno' (Luis Hernando Gomez Bustamante - US extradition order), of the NDV cartel, who bought paramilitary fronts in the western part of Antioquia where he is believed to live.
The only one of the original signatories of the foundation of the AUC now part of the paramilitary high command is the Northern Bloc leader Salvatore Mancuso, (US extradition order). He was the right hand man of Castano, who brought him into the AUC. However, according to Colombian intelligence sources, he was a drugs trafficker before he became a paramilitary leader.
There is now an open war between different factions of the AUC over the issues of drugs and territory. Certain senior members who spoke out against the infiltration of the drug lords are now dead. Carlos Castano, the AUC founder, 'disappeared' in an attack in April in the northern province of Antioquia. He was checking his e-mail when a rival paramilitary force overwhelmed his small bodyguard. Sources inside the AUC said he was killed on the orders of Berna and his brother Vicente, because he was speaking out against the drugs traffickers and was prepared to turn them in to US authorities. The AUC leaders made a statement saying they think he fled the country and denied killing him.
Another senior figure alias 'Rodrigo 00', (real name Carlos Mauricio Garcia), a former army officer and once the military commander of the AUC, was assassinated in the Caribbean city of Santa Marta at the end of May. His killing was most likely executed on the orders of Berna, who declared war on Rodrigo two years ago over control of the city of Medellin and to silence declarations he had made on the penetration of drug lords into the AUC.
JIR spoke to Rodrigo four days before his murder, when he said: "What we have with this current dialogue is nothing to do with the self-defence forces. This is a group of drugs traffickers who bought their way into the organisation and are now using the AUC to get amnesty and impunity so they can continue in the drug business and enjoy their fortunes."
Salvatore Mancuso boasted to the government that if it made peace with the AUC, he would order the destruction of 50,000 hectares of drug crops, thereby acknowledging that the paramilitaries controlled almost half of all drug cultivation in Colombia.
The paramilitary domination of the Caribbean coast and much of the Pacific coast means that they control 70 per cent of all drugs leaving by sea. The 'go-fast' launches that speed across the waters of the Caribbean, stopping to refuel off the coast of Central America or dropping their loads in Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Haiti, all leave from paramilitary controlled zones. The same goes for the lion's share of the traffic in the Pacific that makes it way to Mexico and then on to the USA.
As the FARC and the AUC have become more involved in the drugs trade examples of co-operation between the once-bitter enemies have become apparent.
The Peasant Self-Defence Forces of Casanare (Autodefensas Campesinas de Casanare-ACC), which are not engaged in peace talks with the government but are fighting a rival paramilitary faction, Bloque Centauros, have made a non-aggression pact with the FARC's Eastern bloc and agreed to move drugs through their zones of control.
Army intelligence indicates that the BCB has made agreements with the FARC in Magdalena Medio to allow drug shipments to pass unmolested. BCB's unit the 'Libertadores del Sur' in Narino has an agreement with the FARC to ensure access to the Pacific coast.
Neither the FARC nor the AUC want a strong central government in their zones of control. Both groups need the income from drugs and if the peace talks between the government and paramilitaries break down the AUC will find itself treated in the same way as the FARC.
Whilst the two will never ally to take on the state, they will make agreements to allow business to continue and to minimise friction between themselves, and Colombia will gradually become broken up into zones controlled by different guerrilla and paramilitary groups.
Norte del Valle Leaders
Diego Leon Montoya, alias 'Don Diego' - The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) names him on its '10 most-wanted' list and the US government has offered a US$5m reward for information leading to his capture. Montoya is the NDV leader with the highest profile and one that has long had links to the paramilitaries. Sources within the Administrative Department of Security (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad -DAS) said that he is believed to be hiding in the Magdalena Medio region of Colombia under the protection of paramilitaries. It was here that Montoya's brother and cousin, Juan Carlos Montoya Sanchez, alias 'Charlie', and Carlos Toro Sanchez were arrested at the end of last year. It is believed that their rivals betrayed their location. In April 2004, authorities acting on tip-offs seized 110 properties or assets belonging to Montoya with a value estimated at over $100m.
Wilmer Alirio Varela, alias 'Jabon' (Soap) - He initially worked for two of the original NDV leaders, Orlando Henao Montoya and Ivan Urdinola, both of who are now dead. With considerable ruthlessness he efficiently moved up the ranks of the organisation and became responsible for links with the FARC, from whom drugs would be bought and through whose territory shipments would move. These links have proved invaluable in the present gang war as intelligence sources indicate that he is living under FARC protection. Varela was the favourite to win the NDV war until March this year when his ally, former police colonel Danilo Gonzalez, who handled contacts in the police, was murdered in Bogota.
Luis Hernando Gomez Bustamante, alias Rasguno (Scratch) - Gomez has always been one of the more diplomatic members of NDV and he spearheaded attempts to find a settlement with US authorities. Contacts with the USA began with a meeting in the Cartagena Hilton on the Caribbean Coast in December 1999, with US attorney Teresa Van Vliet from Florida. Also present were Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents Paul Crane and Javier Pena. Gomez said he was happy to make a deal so long as it did not involve him having to inform on his colleagues, but the US authorities were not interested. In 2003, he failed to reach an agreement with the administration of Alvaro Uribe Velez. In February 2004, more than 200 of his properties, valued at $100m, were seized by the state.
US Stance on Extradition
"The paramilitary leaders sat at the negotiating table with the government always were, and continue to be, narcotraffickers," said Ambassador William Wood. "This is a cause for concern." The USA has also made it clear that extradition orders are not negotiable and since five of the 10 paramilitary negotiators have extradition orders pending, that leaves little room for manoeuvre in reaching any agreement.
The current general staff of the AUC who are negotiating with the government is made up of the following individuals:
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