The Norte del Valle Cartel (NDVC) emerged out of the breakup of the infamous Cali Cartel to became the wealthiest and most powerful Colombian drug trafficking organization of its day. However, for much of its lifespan the group was wracked by paranoia, divisions and treachery, and in its later years operated more as a network of competing factions than a coherent and cohesive group. The protracted dissolution of the cartel that began in 2007 gave rise to several newly independent criminal organizations, including the Rastrojos, which would go on to become one of the most influential of Colombia‘s next generation of drug trafficking organizations. According to FBI estimates, at its peak the cartel was responsible for 60 percent of the cocaine reaching the United States.
The NDVC originated from the fractured trafficking networks left behind when the leaders of the Cali Cartel negotiated their surrender to the authorities in the early 1990s. Many of its first members were former police officers and had close ties to the security forces.
Initially, the organization was principally led by former policeman Orlando Henao Montoya, alias “El Hombre del Overol” (“The Man in Overalls”). Henao surrendered to the Colombian authorities in 1997, but continued to operate from prison and launched attacks against the remnants of the Cali Cartel and NDVC associates who were cooperating with the US authorities. In 1998, Henao was murdered in prison in retaliation for a hit on Cali Cartel chief Helmer Pacho Herrera, supposedly due to concerns that he was cooperating with the DEA.
The cartel reorganized around Wilber Varela, alias “Jabon” — another ex-policeman who had been in charge of the organization’s assassins — with the support of Lorena Henao Montoya, the sister of Henao and then-wife of imprisoned NDVC leader Ivan Urdinola, alias “El Enano” (the Dwarf).
Principal Criminal Groups
However, the organization began to fracture as Jabon and his allies were challenged by a faction led by Diego Montoya Sanchez, alias Don Diego. In 2002, the paranoia that had hung over the cartel since the reintroduction of extradition for drug traffickers reached feverish levels, leading to a permanent rupture. By that time several leaders had been indicted by the United States and some had begun to think about cutting deals. Tensions reached a breaking point when one of Don Diego’s main allies, Victor Patiño Fomeque, alias “El Quimico,” met with DEA agents to negotiate his surrender. By some accounts, he was instead arrested and extradited to the US where he began to cooperate with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
Soon after, another Don Diego ally, Miguel Solano, began informing on his associates to the DEA. When Jabon found out, he had Solano killed. Don Diego, who had also been considering turning himself in, was apparently unaware Solano had been snitching and retaliated, launching a full scale war between the factions.
The split led to a bloody conflict as the leaders pitted the military wings of their operations — Jabon’s Rastrojos and Don Diego’s Machos — against each other. The conflict claimed an estimated 1,000 lives between 2003 and 2004 alone, and even went on to inspire a Colombian TV show “El Cartel de los Sapos” (“The Cartel of the Snitches”). The mafia war soon encroached on Colombia’s civil war as Don Diego reportedly allied himself with the leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) — while Jabon turned to the guerrillas’ enemies in the right-wing paramilitary umbrella group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (the AUC). Jabon’s Rastrojos even attempted to participate in the AUC demobilization between 2004 and 2006, changing their name to Popular Peasant Patrols (Rondas Campesinas Populares – RCP) in an attempt to portray themselves as a paramilitary unit and take advantage of the benefits being offered to the AUC.
The beginning of the end for the NDVC was sparked by the capture of Don Diego in 2007. Any sense of victory for his rival Jabon was short lived, as he was killed in 2008 in a hit ordered by his deputy, Luis Enrique Calle Serna, alias “Comba,” who went on to assume control of the newly independent Rastrojos. However, the conflict unleashed by Don Diego and Jabon continues today, as the Rastrojos, weakened but still powerful, continue to dispute Valle del Cauca territory with the remnants of the Machos, who now fight alongside neo-paramilitary group the Urabeños.
The rest of the NDVC’s leadership soon followed Jabon and Don Diego and, by the end of the decade virtually the whole of the cartel’s leadership structure had been extradited or murdered.
By 2010, essentially all of the cartel’s leaders were either killed or extradited.
The Norte del Valle Cartel was primarily based in the northern part of Valle del Cauca, a western province of Colombia that includes the city of Cali and the port of Buenaventura — a key dispatch point for drugs leaving the country for the United States.
Allies and Enemies
The NDVC worked with Mexican criminal groups such as the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) to transit cocaine to the United States. The cartel’s leadership also established close links to the paramilitaries of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). According to the US Department of Justice, the cartel employed the AUC to guard its cocaine laboratories and distribution routes and provide personal security for cartel members and associates.
However, brutal infighting between the factions of the cartel’s military wings left an estimated 1,000 members dead between 2003 and 2004.
Like its predecessor the Cali cartel, the NDVC maintained a far-reaching network of corruption that infiltrated all levels of Colombia’s institutions, including the security forces, prosecutors, intelligence agencies, judges, and politicians. The cartel also maintained a web of informants that would keep members informed of the movements and plans of enemies in rival organizations and the security forces.
Although the NDVC’s leadership structure has effectively been dismantled, the cartel’s legacy lives on. Aside from the still feuding Rastrojos and Machos, former NDVC operators, including the now returned El Quimico, continue to be influential figures in the Valle del Cauca underworld while others reportedly operate from other countries such as Bolivia and Argentina.
The cartel’s operations have also helped establish a number of trafficking routes that are still in use today, especially the use of high-speed and fishing boats to take cocaine shipments from Colombia’s Pacific coast to Mexico, where they would be collected by Mexican allies, principally the Beltran Leyva Organization — the former armed wing of the Sinaloa Cartel — who moved it on to the United States. In 2005, the DEA estimated the cartel had exported over 500 tons of cocaine — worth over $10 billion dollars — by this route since 1990.