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Once again the possibility of ending nearly 50 years of civil conflict is being dangled before Colombia. While the vast majority of the Colombian public want to see peace, for themselves and especially for their children, the enemies of the peace negotiations appear to be strong, and the risks inherent in the peace process are high.


El Loco Barrera

Daniel Barrera Barrera, alias "El Loco," was the closest thing Colombia has to a modern Pablo Escobar. Until his capture in 2012, he used a vast network of collaborators, from former paramilitaries to leftist guerrillas, to move cocaine from the country's Eastern Plains to the United States and Europe.

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Following his emergence as an independent middleman, Loco Barrera skillfully played the role of mediator, coordinating the purchase of coca base from areas controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the sale of processed cocaine to groups ranging from paramilitary organizations to the now defunct Norte del Valle Cartel.

Before his capture, Loco Barrera was allied with remnants of former paramilitary and drug trafficking groups, most notably the Rastrojos and the Popular Revolutionary Anti-Terrorist Army of Colombia (ERPAC).

His principal areas of operation were the Eastern Plains and Venezuela, where he played the role of go-between for the FARC and international drug trafficking groups, however, he and his allies operated throughout Colombia and abroad. In March 2011, the US Treasury Department named him one of the two biggest drug traffickers in Colombia. A US court indicted him in September 2011 and he was arrested in Venezuela in September 2012.

Origins

Barrera’s career began in the 1980s when he and his brother Omar Barrera provided chemical precursors to laboratories processing coca base into cocaine hydrochloride in his home state of Guaviare. After Omar was assassinated, Barrera took revenge, and in the process earned the nickname of "El Loco." He was captured and jailed by Colombian authorities in 1990, but escaped prison soon afterwards. By the mid-1990s he had established himself as a prominent middleman and trafficker, buying semi-processed cocaine from various sources, including commanders of the FARC’s 10th, 14th, 16th and 17th Fronts, and selling it to clients who operated under the umbrella of the powerful Norte del Valle Cartel. Later, he purchased from the FARC’s 43rd Front, controlled by Gener Garcia Molina, alias "Jhon 40," and started selling to Jose Miguel Arroyave, commander of the paramilitaries’ Centauros Bloc.

However, Barrera was not satisfied with his role as facilitator, and made a series of bold alliances that established him one of Colombia’s biggest drug traffickers. Sometime around 2004, he joined forces with Manuel de Jesus Piraban, alias "Jorge Pirata," a Bloque Centauros commander, and Pedro Oliveiro Guerrero, alias "Cuchillo," a former hitman turned paramilitary commander for the Centauros Bloc. In September 2004, Barrera, Jorge Pirata and Cuchillo organized the ambush and assassination of the Centauros Bloc's maximum commander, Arroyave. Jorge Pirata turned himself in as part of the peace process between the government and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a paramilitary umbrella organization. Meanwhile Barrera and Cuchillo attacked rivals in the Eastern Plains, driving them from the region.

Barrera’s expansion continued in 2008 when, working closely with Luis Enrique Calle Serna, alias "Comba," and Diego Perez Henao, alias "Diego Rastrojo," he helped engineer the assassination of Wilber Alirio Varela, alias "Jabon," then a major leader of the Norte del Valle Cartel living in Venezuela. Later, he bought routes in the northern province of Atlantico from Miguel Villarreal, alias "Salomon." These moves, and Barrera’s ability to co-opt local security officials, left the drug lord with access to and control of trafficking routes from the Pacific ocean and the Venezuelan plains to the Brazilian jungles and the Caribbean coastline.

Modus Operandi

According to Colombian and foreign counternarcotics officials, Barrera operated in the Eastern Plains, principally the provinces of Meta, Vichada, Casanare and Guaviare. He also controlled strategic parts of Colombia’s capital, Bogota, and had consolidated staging areas in the Apure state of Venezuela from where he sent aircraft full of drugs to the Caribbean and Central America. Barrera himself was alleged to operate in the Vichada province of Colombia and in parts of Venezuela, where he allegedly had the protection of local officials. Barrera also used Venezuela as a storage and staging point to send drugs to Europe. He also used West Africa as a transit point for drugs shipped to Europe.

Barrera succeeded in bringing seemingly disparate political forces together for business purposes. By the end of the late 1990s, he'd established strong contacts with the FARC, often selling coca base to the rebels’ paramilitary rivals in the AUC or processing the coca himself for sale on the international market. His alliances with Cuchillo in the early part of the 2000s and with Comba in the latter part of the same decade made Barrera the most formidable of Colombian traffickers. He also had contacts with numerous other criminal groups. These alliances gave him a measure of protection from his rivals, which include some of Colombia’s most storied drug traffickers.

One of these alliances was with another major Colombian drug trafficker, Luis Agustin Caicedo Velandia, alias "Don Lucho". US indictments issued following Barrera's arrest described him as Don Lucho's head of security, depicting the latter as the real power behind Barrera. This raised questions over Barrera's actual role in the Colombian underworld, where he had long been considered one of, if not the most, powerful remaining drug lords. However, although Barrera was known to work with Don Lucho, and likely performed some security jobs for him, evidence shows that he was almost certainly a powerful drug trafficker in his own right who managed his own profitable cocaine business separate from his connections with Don Lucho. According to informants cited in the indictment, Barrera earned nearly $200 million from cocaine shipments between 2003 and 2008.

Barrera's high profile and ambitious approach to the business eventually got the better of him when, prior to his capture, he began battling other Eastern Plains organizations such as that of Victor Carranza, a powerful emerald dealer and alleged drug trafficker and paramilitary leader, and Hector German Buitrago, alias "Martin Llanos." Barrera and his allies ambushed Carranza’s personal caravan on at least two occasions, but failed to eliminate him.

Starting a feud with Carranza, one of the most venerable underworld figures in Colombia, was just one of several strikes against Barrera, who was already well-known and had many tenuous alliances. The Carranza battle had the potential to make life very difficult for him and his allies, especially the ERPAC. Following the death of ERPAC commander Cuchillo, the military upped the pressure in the Eastern Plains, where both Barrera and ERPAC (now supposedly demobilized) did much of their business. In order to survive long term, Barrera would have needed to develop a plan that included Carranza, and that could have meant turning on his longtime partners in the ERPAC.

After the US Southern District Court of Florida announced a new team of prosecutors dedicated primarily to targeting Colombia's new generation of drug gangs, it became clear that Barrera's high profile would continue to create problems for his business. Shortly afterwards, the court issued a US indictment for Barrera. In addition, Colombian security forces carried out a series of successful operations targeting Barrera's drug rings. One of these, Operation Deep Water, saw 19 people arrested; another, Operation Final Flight, saw 30 arrests and 21 aircrafts seized.

Barrera also suffered the loss of some of his key contacts. In 2010, emerald trader Julio Alberto Lozano, alias "Lucho," turned himself in to Colombian police and agreed to share intelligence on a network of traffickers which some authorities have called the "El Dorado" cartel. Working more like a loosely connected group of businessmen rather than a traditional cartel with security and financial detail, Barrera is said to be a member of this drug trafficking "board of directors." Another of Barrera's alleged El Dorado associates was arrested in Bueno Aires in April 2011. In February 2012, Ecuadorean authorities arrested Heriberto Fernandez Ramirez, alias "Beto", believed to be a key link between Barrera and Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel.

Still, Barrera’s history gave him the experience and wherewithal to survive for a long time when others were captured or killed. His strong contacts in Colombia’s establishment and security forces allowed him to run his business and mobilize his forces against enemies. This included contacts in intelligence agency the DAS, which was disbanded in November 2011. Barrera also allegedly played significant roles in the murders of two top traffickers, which led directly to him taking over some of their drug trafficking trade and routes. Intelligence sources told InSight Crime that in recent years he spent most of his time in Venezuela, in order to have more security against prosecution and extradition.

However, despite his links with the security forces, Loco Barrera was captured in San Cristobal, Venezuela, on 18 September, 2012. He was deported to Colombia two months later, on November 14, and on April 17, 2013 President Juan Manuel Santos approved his extradition to the US.

Resources

"Connections FARC - Loco Barrera," Colombia President's Office (October 2010).

"Barrera Barrera & Guerrero Castillo Organizations," US Department of the Treasury (March 2010).

"Most Wanted Criminals," Colombia National Police (February 2010).

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