Authorities from four countries cooperated in a months-long operation that led to the arrest Sept. 18 of Daniel Barrera AKA "El Loco"—dubbed the "last of the great capos" by Colombia's President Manuel Santos—on a street in San Cristóbal, a town in Venezuela's western Táchira state. Barrera was apprehended while making a call from a phone booth, allegedly after one of his relatives had given up his location. The arrest followed four months of cooperation between Colombia's National Police, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the UK's MI6 and Venezuela's National Anti-Drug Office (ONA). According to Colombia's defense minister, Juan Carlos Pinzón, the kingpin had been in Venezuela for the past eight months and was running his business while moving between several towns near the Colombian border.
Authorities said El Loco evaded arrest for years by not owning a telephone or any other electronic equipment. Colombia's police chief José Roberto León said the fugitive kingpin "used [telephone] booths to evade the detection of the National Police." He event went as far as burning his own hands, making it impossible for authorities to take his fingerprints, León said.
President Santos said Barrera had formed "perverse alliances" with both the FARC guerillas and their right-wing paramilitary enemies. He is wanted in both Colombia and the US, and Venezuelan authorities will have to decide which country to extradite him to. Colombia's media emphasized that Barrera's massive wealth allowed him to corrupt local authorities in Venezuela, allowing him to travel freely to Brazil and Argentina.
But Venezuelan authorities emphasized their cooperation in the manhunt. "With this new arrest, Venezuela again demonstrates its unwavering commitment to the struggle against narco-trafficking," said a statement from the foreign ministry. Interior and Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami boasted that Venezuela has arrested 91 fugitive drug lords since breaking ties with the US Drug Enforcement Administration in 2005. (Colombia Reports, Colombia Reports, AVN, AVN, El Universal, Caracas, Sept. 19)
El Loco has been involved in Colombia's drug trafficking since the 1980s and became a top player in the early '90s after the collapse of the Medellín and Cali cartels. He earned his nickname after taking bloody revenge on the murderers of his brother in the late '80s and, and was arrested in early 1990. After spending half a year in prison in San José de Guaviare, El Loco made a jailbreak, and rose to prominence as a brokering deals between coca-growing FARC fronts in the east and south of Colombia and the then-emerging Norte del Valle Cartel that was operating from the southwest.
Authorities began noticing El Loco during the 1999-2002 peace talks with the FARC as the kingpin was a regular visitor to a demilitarized zone established to hold the dialogue. By then, El Loco Barrera was serving as a middleman between the guerillas and their arch-enemy, the ultra-right United Colombian Self-Defense Forces (AUC)—buying coca paste from FARC fronts in the south and east of Colombia and selling it to the AUC's Bloque Centauros that was active along the Río Orinoco that forms the Venezuelan border.
El Loco's climb to hegemony came after 2004, when he aligned with "Cuchillo," then a mid-level commander of the Bloque Centauros. Barrera reportedly helped Cuchillo murder his superior, Miguel Arroyave, in 2004, just as the AUC was demobilizing and Cuchillo was forming a successor paramilitary network, ERPAC. In the ensuing years, the Norte del Valle cartel began disintegrating due to infighting between capos "Don Diego" and "Jabón," an ally of Barrera and founder of the Rastrojos paramilitary. In 2007, both Don Diego and fellow-capo "Chupeta" were arrested, leaving the cartel's business to Jabón and his Rastrojos. El Loco allegedly helped organize the assassination of Jabón in Venezuela in 2008, situating himself as the crucial broker between FARC, ERPAC and the Rastrojos. While FARC and ERPAC controlled coca production in the inland south and east, the Rastrojos established control of trafficking routes to the Pacific.
Thusly positioned, El Loco became Colombia's top broker with Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel for export to US markets. Barrera allegedly also exported cocaine through Venezuela to Europe, and to Brazil. While Colombian authorities in 2008 had put El Loco at the top of their wanted list along with Cuchillo and neo-paramilitary warlord "Don Mario," the top drug lord kept a low-profile. Until early 2012, only one undated photo of him was known to exist. He carried on his illicit business apparently unhindered while other capos fell; Don Mario was arrested in 2009 and Cuchillo died after a raid in 2010.
In 2012, El Loco's hegemony came under pressure. Ecuadoran police arrested El Loco's presumed contact with the Sinaloa Cartel. Venezuelan authorities arrested one of the founders of the Rastrojos, "Diego Rastrojo," and a second founder, "Comba," surrendered to US authorities. ERPAC, El Loco's long-time client, has been weakened by factionalism.
Colombian authorities began pressuring El Loco on a personal level too—arresting his mother, cousins and nephews and even his brother, who suffers Down syndrome. After evading justice since his 1990 prison break despite a $5 million price in his head, El Loco was apparently arrested after being ratted out by a relative. (Colombia Reports, Sept. 19)