The extradition to the United States of the founder of the Rastrojos, at one time Colombia’s most powerful criminal syndicate, signals the end of the group and the triumph of their rivals, the Urabeños.
Under heavy guard, Diego Perez Henao, alias “Diego Rastrojo,” was handed over to US authorities in a secure section of Bogota’s international airport. His extradition closes not one, but two, chapters of Colombia’s criminal history.
The illegal armed group he set up, the Rastrojos, was initially part of the Norte del Valle Cartel (NDVC), a second-generation drug smuggling organization that dominated the cocaine trade from 1995 onwards. After 2006 and the demobilization of the paramilitary army of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the Rastrojos became the most powerful of the third generation of Colombian cartels, dubbed the BACRIM (after the Spanish “bandas criminales”) by the government.
The Rastrojos leader was captured in neighboring Venezuela in June 2012. There he was overseeing one of the principal Rastrojos drug smuggling routes which saw tons of cocaine moved from Colombia into Venezuela, and then onwards to Central America and the US, or Europe.
Diego Rastrojo is to answer charges of moving multi-ton drug consignments during a criminal career stretching over 20 years. Rastrojo started this career running cocaine laboratories in the southern department of Nariño until he was called upon by Wilber Varela, head of one of the factions of the NDVC, to form a military force to take on a rival faction’s armed wing, “Los Machos,” who fought for Diego Montoya.
Varela was later murdered, in 2008, by Rastrojo and another top lieutenant, Javier Calle Serna, alias “Comba.” The two men then formed the top command of the Rastrojos and were responsible for an impressive military expansion of the group across at least 12 of Colombia’s 32 departments.
SEE ALSO: Diego Rastrojo Profile
In Colombia, Diego Rastrojo is under investigation for at least 66 murders, just between 2008 and 2012. He is believed to have been involved in multiple forced displacements and a series of kidnappings for ransom, as well as drug trafficking.
InSight Crime Analysis
Two criminal chapters have been closed with the extradition of Diego Rastrojo. The first is that of the NDVC — this cartel has now seen all of its principal leaders either killed or captured. The more controversial question is whether his exit from the scene is also the death knell of the Rastrojos.
Diego Rastrojo was the military head of the Rastrojos and was an architect of its rapid expansion from 2006-2012. One of the ways he consolidated the military power of the group was to make an alliance with elements of the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s second rebel group, in the Pacific provinces of Cauca and Nariño. These two departments, along with Valle del Cauca, became the strongholds of the Rastrojos and allowed them to dominate drug trafficking along the Pacific Coast and later project themselves across the country into Venezuela.
The alliance with the ELN secured the Rastrojos access to coca crops in areas under guerrilla control, as well as “safe areas” to operate drug laboratories and escort services for cocaine shipments heading down to departure points along the Pacific Coast. In return, the ELN received weapons, money and communications equipment, which allowed the group to beat back challenges from the larger rebel movement the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which was at that time seeking to take over ELN territory. The two rebel groups are now allied.
The Rastrojos were major suppliers of cocaine to Mexico’s most powerful transnational criminal organization, the Sinaloa Cartel. With the implosion of the group, Mexican buyers have been spotted seeking new suppliers in Colombia, looking to guarantee the flow of cocaine northwards. There are indications that the Mexicans have established direct ties with the FARC rebels.
SEE ALSO: Rastrojos Profile
The Rastrojos had two main wings: the mainly urban one, led by Comba, and the rural one, commanded by Diego Rastrojo. Comba gave up much of his network when he negotiated his surrender to US authorities in May 2012 on the Caribbean island of Aruba. Comba might also have provided intelligence that led to the capture of Diego Rastrojo in Venezuela just a month later. There were a wave of arrests of Rastrojos members across Colombia in the aftermath of Comba’s surrender.
It seems that Diego Rastrojo sought to hold together the Rastrojos even from his prison cell. However, the group was always a loose affiliation of different elements and with the surrender of Comba and the capture of Diego Rastrojo, there was nobody with the profile, or perhaps the interest, to assume a leadership position.
Today there are some isolated pockets of Rastrojos, particularly in Nariño, in Norte de Santander along the border with Venezuela, in Valle del Cauca and in Cauca. However, the Rastrojos as a national organization are finished. Their rivals, the Urabeños, have not been slow to take advantage of the chaos within Rastrojos ranks. They have not only “invaded” the Rastrojos homeland of Valle del Cauca, projecting themselves in the city of Cali and the strategic port of Buenaventura, but have managed to persuade some Rastrojos local commanders to switch sides and become part of the Urabeños’ nationwide criminal alliance.
With the closure of the Rastrojos criminal chapter, the new one of the Urabeños as Colombia’s primary drug trafficking syndicate begins.