From 2006 onwards, the Rastrojos left their traditional hub along the Pacific Coast and began operating in more than a third of Colombia’s 32 provinces, rising to become arguably the country's most powerful criminal group by 2008. However, the group's position has slipped since then, with a growing divide between two rival factions, and the fall of three of its main leaders. Javier Calle Serna, alias "Comba," surrendered to the United States in May 2012, and Diego Perez Henao, alias "Diego Rastrojo," was captured the following month. In October 2012, Comba's brother, Luis Enrique, also handed himself to US authorities, leaving the group with no clear leader.
The group is primarily engaged in exporting cocaine to international markets, as well as extortion, gold mining and kidnapping at the local level. The Rastrojos move drugs primarily up the Pacific Coast to Central America and Mexico where they sell it to Mexican drug traffickers, who take it to the United States. They also have control of one of the primary smuggling routes into Venezuela, which is a bridge for cocaine moving towards Europe and northwards into the US on aircraft and go-fast boats.
The Rastrojos first emerged in 2002 as the armed wing for Wilber Varela, alias "Jabon." At the time, Varela was fighting a rival in the Norte del Valle Cartel, Diego Montoya, alias "Don Diego," and Montoya’s private army, the "Machos." Varela lieutenant Diego Rastrojo recruited the first members, and the group took on his name. Later, in an attempt to enter peace talks between the government and paramilitary groups, the group called itself Rondas Campesinas Populares or Popular Peasant Patrols (RCP). The paramilitaries, under the banner of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), signed a peace agreement in 2004, and finished demobilizing their troops in 2006. However, the government did not allow the RCP to participate in the negotiations. Internal fighting led to the murder of Varela in 2008, but his armed wing remained a powerful player in the drug, extortion and kidnapping businesses.
The Rastrojos' strongholds are primarily in the area where they formed: Valle del Cauca and Cauca provinces along the Pacific coast (see map). They also have a presence in Antioquia, Bolivar, Cesar, Choco, Cordoba, Nariño, Norte de Santander, Putumayo, Santander and Valle del Cauca.
They are different from some of Colombia's other criminal groups in that they do not necessarily try to control every part of the drug distribution chain, operating instead via strategic alliances. These alliances include working with rebel groups and former right-wing paramilitaries to move their product. They also concentrate their forces along embarkation points, specifically the border with Venezuela, and the Pacific Ocean. Both points give them enough control over the drugs they are shipping or the chemicals they need to bring into the country.
For several years, the Rastrojos have had an agreement with the National Liberation Army (ELN) in the provinces of Cauca and Nariño. More recently they made a similar agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in certain other parts of the country. Both these alliances give the Rastrojos direct access to coca base -- the raw material for cocaine -- at very cheap prices. The Rastrojos' other main ally, Daniel Barrera Barrera, alias "El Loco," had struck similar agreements with the FARC in some areas prior to his capture in Venezuela in September 2012. Together the Rastrojos and Barrera obtained a huge competitive advantage, one that also led to strong partnerships with Mexican cartels.
The Rastrojos and Barrera moved cocaine via go-fast boats and semisubmersibles from the Pacific side of their operations, and airplanes via the Venezuelan side. There is some evidence that these semi-submersibles may be being replaced by fully submersibles. In July 2010, authorities in Ecuador found a 33-meter submarine capable of moving at least 10 tons of cocaine. On the Venezuelan side, the airplanes appear to fly due north over Venezuelan territory, in order to avoid Colombian radar, until they are close to the Dominican Republic. Then, they head west until they reach Honduras or Guatemala where they land and offload the narcotics which continue their journey north.
On the enforcement side, the Rastrojos rely on their experience, connections and recruiting. Their long battle with the Machos has given them the wherewithal to operate in rural and urban areas, where they've placed a number of militias and informants. They've also penetrated the police, many of them long-time partners of the group since the days of the Norte del Valle Cartel, and the army, with the help of Barrera, who had many informants and allies within that institution. Finally, they have recruited well, adding a plethora of young and experienced soldiers from the now defunct AUC.
The Rastrojos business model of seeking strategic alliances does not always work. They have been fighting with the Urabeños, a rival gang that operates in the northwest of Colombia near the Panamanian border, although a truce has been called in certain areas of the country. The Rastrojos were internally divided even before the loss of Comba and Diego Rastrojo, with a split between the followers of Comba and his brother, the Calle Sernas, and those of Diego Rastrojo. The loss of these bosses has left the group without a clear leader, which has in turn caused it to lose membership. Colombian law enforcement sources believe that the group's ranks have been cut by some 20 percent in recent years, leaving it with just 1,600 members. With the Rastrojos on the decline, it is believed that groups like the Urabeños are poised to take advantage of their weakness and move into their territory.