Colombian media reported that authorities in Venezuela had detained Diego Perez Henao, alias “Diego Rastrojo,” a top commander of one of the most powerful drug trafficking organizations in Colombia. The reports were false but beg the question: will Perez be the next to fall?
Venezuelan police arrested a man with similar physical characteristics to Perez Henao, but confirmed Wednesday that he is not the Colombian drug trafficker. Perez is the military head of the Rastrojos, the one purely criminal organization in Colombia with presence across most of the country.
The intel is nonetheless an encouraging sign of greater collaboration from Venezuelan authorities. The nieghboring country has been a safehaven for Colombian drug traffickers, including, according to international intelligence agencies, Daniel Barrera, alias “Loco Barrera.” The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) also maintain presence in Venezuela, particularly in the border states Zulia and Apure. The former head of the Rastrojos, Wilber Varela, was based in Venezuela until he was killed by the group’s current leaders in Merida on January 30, 2008.
Since the exit of President Alvaro Uribe, relations between Venezuela and Colombia have vastly improved. In November, Colombia promised to extradite drug trafficker Walid Makled to Venezuela instead of the United States, where he is also wanted on charges. This was a key step towards restoring trust, as Makled is believed to have links with the highest levels of President Hugo Chavez’s government, and any testimony he gave in the U.S. could have proved greatly damaging.
There have also been indications of Venezuela assuming a more proactive stance towards the issue of guerrilla presence in its territory. Venezuelan Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami has previously said that any FARC leaders captured here will be quickly handed over to Colombia, and so far Venezuela is making good on its word. The country extradited three suspected rebels in November last year, while in January 2010 a senior commander of the National Liberation Army (ELN) was deported back to Colombia. Venezuela has also stepped up security measures along the 1,375 mile border with Colombia, deploying more troops there late last year.
The capture of a top Colombian drug trafficker like Perez Henao in Venezuela would be another sign of better inter-agency collaboration between the two nations. Such collaboration was practically unthinkable during the final weeks of President Uribe’s administration, when the then Colombia president accused Chavez of harboring FARC and ELN guerrillas in material presented before the Organization of American States (OAS). But there may be limit to what Venezuela can do. The country must confront its own domestic security issues, with crime on the increase, especially kidnappings and homicides. The Venezuelan police and military may not have the resources needed to support Colombia in complex anti-drug or counter-guerrilla operations, even if there is the political will.