By Seth Robbins for Infosurhoy.com / TodayColombia
MEDELLÍN, Colombia – The 20-year career of Colombian drug baron Daniel Barrera came to an end with a whimper, not a bang, last month when he was captured in a Venezuelan telephone booth.
Barrera – deemed to be the second most-wanted trafficker after Mexico’s Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán – was living quietly in the border city of San Cristóbal. For four years, this man with a US$5 million bounty on his head had been moving among a series of guesthouses, the last of which cost less than US$100 a night.
Despite his low profile, Colombian and Venezuelan forces tracked him with intelligence assistance from the United States and England. Then as the sun set on the evening of Sept. 19, Venezuelan security officers grabbed him without a fight. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos called Barrera – known as “El Loco,” the madman, for his mercurial temper – “the last of the grand capos.”
Barrera’s capture, despite the painful lengths he took to hide his identity from authorities, including burning his hands with acid to remove his fingerprints and having plastic surgery to alter his face, shows just how effective Colombian forces have become at collaring narco-trafficking heads. In July, fellow drug trafficker Camilo Torres – known as “Fritanga” – was taken into custody after police raided his lavish wedding party on the island of Múcura.
Experts: Colombian drug trade more fragmented than ever
But security analysts say the recently caught capos, including Barrera, aren’t nearly as powerful as the Colombian capos of the 1980s and 1990s.
“I will not say that [Barrera] is the last of the grand capos,” said Ariel Ávila, who has written extensively on the drug trade as an investigator for Bogotá-based research institute Nuevo Arco Iris. “Colombia hasn’t had grand capos for some time.”
Those who track the subject closely say Colombia – and much of Latin America – has entered a post-capo era, in which authorities must combat networks of traffickers whose leaders can easily be replaced. The success of Colombian security forces has fragmented the drug trade more than at any time in its more than 50-year history.
“This era of capos, the cartel of Medellin, the Cartel of Cali, is not going to repeat itself,” Ávila said. “To think that we are going to return to the epic of Pablo Escobar, that is not going to happen.”
Plan Colombia instrumental in catching kingpins
In the two decades since the fall of Pablo Escobar, Colombian forces have become much more adept at capturing drug kingpins. Under Plan Colombia, the police and military created small groups of highly vetted and trained forces, whose sole job was to track and capture capos. They tapped phone lines, intercepted electronic communications and recruited criminal informants.
In the last several months authorities have captured, besides Barrera, Erikson Vargas Cardona, better known as “Sebastían,” who was the head of the Oficina de Envigado (Office of Envigado), a group with roots in the old Medellín cartel. In early June, Diego Pérez Henao, the main enforcer of a transnational gang called the Rastrojos, was arrested on a Venezuelan farm, where he was posing as a groundskeeper.
And just a month earlier his partner Javier Calle Serna, alias “Comba,” surrendered to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) after months of negotiations from a hideout in Argentina.
These capos have behaved very differently from the capos of old, who built their wealth through cocaine, spread it across other businesses and were unafraid to show it. Escobar raced expensive cars, hosted parties at grand fincas and built a full-fledged zoo.
His rival capos in the Cali cartel, Gilberto José and Miguel Angel Rodríguez Orejuela, owned a professional soccer team and a chain of pharmacies that is still in business today. (The Orejuela brothers were extradited to the United States in 2005 and sentenced to 30 years each.)
New breed of ‘capo’ keeps a low profile
The new class started as street toughs, murdering their way to temporary power. Ávila described them as “killers of turn that can easily be replaced.” They also keep a much lower profile so as not to attract attention, said Diego Corrales, a specialist in urban security and the director of Enciudad, a public-policy group in Medellín.
“Escobar showed off the eccentricities he had as an extension of his power,” Corrales said. “Anyone who does that now is likely to fall at the hands of the law.”
Escobar and his contemporaries also controlled the entire chain of cocaine, from the cultivating and manufacturing of the drug to its transportation and ultimate distribution in North America. But these days the chain is decentralized, and most capos today often control only one or two parts of it.
For example, said Ávila, “Loco” Barrera maintained shipping routes. He bought cocaine, loaded it in airplanes and distributed it to Mexican cartels.
Emergence of ‘micro cartels’
An array of Colombian syndicates is now cultivating coca plants, chemically processing the leaves into cocaine and transporting the finished drug northward. But the lucrative part of the trade – bringing cocaine across the U.S. border and distributing it in cities – is now in the hands of Mexican cartels, cutting into the Colombian traffickers’ profits.
And over the past two decades, Colombia’s big cartels have broken into dozens of “micro cartels,” said Alfredo Rangel, security expert and former defense ministry advisor.
The usual pattern when a cartel breaks up, he said, is that a capo falls and three of his underlings fight for control of the organization. In a few instances, one is more powerful than the others and simply eliminates them. But more often, the cartel “fragments itself into smaller cartels that keep independent relationships with the business, replacing one capo of importance with three capos of medium importance,” Rangel said.
These mid-level capos are the faces of Colombia’s trade today.
Neighboring countries look to Colombia’s achievements
The success of Colombia’s anti-drug efforts has also pushed its capos into neighboring countries. Since 2008, 10 Colombian capos, including Barrera, have been caught in Venezuela, a prominent exit route for cocaine.
Colombia’s role in the cocaine trade likely will continue to weaken, Ávila said. With the removal of so many capos recently, Mexican cartels are sending delegates to Colombia’s neighboring countries, especially Venezuela, to wrestle away the transportation routes.
“The Colombians each time are losing more space,” he said.
Colombia, however, is still the top grower of coca, with about 160,000 acres in cultivation, according to a report released in July by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Nonetheless, cultivation has plunged about 60% since 2000 when it was more than 400,000 acres.
At the same time, Peru and Bolivia’s coca crops have mostly increased over the last several years. According to the UNODC report, Peru had nearly 155,000 acres under cultivation in 2011 and Bolivia had about 70,000.
Peru and Bolivia have overtaken Colombia to become the world’s producers of finished cocaine, according to a U.S. government report published July 30, though the Bolivian government disputes this.
Jhon Marulanda is a security consultant and former member of the Colombian army (and no relation to former guerrilla leader Manuel Marulanda, who was killed in 2008). He said that no single Latin American country can win the battle against drugs, noting that “we need cooperation among all of the countries if this is to be controlled.”
Peace deal with FARC: Further blow to cartels?
Meanwhile, ongoing talks between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Colombia’s largest left-wing guerrilla group, and the Colombian government could dramatically change the country’s position as a cocaine producer. FARC manages 60% of coca production in Colombia, experts say, and could potentially hand the government, as part of a peace agreement, huge swaths of cultivation land and labs where the drug is processed.
“That would give a significant hit to narco-trafficking in Colombia,” said Rangel, the former defense ministry advisor.
But one obstacle to such cooperation, Rangel and other experts said, is that members of the FARC still refuse to recognize themselves as narco-traffickers. Moreover, the FARC’s withdrawal from remote coca-growing zones could create a bloody struggle for power, with traffickers enlisting paramilitaries in a war.
“The FARC acts as a type of judge, regulating and administrating,” said Ávila. “And when they are not there, it could become chaos.”
Corpades: Lots of work remains to be done
Fernando Quijano, an organized crime investigator and director of the Medellín-based human rights group Corpades, said most of today’s capos are actually “gatilleros,” or gunmen, whose purpose is to act as figureheads, uniting and giving orders to the hundreds of smaller criminal gangs.
True power, he said, lies with a small group of men who operate as legitimate businessmen but are actually a tightly knit mafia.
“The true bosses of the business are quiet. No one bothers them, because all eyes are following the façade,” he said.
Quijano and other investigators noted that very few money launderers have been prosecuted in Colombia.
“We’ve had a grand success in the capture of narcos,” said Ávila, of Nuevo Arco Iris. “But the bosses of these narcos have not been touched. It’s bittersweet.”