The capture of the only remaining leader signaled as a possible inheritor of the Rastrojos is another sign that the Colombian drug trafficking organization may be on the verge of unraveling.
On November 9, Colombia’s judicial police (DIJIN) arrested Jose Leonardo Hortua Blandon, alias “Mascota,” in the central department of Risaralda. Mascota had taken over the Rastrojos faction once headed by Diego Perez Henao, alias “Diego Rastrojo” following Rastrojo’s arrest in June.
According to National Police Director Jose Roberto Leon Riaño, Mascota was apparently hosting a major internal meeting — the police chief referred to it as a “mafioso summit”— at the time of his arrest. His two right-hand men, known as “Picante” and “Chinga,” were also arrested during the operation, along with 22 other members of the Rastrojos. Officials seized an array of communications equipment, some $2,700 in cash, 11 vehicles, and an unspecified number of firearms.
Mascota is believed to be the group’s main contact with Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa Cartel. He narrowly avoided capture on October 2, when Colombian authorities arrested four members of the Rastrojos in Bogota, while they were planning a meeting with Sinaloa Cartel representatives in Mexico City.
El Tiempo reports that Mascota had previously been arrested in August 2010 after he sought treatment for a gunshot wound in the southwestern department of Cauca. At the time, officials believed that he had been injured in a shootout with Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, but it later emerged that he had been shot by an ex-girlfriend. A judge released him hours after his arrest for health reasons, and Mascota took the opportunity to escape.
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Mascota’s arrest is an indication that the Colombian government is pressing forward with its efforts to dismantle the Rastrojos, while the group is still reeling from the capture and surrender of its top leadership. Following the May surrender of Javier Calle Serna, alias “Comba,” the June arrest of Diego Rastrojo and the October surrender of Luis Enrique Calle Serna, there appears to be no one left who is capable of uniting the organization. Mascota was the only figure police named as a potential leader, and even then his ability to head the organization as a whole was tenuous at best, as he only controlled one faction of the group.
In response to this power vacuum, the Rastrojos have been hit by a wave of desertions, with low-level leaders and foot soldiers defecting to other, stronger groups. Police say the group has lost 20 percent of its members in the past two years, and had just 1,600 fighters as of October.
The capture of Mascota comes just days after the government blamed the gang for the massacre of 10 farm laborers in Antioquia department, a region where virtually all of Colombia’s armed groups — the Rastrojos, the Urabeños, the Medellin-based Oficina de Envigado — are fighting for control. While the official narrative linking the Rastrojos to the Antioquia killings is suspect, the government has vowed to pursue those directly responsible for the incident. Still, it is unlikely that Mascota’s arrest was prompted directly by the massacre.
Law enforcement’s continued harassment of the Rastrojos raises the question of whether Colombia has chosen to pursue a strategy similar to that of the Mexican government: prioritizing the takedown of one group above all others. In Mexico’s case, the government chose to focus its security strategy on the Zetas in response to the group’s use of brutal violence. In Colombia, it is less clear that this is the case: while the Rastrojos have sustained heavy losses, so has virtually every other criminal organization in the country.
The loss of Mascota makes the Rastrojos’ future even more uncertain. With the organization in flux, it becomes more unlikely that Mexican criminal organizations will continue to partner with the Rastrojos in the cocaine trade. With the group’s business connections at risk and with no viable leader waiting in the wings, it becomes ever more unlikely that the Rastrojos will be able to rebuild their criminal empire.