Closing in on Colombia’s ‘Madman’?

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U.S. and Colombian authorities have chalked up a series of victories against the organization of one of Colombia’s most prolific drug traffickers, Daniel “El Loco” Barrera.

Operations “Deep Water” and “Final Flight” targeted the smuggling networks of Barrera, known as “El Loco,” or the madman. He is one of the most enigmatic and successful of the latest generation of Colombian drug traffickers, and thought to be responsible for the shipment of over 100 tons of cocaine a year.

Operation Deep Water saw the arrest of 19 people, all believed to be part of a network that built semi- and fully submersible drug submarines, capable of moving multi-ton loads each trip. These vessels are almost impossible to detect without sonar radar, and have become the preferred method of moving drugs by sea, replacing the high-speed, go-fast boats that once streaked through the Caribbean and Pacific oceans.

“This was a criminal enterprise dedicated to the trafficking of cocaine with semi-submersible and submersible vessels built in the jungles of Colombia, capable of transporting up to 10 tons of cocaine,” said the Colombian attorney general, Viviane Morales.

Operation Final Flight targeted aerial drug transport routes. Authorities captured 30 people, and seized 21 aircraft linked to this network. Many of these aircraft had been stolen in Brazil and sent to Colombia to move cocaine shipments. Morales said that these two operations constituted the most serious blows to drug trafficking in recent years.

More than 50 people have been arrested in connection with these investigations, the vast majority in Colombia, with six in the United States and one in the Dominican Republic. At least 29 of those arrested have pending extradition warrants to the U.S. The operations targeted four different drug trafficking structures, each one based in a different Colombian city — Bogota, Cali, Barranquilla and Villavicencio — all with ties to Barrera.

Part of the ongoing offensive against Barrera’s operations saw the seizure, on 30 August, of a ton of cocaine·at a farm in Obando, Valle del Cauca. Valued at $25 million, the drug shipment was bound to Central America, to be delivered to Mexican transnational criminal organizations. Police stated that the seizure was possible thanks to an informant, but it is clear from the recent wave of operations against Barrera that the security forces, most likely those of the United States, have managed to penetrate the drug lord’s criminal empire.

The chief of the Colombian National Police, Oscar Naranjo, stated that the capture of Barrera, who has a reward of more than $2.5 million on his head, is inevitable. He said that Barrera was working with the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel, led by Joaquin Guzman, alias “El Chapo.” However, international intelligence agencies told InSight Crime is that Barrera is based in Venezuela, where he enjoys high-level protection from members of the Venezuelan security forces and political elite.

This is supported by the fact that the Colombian police recently delivered information to the Venezuelan authorities about the location of several illegal airstrips within Venezuelan territory, used by Barrera’s networks. Colombian Police General Carlos Ramiro Mena said that the air strips were in the frontier provinces of Apure and Tachira. Flights landing here can refuel before heading either up to the Caribbean coast and on to Central America, or making the trek across the Atlantic to West Africa, and then to the European market.

Barrera has always been an atypical drug trafficker, lacking a large military force and instead relying on alliances and deals with other criminal organizations. In the past he has worked with rival factions in the Colombian conflict; with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), and at the same time with their bitter rivals, the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC). He continues to work with the FARC, and is known to have ties to another of Colombia’s most powerful drugs trafficking organizations, the Rastrojos. While the core of Barrera’s operations is in Colombia’s Eastern Plains, particularly the province of Meta, his drug smuggling activities are nationwide, incorporating land and sea operations, and moving cocaine from both the Pacific and Atlantic seaboards.

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