Don Berna began his criminal career as a member of the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), a small guerrilla group which was the starting point for a number of other high profile members of Colombia’s criminal underworld, including the Rastrojos' Javier Calle Serna, alias "Comba,” and the Usuga brothers Dario and Juan de Dios, of the Urabeños.
After leaving the EPL in the 1980s, Don Berna began working for the Galeano crime family in Medellin, who at the time were members of Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel. When a conflict broke out between the Galeano brothers and Escobar in 1992 over allegations that they had stolen money from him, Escobar had them assassinated.
Don Berna decided to seek vengeance. Along with paramilitary leaders Fidel and Carlos Castaño, he created the People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar (PEPES). A combination of criminal forces, the PEPES united rural paramilitaries, the Cali Cartel and corrupt elements of the Colombian National Police in an effort to take down Escobar once and for all. The PEPES were instrumental in the police's work to track down and and kill the kingpin in December 1993.
With Escobar out of the picture, Don Berna began taking over the drug trafficking enterprise he had left behind in Medellin. He deepened his ties to paramilitary organizations, and eventually headed several blocs of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), including the Medellin-based Cacique Nutibara Bloc.
Don Berna also established control over local street gangs in the city, known as “combos,” forcing them to hand over a percentage of their profits in exchange for being allowed to extort, rob and sell drugs. He created a fearsome hit squad known as La Terraza, which played a part in ridding Medellin of guerrilla presence.
Don Berna was known as a cold, calculating criminal who never made permanent alliances. He personally ordered the death of several one-time allies, including La Terraza heads who challenged his authority, and other AUC leaders. He was among those who plotted to kill AUC founder Carlos Castaño, a former ally, and likely ordered the death of rival AUC lieutenant Carlos Mauricio Garcia Fernandez, alias "Doble Cero."
In 2005 he participated in the demobilization of the AUC, turning himself in to authorities. Soon after, however, he was imprisoned on charges that he had broken the terms of his demobilization. Don Berna directed his group to reduce violence levels, causing homicides in Medellin to plummet. This peace became known as “Donbernabilidad,” a cynical reference to the Spanish word for “governability.” The calm ended in 2008, however, when he was extradited to the United States on drug trafficking charges.
In June 2008, Don Berna pleaded guilty in the Southern District Court of New York to “conspiring to import multi-ton quantities of cocaine into the United States,” and was sentenced to 31 years in jail. Since then the Oficina has been badly fractured and has lost much of its former standing.
US Department of Justice announcement of Don Berna's gulilty plea, 17 June, 2008.
"Una segunda 'Donbernabilidad'?: las dos versiones sobre la tregua de las bandas en Medellin," La Silla Vacia, 10 February, 2010.
"El ex jefe paramilitar extraditado a EE. UU. alias 'Don Berna' será trasladado a una cárcel de Miami," El Tiempo, 16 June, 2008.