Colombian drug lord bust in Venezuela highlights renewed cooperation
The Miami Herald
BOGOTA, Colombia — Just hours after Venezuelan police caught Colombia’s top drug lord, Daniel Barrera, at a border town payphone and with his fingerprints burned off, they also gunned down a Colombian guerrilla in northern Venezuela.
In the past two years, Colombian and Venezuelan security cooperation has gone from being virtually nonexistent to producing dramatic busts, including the capture of four high-level Colombian drug dons since November.
The biggest payoff of these renewed ties may be yet to come: Last month, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos thanked his Venezuelan counterpart, Hugo Chavez, for helping promote peace talks that could put an end to this nation’s 50-year conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrillas.
The new neighborliness comes at critical juncture for both men. Chavez is heading into a tight presidential race Oct. 7 and needs to prove that his administration is tough on crime — one of the electorate’s top concerns. And Santos needs to assuage fears that next month’s peace talks with the FARC — labeled a terrorist organization by Colombia and the United States — doesn’t mean he’s gone soft.
Santos and Chavez have been sworn enemies in the past, but have reaped the rewards of burying their differences, said Arlene Tickner, a political science professor at Colombia’s Universidad de los Andes. “I think both Santos and Chavez have approached the bilateral relation with a much more pragmatic attitude,” she said.
Barrera’s arrest Tuesday was a prime example of that pragmatism. Better known as “El Loco Barrera,” the kingpin built a cocaine empire and a motley network of contacts. Even while he was allegedly buying drugs from the FARC to export to the United States and Europe, he was deepening ties with paramilitary groups and criminal gangs. In 2010, the U.S. Treasury Department named him one of the largest drug traffickers in Colombia.
“We’ve caught the last of the big capos,” Santos said late Tuesday, shortly after his arrest. “Loco Barrera, as the country knows him, has been the most sought-after kingpin in recent times. He has spent 20 years doing evil in Colombia and the world.”
While Santos thanked Chavez and Venezuela’s counter narcotics officers for making the bust, he said the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, and Britain’s MI6 military intelligence had been crucial to the operation. Colombian Police Chief Gen Jose Roberto Leon coordinated the raid from Washington, D.C., Santos said.
Working on Colombian intelligence, Venezuelan security forces had been tailing Barrera for 45 days, tracking him down to the border town of San Cristobal in Tachira state, Venezuelan Interior Minister Tarek El Aissami said Wednesday.
Among the keys to his capture was monitoring 69 public telephones in three states that Barrera was known to use to stay in contact with his trafficking network.
When he was nabbed Tuesday night, Barrera was carrying fake identification and had burned his fingers with acid to eliminate fingerprints, but confessed to being the fugitive.
Wearing a blue shirt and with his hands cuffed in front of him, Barrera was paraded in front of the media before being flown to Caracas Wednesday, where he was expected to be questioned and, most likely, extradited to Colombia.
“The nation has delivered a historic blow against the mafia,” Aissami said, admitting that the flow of intelligence between Colombia and Venezuela had been “difficult” in the past.
Aissami also said the bust belies U.S. claims that Venezuela isn’t providing enough counter-narcotics cooperation.
“Venezuela is recognized by the entire world in this area (counter narcotics) for its undeniable results,” he said. Venezuela suspended cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in 2005, but since then, the country has arrested 91 heads of important criminal gangs, Aissami said.
Sharing a 1,378-mile border, Venezuela has become a hotspot for Colombian drug and guerrilla fugitives. Two months ago, Venezuela caught Diego Perez, one of the leaders of Colombia’s deadly Rastrojo gang in Barinas state. That followed on the heels of the February arrest of Hector “Martin Llanos” Buitrago, a paramilitary commander and drug trafficker. Late last year, authorities captured Maximiliano “Valenciano” Bonilla, one of the leaders of the feared Oficina de Envigado cartel.
Also on Tuesday, Venezuelan police got into a shootout with Luis Freddy “El Cojo” Rojas Rincon, a FARC member who was accused of trying to blow up a police station in Bogota in May. Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon said Rojas was taken to a hospital but died from his injuries.
Bilateral cooperation hasn’t always been so effective. When Santos took office two years ago, the relationship with Venezuela was in shambles. The nations had severed diplomatic and commercial ties and accused each other of fueling border violence. Colombia denounced Venezuela on the floor of the Organization of American States, accusing it of turning a blind eye to FARC guerrilla encampments.
Santos — a former hard-line minister of defense who was partially responsible for the regional breakdown — went to work rebuilding ties, and irked many here when he called Chavez his “new best friend.”
Along with renewing vital border trade, the nations signed a border security agreement in May. On Wednesday, Defense Minister Pinzon attributed the “intense and extraordinary” cooperation for making Barrera’s arrest possible.
But there are still bones of contention. While Venezuela has handed over some FARC leaders, it has refused to extradite others. And Santos may be putting his friendship to the test after he met Wednesday with Chavez’s election opponent, Henrique Capriles.
Venezuelan Vice President Elias Jaua said the government “respected” Santos’ decision to have the closed-door meeting, but the high-profile reunion is likely to raise hackles in polarized Venezuela.
Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who has long accused Chavez of being a FARC sympathizer, also joined the fray.
On Wednesday, Uribe suggested that Barrera’s arrest had more to do with election-year politics than cooperation, and that Venezuela could turn over FARC leader Timochenko, who is suspected of taking refuge along the border, if it wanted to.
“What’s the difference between Loco Barrera and Timochenko and co.?” Uribe asked on Twitter. “Barrera got caught during elections, and only after so much impunity.”
Distributed by MCT Information Services