Media outlets are heralding a little-known Colombian drug trafficker as the top priority for US law enforcement now that Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán is once again behind bars. But this stranger-than-fiction story may be mostly fiction.
On January 11, BBC Mundo reported that Colombian national María Teresa Osorio de Serna has become the US Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) most wanted international fugitive following the recapture of Mexican drug lord "El Chapo" Guzman on January 8.
Osorio de Serna's connection to the drug trade is not well-known -- even among those who follow Colombia's underworld closely -- except that she was a major money launderer for the once powerful but long defunct Medellin Cartel, according to the BBC. "She is practically a ghost," the media outlet writes. "Almost nobody knows of her."
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How could such an unknown figure become the DEA's top priority? The BBC based their report on Osorio de Serna's appearance on the anti-drug agency's list for the Most Wanted Fugitives - International Division, which contains only two other names: El Chapo and another little-known figure, John Alexander Thompson, a suspected heroin traffficker whose nationality is not stated. Using this list as evidence, BBC Mundo concludes that Thompson and Osorio de Serna have replaced El Chapo as the DEA's most wanted international fugitives.
Osorio de Serna's criminal profile provides another layer of mystery and intrigue. She is wanted by US authorities for money laundering and cocaine conspiracy, yet she has no criminal charges against her in Colombia, according to RCN.
Shortly after the BBC Mundo article was published, Colombia's National Police told InSight Crime it was verifying the information it had on Osorio de Serna.
InSight Crime Analysis
Despite Osorio de Serna's placement on the DEA's shortlist of Most Wanted international criminals, it is highly unlikely she has replaced El Chapo as the world's most sought-after fugitive. Whatever her criminal profile may be, there are a number of drug bosses across Latin America that are surely a higher priority for US law enforcement.
One piece of evidence that points to this conclusion is the US Narcotics Rewards Program. The program -- which is run through the Department of State -- offers no monetary reward for Osorio de Serna, but it offers millions of dollars for information on numerous other drug traffickers from Latin America. For instance, US authorities currently have a $5 million bounty on the head of Dario Antonio Usuga, alias "Otoniel," who runs the Urabeños, Colombia's most powerful criminal organization. The same is true for Ismael Zambada Garcia, alias "El Mayo," the most visible leader of Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel now that El Chapo is once again in prison.
SEE ALSO: Profile of Otoniel
Another good indicator of a drug lord's status in the US is how much they are sought after in their home countries. The United States is a key security ally of both Colombia and Mexico, and works closely with intelligence officials to track down the most wanted suspects like El Chapo. It should come as little surprise then that Otoniel is the subject of a massive manhunt in Colombia, or that El Mayo is set to become the principal target for Mexico's security forces. It would be a major surprise, however, if Osorio de Serna is in fact a top priority for the United States given Colombian authorities do not appear to be making a concerted effort to capture her.
But the most sure-fire way of knowing that Osorio de Serna is not the most wanted drug fugitive is by asking the DEA. In an e-mail, the anti-drug agency told InSight Crime that the individuals on its most wanted lists are not ranked by priority. The DEA also pointed out that not all international fugitives appear on the shortlist containing Osorio de Serna. El Mayo, for example, can be found on the Most Wanted Fugitives list for the DEA's El Paso, Texas Division.
Without more information, it is hard to know just how instrumental Osorio de Serna has been in orchestrating and facilitating international drug shipments over the years. It is certainly not unheard of for a woman to play a prominent role in Colombia's underworld. Notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar was mentored by Griselda Blanco, also known as the "Queen of Cocaine." However, there is little evidence to suggest Osorio de Serna has risen to become the DEA's biggest target.
The DEA's response opens up its own set of questions. What exactly is the purpose of a most wanted fugitives list, if, by all appearances, it lacks coherence and is far from comprehensive? And what does it say about the ability of US authorities to coordinate anti-drug efforts if the information on different agencies' websites is contradictory? The Narcotics Rewards Program, for example, lists El Mayo as being captured, despite his profile on the DEA's most wanted fugitives list. (In addition to being misinformed, the Narcotics Rewards Program is also severely outdated: Héctor Beltrán Leyva, alias "El H," is still classified as "wanted." Beltrán Leyva, the head of Mexico's once-powerful Beltrán Leyva Organization, was arrested in October 2014.)
Ultimately, the BBC Mundo story tells us less about about a shadowy figure in Colombia's underworld than it does about the organizational weaknesses of US anti-drug authorities. Whether these errors are aberrations or speak to a larger problem within the DEA and other anti-drug agencies is a much more interesting question, but one that doesn't have a ready answer.