Ecuador has arrested a Colombian drug lord from a little known but very rich gang, Cordillera. Loosely translated as the “Mountain Range,” the gang is dedicated less to the exportation of bulk loads of cocaine and more to feeding Colombia’s booming domestic drug market.
John Jairo Vasco Lopez, alias ‘El Nico’, was arrested at Jose Joaquin de Olmedo airport in Guayaquil, Ecuador, as he arrived from Argentina for carrying false identity papers. He is wanted in Colombia for a series of murders. He is believed by police intelligence to be the head of the armed wing of Cordillera, which has its home in the city of Pereira in Risaralda province.
“This gang has 90 percent of the micro-trafficking of the principal cities of Colombia,” said General Rodrigo Suarez, the Director of Operations of the National Police.
Vasco Lopez has been arrested before in March 2009 in the Colombian department of Valle Del Cauca, but he was released by a judge on a legal technicality and promptly disappeared. It appears that he left Colombia and moved between Argentina and Ecuador.
Cordillera was founded in 2008 in Pereira and had its roots in the organization of Carlos Mario Jimenez Naranjo, alias “Macaco,” who led one of the most powerful factions of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC). He turned himself in as part of the peace process between the government and the AUC and some 6,000 of his men surrendered their arms. However it was ruled that he continued running his drug running empire from prison, and so he was expelled from the peace process and extradited to the U.S. in May 2007.
Cordillera was initially an “oficina de cobro,” a criminal structure that controls crime in an area, collecting debt, running extortion rackets, resolving criminal disputes involving drug trafficking and offering assassination services. The original oficina was set up by Pablo Escobar in Medellin in the 1980s, the Oficina de Envigado. The model has been replicated across Colombia, with oficinas now registered in Bogota, Cali, Medellin, Pereira, and Barranquilla, among others.
The group initially controlled criminal activity in Pereira, its main source of income coming from the local drug market in one of Colombia’s fastest growing cities. Its leader, a former paramilitary of the Bloque Central Bolivar of the AUC under Jimenez’s command, was Fabian Guzman, alias “Niño Fabian,” who was captured in Pereira in March 2011.
There are suggestions from the police that Cordillera now works with Luis Enrique Calle Serna, alias “Comba,” the leader of the Rastrojos, perhaps the most powerful drug cartel in Colombia. The police believe that with the captures of both Fabian Guzman and now Vasco Lopez, Cordillera’s top leadership has been removed and the group greatly weakened.
However, with the market for domestic drug consumption growing in Colombia and the guarantee of supply with connections to the Rastrojos, someone else will undoubtedly assume the leadership of Cordillera.