Reports that the head of Colombia’s most powerful drug cartel, the Rastrojos, has surrendered to US authorities are false, according to sources contacted by InSight Crime, and may be aimed at sowing chaos within the organization and Colombia’s underworld.
Spain’s El Mundo reported that Javier Calle Serna (pictured, right), alias “Comba,” had turned himself into the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and that his brother Luis Enrique (left) would soon do the same. The newspaper said it had confirmed the story with both DEA and Colombian intelligence services, and the news was reported on the front page of every major news organization in Colombia.[See InSight Crime’s Comba and Rastrojos profiles.]
However, two high-level law enforcement sources, as well as a third source very close to the case, told InSight Crime that Calle Serna was not in US custody. And although there appear to be negotiations between the Calle Serna brothers and US authorities, there is no confirmation of any surrenders.
Whatever the truth, the news is sure to throw the Colombian underworld into a state of panic. The Comba brothers have a criminal career going back two decades and have had contact with many of the biggest players in the cocaine business, both Colombian and Mexican. The Rastrojos are believed to be the biggest suppliers of cocaine to the Sinaloa Cartel, led by Joaquin Guzman Loera, alias “El Chapo,” one of the world’s most wanted men.
The Rastrojos are also known to have networks in Ecuador, Venezuela and Spain, as well as a fleet of drug submarines to move product, with air and land routes that shuttle shipments through Central America. Another of the Calle Serna brothers was arrested in Ecuador in March, an added factor that could be feeding the rumors of surrender. If Javier Calle Serna were to deliver information to US authorities, it could have huge implications for the cocaine business throughout Latin America.
The surrender of Calle Serna brothers would not mean the end of the Rastrojos. It has always had two wings: the Combas, run by the Calle Serna brothers, and the military wing led by Diego Perez Henao, alias “Diego Rastrojo,” after whom the group is named. The latter is the most important in terms of cocaine production. It dominates certain parts of Colombia (see map), collects coca base to process into cocaine and controls internal smuggling routes and departure points. This part of the Rastrojos is also believed to have an agreement with the rebels of the National Liberation Army (ELN), which protects drug crops, laboratories and escorts shipments within Colombia.
The Combas have concentrated more on handling international smuggling routes, laundering money and running a network of assassins. Indeed, it is believed that Javier Calle Serna started out in the drug business by providing an efficient assassination and enforcement service in Cali, attracting the attention of members of the Norte del Valle Cartel, before taking over much of the organization after killing his boss, Wilber Varela, in Venezuela in January 2008.
However, Calle Serna could certainly deliver vast amounts of intelligence on the workings of the Rastrojos and help the DEA prepare a new raft of extradition orders for key members of the group, further weakening an organization that has seen a series of arrests of key members over the last 18 months.
The Rastrojos is not a vertically integrated and hierarchical organization. It is an association of drug traffickers, most with roots in the now defunct Norte del Valle Cartel (and its predecessor the Cali Cartel). Due to the group’s expansion since 2008, it also includes former members of the demobilized United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). There will no doubt be a panic in the ranks of Rastrojos associates and moves to change habits and residence just in case the rumors are true of a surrender of the top leadership.
There are other players who could take advantage of chaos in the Rastrojos’ ranks. First and foremost are Victor Patiño-Fomeque and Martin Fernando Varon, alias “Martin Bala.” These men have been fighting the Comba brothers on their home turf along the Pacific coast, based out of Cali and the province of Valle del Cauca.
Patiño-Fomeque was a member of the Cali Cartel who surrendered in 1995 after the heads of that organization, Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, were captured. He was later released, then recaptured and extradited in 2002. He is believed to have cooperated with US authorities, and members of the Cali mafia tried to silence him by killing of many of his relatives. He was released from prison in the US in 2010 and returned to Colombia, where he is believed to have sought revenge on the Rastrojos for the killing of his family, and to have restarted his cocaine smuggling business. He is also alleged to be working with Martin Fernando Varon, another former member of the Cali Cartel.
The Rastrojos’ principal rivals for national domination are the Urabeños. A truce was apparently negotiated between the Rastrojos and Urabeños at the end of 2011, whereby the Rastrojos promised to withdraw from the region of Bajo Cauca (in the provinces of Cordoba and Antioquia), while the Urabeños pledged to pull support from Patiño-Fomeque and Varon. This arrangement would be unlikely to survive if the head of the Rastrojos surrendered to the US.
Rumors of Calle Serna’s imminent surrender have been circulating for months. In February, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos stated that both Javier and Luis Enrique Calle Serna were finalizing their surrender to US authorities. The prospect of Calle Serna’s surrender means there is likely to be another round of bloodshed in the Colombian underworld, particularly in the Rastrojos’ strongholds of Cali and the Valle del Cauca department, as well as along several key drug trafficking routes, particularly on the Pacific coast and the Eastern Plains that lead into Venezuela.