Mapping Colombia’s Drug Trafficking Diaspora

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From the jungles of Brazil to the elegant boulevards of Madrid, some of Colombia’s most renowned drug traffickers of recent memory have been captured abroad, a sign of how the country’s criminal groups are extending their tentacles across Latin America and into Europe.

There’s a long history of Colombian drug trafficking groups operating in foreign locales. Indeed, Colombian drug traffickers getting arrested abroad is almost as old as large-scale, international drug trafficking itself. In 1991, 9,714 Colombians were detained outside their home country on drug trafficking charges, an average of 27 arrests per day.

Colombia’s underworld has changed significantly since the early 1990s, when powerful drug cartels still dominated the landscape. Colombian groups have since ceded their top spot in the pecking order of Latin American organized crime to their counterparts in Mexico. As a result, a fair amount of the attention from US authorities and others has justifiably shifted from Colombia to Mexico.

However, Colombia’s role in the international drug trade should not be discounted. While the newest generation of criminal groups does not possess the same firepower as their predecessors, they continue to expand their networks into various parts of Latin America and Europe. In the last five years, some of the most important figures in Colombia’s underworld have been captured elsewhere. (See map below)

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Two recent arrests illustrate the extent to which one particular group, the Urabeños, has exported its criminal franchising model abroad. In early June, Colombia’s National Police arrested Wilmar Yuriano Valencia Estrada, alias “The Specialist,” who was reportedly the Urabeños point man in Argentina. Authorities in the southwest city of Cali also arrested “Duque,” allegedly the head of the Urabeños in Spain who was in charge of expanding the organization’s presence throughout the continent.

Below, InSight Crime provides a brief overview of the role Colombian organized crime has played in four highlighted nations, as well as some of the emblematic players who have been captured in these countries.

Argentina

For at least the past decade, several high-level Colombian drug traffickers have used Argentina as a refuge in order to escape intense security pressure back home. In 2010 the Urabeños leadership reportedly sent one of their top operators, Henry de Jesús López, alias “Mi Sangre,” to Argentina to protect him from Colombian security forces. Mi Sangre, who had a long criminal career that stretched back to his days working for the Medellín-based Oficina de Envigado, was eventually captured in Buenos Aires in October 2012.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Argentina

Colombian capos are not just interested in Argentina because it serves as a convenient hide-out. Narcos have taken advantage of the growth in Argentina’s domestic drug consumption by selling their product locally in order to finance cocaine shipments destined for the more lucrative European markets. Drug traffickers have also laundered large sums of illicit cash in Argentina, which has long struggled to keep drug money out of its financial system. 

Interestingly, warring drug lords have used Argentina as a rendezvous point. In 2011 two of Colombia’s top drug traffickers at the time, Maximiliano Bonilla Orozco, alias “Valenciano,” and Erick Vargas Cardenas, alias “Sebastian,” reportedly met in the city of Rosario to negotiate a truce. Valenciano and Sebastian were leaders of rival factions of the Oficina who were fighting for control of Medellín’s underworld.

Venezuela

Sharing a long and poorly regulated border with Colombia, Venezuela has served as a key drug storage and transshipment point for some of Colombia’s most important drug trafficking organizations. Daniel “El Loco” Barrera, who has been described as the closest thing to a modern-day Pablo Escobar in Colombia, is believed to have ran his vast drug empire out of western Venezuela for several years before his September 2012 capture in the town of San Cristobal. Just a few months earlier the founder of the Rastrojos criminal organization, Diego Perez Henao, alias “Diego Rastrojo,” was arrested on a farm in the western state of Barinas. 

Corruption within the Venezuelan security forces is a key drawing point for Colombian groups. In 2008, the US Treasury accused a high-ranking Venezuelan military official — and future Defense Minister — of helping Colombian rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) smuggle cocaine into Venezuela. More recently, US authorities have said the one-time head of Venezuela’s military intelligence was on the payroll of a high-level Colombian drug trafficker. 

Panama

In prior decades Colombian criminal groups used Panama as their unofficial bank, with lax banking regulations and corrupt officials facilitating the influx of huge amounts of illicit cash into the country. The country was so rife with drug corruption that in 1988 then-US Senator John Kerry christened Panama a “narco-kleptocracy.”

Although Panama has cut down on narco-corruption, the country remains a strategic stopover point for Colombian drug shipments heading north. The FARC’s 57th Front maintains a presence on both sides of the Colombia-Panama border, and uses the huge swath of undeveloped forest area known as the Darien Gap as a base for its drug trafficking operations.

Colombia’s neo-paramilitary groups also have high-level operatives stationed in Panama. In April of this year, Panamanian authorities captured Alejandro Quintero Otalvaro, alias “El Paisa,” a leader of the Urabeños who was one of Colombia’s most wanted men. 

Spain

Colombian organized crime is believed to dominate the cocaine trade in Spain. During field research two years ago, Spanish police told InSight Crime there were between 12 and 20 active Colombian “oficinas de cobro,” which act as unofficial arbiters of the underworld. The ringleader of an Urabeños oficina de cobro and several of his lieutenants were captured in May 2014 during simultaneous raids in Madrid, Toledo and Barcelona. 

Criminal groups such as the Rastrojos have also sent top-level hit men across the Atlantic to serve as enforcers, while Spanish authorities arrested an Oficina de Envigado emissary in July 2014.   

SEE ALSO: Coverage of European Organized Crime

Spain serves as a natural springboard for Colombia-based groups looking to move cocaine into other parts of Europe, as there is already a sizeable Colombian population and no language barrier.

Moving forward, Colombia’s influence in the Spanish and European underworld could be set to grow. As of December 2015 Colombians are exempt from the Schengen visa requirement, which could enable criminal groups — and the product they smuggle — to move more freely around the Old Continent. 

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