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Drug Lord's Diary Sheds Light on Colombian Cartel's Power to Corrupt

Documents, including a diary, which reportedly belonged to a Colombian drug lord offer a glimpse into the corruptive power of the now-defunct Norte del Valle Cartel, casting suspicion on top officials in Colombia and Venezuela.

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Colombian radio station RCN broke the story, reporting that since March 2009 the Attorney General’s Office has had the diary of extradited drug trafficker Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia, alias “Chupeta,” in its possession. The vice admiral of the navy at the time allegedly obtained the diary and handed it over to prosecutors, along with several other documents that apparently shed light on the operations of the once-mighty Norte del Valle Cartel.

Since it was dismantled between 2007 and 2009, the Norte del Valle Cartel has evolved into the Rastrojos, one of Colombia’s primary drug trafficking groups. On the basis of RCN’s report, the documents seem to give a good idea of the buying power needed to run the cartel’s drug trafficking operations.

However, some of the Colombian officials allegedly named in the documents have denied ties to the criminal groups, and the Colombian military has publicly questioned the authenticity of the papers. Nonetheless, RCN’s report still raises the question of whether any Colombian cartel currently operating today can rely on the expansive network of complicit officials that the Norte del Valle Cartel managed to cultivate.

According to RCN, Chupeta’s diary includes a list of 16 high-ranking military and police officials, including the former chief of police for Bogota, seven military colonels, and three admirals.

The diary also lists former Attorney General Luis Camilo Osorio (2001-2005) as receiving monthly payments of $160,000. Another prominent congressman is described as having promised to help prevent Chupeta's extradition to the US in exchange for $2 million.

Aside from the diary, RCN reports having access to other Norte del Valle Cartel documents. These include a letter reportedly addressed to former cartel head Wilber Varela, alias “Jabon,” who was based in Venezuela at the time. According to RCN, the letter names several top Venezuelan officials that Varela should contact in order to buy impunity there, including Nestor Reverol, then head of the Venezuelan National Guard (charged with border security) and currently serving as vice minister of citizen security. Venezuela’s then-top anti-drugs official is also named, RCN reports.

While this alleged list of contacts is not evidence of wrongdoing by Venezuelan officials, it is still an indication, if genuine, that the Norte del Valle Cartel considered it worthwhile to try and go straight to the top when contacting the country's public officials.

Another document described by RCN is a letter apparently written by Rastrojos leader Luis Enrique Calle Serna in March 2008, two months after Norte del Valle Cartel leader Varela was killed in Venezuela (it was later revealed that Calle Serna helped plan Varela’s murder). The letter appears to issue instructions for what the organization should do after Varela’s death, stating, “Remember this is a business and not just a name.”

Calle Serna then instructs the operatives charged with “intelligence” to get in touch with their contacts to “reaffirm” their commitment to the drug trafficking business. The document then lists another 23 names, which includes guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), police and military officials, lawyers, a model, and other drug traffickers who have since been captured.

Finally RCN describes a record of Norte del Valle Cartel payments to about 36 people. The payments range from $12,000 to a police officer who provided “support,” to $350,000 to a woman for handling “businesses.”

Some of the other names hint at the extent of the cartel’s network. An Eduardo Acosta, who according to RCN is described as Mexican and “Z-4” -- a style of alias used by the Zetas -- is listed as receiving $172,000 for “protection.” A contact listed as responsible for “Venezuela exits” -- presumably the departure of drug shipments from Venezuela -- was paid $15,000. Two men described as forming part of the FARC’s logistical network, based in Guayana and Suriname, were reportedly paid $85,400 and $146,000, respectively.

Regardless of their veracity, that the Norte del Cartel documents viewed by RCN should hint at a wide-ranging and expensive network of complicity is nothing new. Chupeta’s financial ability and willingness to pay off everyone from security force officials to journalists has been well documented, and is but one example of the kind of corruptive influence that members of the Norte del Valle Cartel once wielded. As news magazine Semana noted in a 2007 cover story, Chupeta was known to pay 6 million pesos per month (about $3,354 today) to those who alerted him about security forces movements or operations. He even paid some $6,000 a month to an engineer at a cell phone company, in return for alerting him if his calls were being tapped. Police, military, and members of the judiciary were all on his payroll.

RCN’s report highlights the vast financial resources and high-level connections that the Norte del Valle Cartel apparently used to operate on a day-to-day basis. By offering a glimpse at the kinds of financial rewards that the cartel was once able to offer, it sheds light on the kinds of challenges facing the Colombian authorities in battling corruption. And considering that the cartel’s heirs, the Rastrojos, are struggling to recover following the recent surrender of Calle Serna’s brother, a top leader, it is worth asking whether this new generation of traffickers still has access to the top-level contacts enjoyed by their predecessors.

Image, above, shows Chupeta before and after extensive plastic surgery he undertook to hide his identity.

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