Rastrojos Founder Captured in Venezuela

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Venezuelan authorities have caught the founding leader of the Rastrojos, once Colombia’s most powerful transnational criminal organization, which is now likely to fragment and provoke a shift in mafia across the country.

Diego Perez Henao, alias “Diego Rastrojo,” was arrested at a farm in the Venezuelan state of Barinas, where he was posing as a foreman, along with 10 bodyguards disguised as farm workers.

See InSight Crime’s profile of Diego Rastrojo

It is unlikely to be a coincidence that Diego Rastrojo was arrested less than a month after his former partner, Rastrojos leader Javier Calle Serna, alias “Comba,” surrendered to US authorities. One source in the US suggested that Comba had delivered information that helped law enforcement locate Diego Rastrojo. However, elements in the Colombian police, who provided intelligence to their Venezuelan counterparts for the arrest, said that for three months they had been following Rastrojo, finally pinpointing him at the farm in the municipality of Rojas, in Barinas state (of which the President Hugo Chavez’s brother Adan is governor). Diego Rastrojo had apparently been living there for a year. Colombian police sub-director, General·Jose Roberto·Leon Riaño, said that a reward of $665,000 would be paid to two informants who led authorities to the fugitive drug lord.

With Diego Rastrojo’s arrest and the defection of Comba last month, the Rastrojos have lost their top leadership. There is no other leader capable of taking uncontested control of the 1,200-strong illegal army, and Rastrojos rivals and middle ranking commanders will now seek to take advantage of the chaos to appropriate territory and drug smuggling routes. Comba’s brother, Luis Enrique Calle Serna, is still at liberty and may be able to control the Rastrojos faction known as “Los Comba,” but with his brother cooperating with US authorities, his credibility is unlikely to be strong.

See InSight Crime’s profile of the Rastrojos

The person best placed to benefit is Greilin Fernando Varon Cadena, alias “Martin Bala,” who is strong in the Rastrojos’ hometown of Cali. A trafficker whose roots lie in the Cali Cartel and later the Norte del Valle Cartel, Bala declared war on Comba and his forces in Cali and the province of Valle del Cauca.

The Rastrojos’ most powerful rival for national dominance, the Urabeños, will also be in a strong position, and may step up their incursions along the Pacific coast, the Rastrojos’ base of operations. The Urabeños have their stronghold along the Caribbean coast, but have recently been seeking to expand operations to the Pacific coast and Colombia’s Eastern Plains.

The country’s two rebel groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), both have agreements with the Rastrojos. However, the guerrillas may decide to move into territory controlled by the drug cartel and take possession of coca and poppy crops, as well as strategic movement corridors. The deal with the ELN was apparently forged by Diego Rastrojo, and was active in four provinces where the Rastrojos were able to buy coca base from the rebels and count on their support to escort shipments and protect laboratories.

The Rastrojos have been a major supplier to Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, and other organizations or factions within the Rastrojos may now seek to set themselves up as suppliers to the powerful Mexican gang, led by the world’s most wanted man, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

Diego Rastrojo is just the latest in a long line of Colombian capos to be arrested in Venezuela. In the last six months several of Colombia’s top level traffickers have been arrested in Venezuela, among them Maximiliano Bonilla Orozco, alias “Valenciano,” in November 2011, and Hector German Buitrago Parada , alias “Martin Llanos,” in February this year.

The Venezuelan interior and justice minister, Tareck El Aissami, described the arrest of Diego Rastrojo as “one of the most significant results in the history of Venezuela in the fight against drug trafficking mafias.”

Venezuela has become one of the principal transit nations for Colombian cocaine bound for the US and Europe. An estimated 200 tons of drugs passes through the nation every year. Colombian groups have long had a presence along the border, operating on both sides of the frontier. Indeed, the war between the Rastrojos and the Urabeños has recently been fought on Venezuelan territory.

However, according to international intelligence agencies, Colombian networks are being replaced in some parts by Venezuelan organized crime, most particularly the Cartel de los Soles, which has high level links with the Venezuelan security forces and political establishment. There are likely to be a raft of indictments against senior Venezuelan figures in the coming months, after the defection of former Supreme Court Judge Eladio Aponte, who has indicated that drug-related corruption has reached the very highest levels of government.

The capture of Diego Rastrojo is certain to result in yet more fragmentation in the Colombian underworld. Many Colombian organizations have migrated to neighboring countries, Ecuador and even down into Bolivia as well as Venezuela. There are few top level Colombian drug lords now able to guarantee large drug shipments across the world, and increasingly it is the Mexicans that run the international cocaine market. The Colombians have been relegated to acting as the suppliers of powerful Mexican cartels.

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