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Arrest Marks End for Social-Climbing Colombian Drug Family

Jorge Milton Cifuentes Jorge Milton Cifuentes

Over the years, the Cifuentes Villa family has collaborated with one drug trafficking cartel after another, from the AUC to Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel, but its power in the Colombian underworld may finally be coming to an end.

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Jorge Milton Cifuentes was arrested November 8 in the Venezuelan state of Anzoategui, in a joint operation between Colombia's judicial police (DIJIN), Venezuelan police, and the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). He has been indicted on drug trafficking and money laundering charges in the United States for his ties to the Sinaloa Cartel, and blacklisted by the US Treasury Department under the Kingpin Act

Jorge Milton was one of the last active members of the Cifuentes drug trafficking organization. The family has been involved in the international drug trade for over two decades, working with several generations of Colombian criminals, including the Medellin Cartel, its successor group the Oficina de Envigado, the Norte del Valle Cartel, and paramilitary army the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). 

The family came under extra scrutiny after Jorge Milton's sister, Dolly Cifuentes, was arrested in 2011 and then extradited to the United States this year. She was the mistress of former President Alvaro Uribe's brother, which has raised questions about the extent of the ties between the two families.

Milton's brother Hildebrando, and Dolly Cifuentes' daughter Ana Maria (Alvaro Uribe's niece) remain at large. Both have been named by the US Treasury Department as involved in the Cifuentes Villa drug trafficking operation. Many other members of the family have either been arrested or killed. 

InSight Crime Analysis

Over the years the Cifuentes family has proved skilled at adapting to the many shifts in power in the Colombia drug business. They are nothing if not resilient, able to carve out a role for themselves in each new criminal landscape. They are the social climbers of the Colombian underworld, but have seen their fortunes fall dramatically in more recent years.

The life that Jorge Milton was reportedly leading in Venezuela prior to his arrest illustrates the family's ability to adjust. He posed as a farmer, and, according to Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, was able to blend in with a local indigenous community, marrying the 19-year-old daughter of one family, and giving them livestock ("five cows and five pigs," the newspaper reports) as part of the traditional ceremony. However, Colombian police were able to trace his business calls to Mexico.

The history of the Cifuentes clan is emblematic of the many changes in Colombia's drug trade since the 1990s. One of Jorge Milton's brothers was a pilot for Pablo Escobar. Another brother played a key role in the Norte del Valle Cartel wars, and was eventually assassinated by the man who would one day become the leader of the Rastrojos.

Caught in the middle of the conflict, the family sought -- and received -- the protection of the AUC. Jorge Milton helped coordinate a shipment of 3,000 rifles from Nicaragua to Colombia on behalf of the paramilitaries. But a paramilitary leader had another Cifuentes brother killed in 2007 for refusing to give up a lucrative air strip used for drug flights.

Afterwards, the surviving family members began working with the Sinaloa Cartel, and are accused of moving some 30 tons of cocaine into the United States between 2009 and 2011. The family are also accused of using their many businesses -- a Colombian airline, a real estate company in Mexico, a consulting company in Ecuador -- to launder money on the cartel's behalf.

Cifuentes' arrest is representative of the end of an era in which a select few families controlled Colombia's drug trafficking industry. Their world was violent and hermetic (notably, Ana Maria Cifuentes is reportedly married to a member of the Fabio Ochoa family, which co-founded the Medellin Cartel). Now, Colombia's cocaine trade is controlled by criminal enterprises that act like violent corporations, rather than a tightly knit circle of families and their allies. Cifuentes' capture, along with that of drug kingpin Daniel "El Loco" Barrera earlier this year, signals the passing of the "old school" generation of Colombian traffickers, and raises the question of who, or what, will replace them.

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