Crime gangs are likely to engage in a messy battle over lucrative drug smuggling routes through Venezuela following the arrest of Colombia’s last major drug lord, experts said.
For years Daniel ‘El Loco’ Barrera was the most wanted criminal in South America, accused of shipping some 900 tons of cocaine to the United States and Europe, and dealing with both leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary fighters.
Barrera was arrested in the Venezuelan border town of San Cristobal while making a telephone call from a pay booth on September 18, in an operation that Colombian police chief José Roberto Leon Riaño directed from Washington, D.C.
“‘El Loco’ Barrera was the last capo of his category, one who had major control over an important area of the country,” Christian Voelkel with the International Crisis Group told AFP.
Barrera ran a network in eastern Colombia that specialized in smuggling cocaine into Venezuela and then shipping it to the United States via Central America, or to Europe via Africa.
“The last of the great capos has fallen,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said on national television, adding that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Britain’s MI6 intelligence service provided support in the arrest.
But Ariel Avila, a specialist on the regional drug trade, said that Mexican crime groups may now attempt to take over Barrera’s smuggling routes.
“In the coming months there will be a fight over control of that route. There are several groups that could engage in that fight,” said Avila, author of a book on the Colombia-Venezuela border.
“The Mexicans could send their people, but (the Colombian gang of) Los Urabeños or some mid-level Barrera leader could also enter the fight,” he said. Another Colombian gang, Los Rastrojos, could also enter the fray.
Barrera’s cocaine processing labs and transport routes were protected by a criminal group made up of former right-wing paramilitary fighters and he was also generous in handing out bribes in both Colombia and Venezuela, in addition to having business ties with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).