Daniel Barrera Barrera, alias “El Loco,” was the closest thing Colombia has had 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.
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 afterward. 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, of the Bloque Centauros of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC).
However, Barrera was not satisfied with his role as facilitator, and made a series of bold alliances that established him as 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.
El Loco Barrera Factbox
DOB: November 6, 1968
Group: Allied with the Rastrojos, FARC, and ERPAC
Criminal Activities: International drug trafficking, money laundering
Status: Captured and extradited to the US
Area of Operation: Principally in Colombia’s Eastern Plains 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.
However, 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 afterward, 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, Luis Agustin Caicedo Velandia, alias “Don Lucho,” was arrested in Bueno Aires in June 2010. 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 Colombia’s intelligence service (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad — DAS), which was disbanded in November 2011. Barrera also allegedly played a significant role in the murder of two top traffickers, which led directly to him taking over some of their drug trafficking operations and routes.
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 (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and the sale of processed cocaine to groups ranging from paramilitary organizations to the now-defunct Norte del Valle Cartel. In March 2010, the US Treasury Department sanctioned Barrera and named him one of Colombia’s biggest drug traffickers. Two US courts in Florida and New York later indicted him in April and September of that year on drug trafficking charges.
At the time of his capture, Barrera was being investigated by Colombian authorities for drug trafficking, money laundering, and homicide.
In October 2014, Barrera pleaded guilty in a US court for conspiracy to launder tens of millions of dollars in drug profits.
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.
Intelligence sources told InSight Crime that in the years leading up to his arrest, he spent most of his time in Venezuela in order to have more security against prosecution and extradition.
Allies and Enemies
Barrera succeeded in bringing seemingly disparate political forces together for business purposes. By the end of the 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 put Barrera among the most formidable of Colombian traffickers. He also had contacts with numerous other criminal groups like Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel. These alliances gave him a measure of protection from his rivals, which included some of Colombia’s most storied drug traffickers.
One of these alliances was with another major Colombian drug trafficker known as Don Lucho. Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office said that Don Lucho and Barrera worked together to traffic cocaine internationally. Other US anti-drug officials, however, believe that Don Lucho and El Loco each had their own sophisticated trafficking networks that worked beside one another while respecting each other’s operations. 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 information from confidential informants in the indictments against him, Barrera moved up to 400 tons of cocaine per year between 1998 and 2010, earning hundreds of millions of dollars of drug proceeds along the way.
Two months after his capture in Venezuela, Barrera was deported to Colombia in November 2012. The following year, Colombia’s then-President Juan Manuel Santos approved his extradition to the United States. In 2014, Barrera pleaded guilty in a US federal court to conspiring to launder tens of millions of dollars in drug money, as well as to drug trafficking charges.
In July 2016, Barrera was sentenced to 35 years in prison for his role in the cocaine trafficking conspiracy.