BOGOTA, Colombia: Elite troops swarmed onto a small farm Monday and captured one of the world's most wanted drug traffickers hiding in bushes in his underwear. Colombian authorities called it their biggest drug war victory since the 1993 slaying of Medellin cartel leader Pablo Escobar.
Alleged cocaine kingpin on FBI's 10 most-wanted list reported captured by Colombian troops
Diego Montoya, who sits with Osama bin Laden on the FBI's 10 most-wanted list, allegedly leads the Norte del Valle cartel, Colombia's most powerful and dangerous drug gang, which has shipped hundreds of tons of cocaine to the United States since the early 1990s.
Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, in a press conference at Bogota's airport, said Montoya was responsible for 1,500 killings in his career.
The FBI had offered US$5 million (€3.6 million) for information leading to the arrest of Montoya, who put up no resistance when the army finally tracked him down in the cartel's stronghold of Valle del Cauca state on the Pacific Coast. "Drug traffickers take note: this is the future that awaits you," Santos said before Montoya limped out of an air force plane wearing plastic handcuffs and escorted by five Colombian commandos.
The operation to capture Montoya took months of preparation and got the green light before dawn Monday, when commandos raided a farm and caught him with an uncle and three other cartel members, Gen. Mario Montoya said.
Authorities had been closing in on the cartel since last year, when soldiers killed eight members of a private militia believed to be protecting Montoya, but a wide network of cartel informants had frustrated the search for the alleged drug boss himself. Another complication has been the cartel's alleged infiltration of Colombia's army and navy.
Better known as "Don Diego," Montoya has been in a bitter turf war with his cartel's other leader, Wilber Varela, who goes by the nickname "Jabon," or "Soap," and is reported to be living in Venezuela. Hundreds have died in fighting between their rival armed bands along Colombia's Pacific coast.
A U.S. indictment unsealed in 2004 against Montoya and Varela said that over the previous 14 years their cartel had exported more than 1.2 million pounds — 600 tons — of cocaine worth more than US$10 billion from Colombia to Mexico and ultimately to the United States for resale.
Colombia's government has made major gains against the cartel this year. Montoya's brother, Eugenio Montoya, was captured in Colombia in January. Former cartel leader Luis Hernando Gomez Bustamante, known as "Rasguno" or "Scratchy," was extradited to the U.S. in July after pledging to cooperate with the U.S. authorities. Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia, known as "Chupeta" or "Lollipop," was arrested last month in Brazil, where he allegedly commanded the cartel's money laundering operation.
Colombia is the source of 90 percent of the cocaine entering the United States. Supplies have remained robust despite record extraditions and coca eradication, and despite "Don Diego's" capture, history suggests it won't be long before someone takes his place.
The Norte del Valle cartel rose in the mid-1990s from the ashes of the once dominant Medellin and Cali gangs, paying for drugs and protection from both far-right paramilitaries and leftist rebels. The latter two forces have squeezed the drug gangs out of much of Colombia's countryside, financing their armed struggle by selling drugs to the new criminal groups.
The United States funnels more than US$700 million a year to Colombia in anti-narcotics and military aid. And President Alvaro Uribe has become a key U.S. ally in Latin America. Since taking office in 2002, Uribe has approved the extradition of more than 540 Colombians to the United States, a majority on drug-trafficking charges.
Most of those extradited are thought to be low or midlevel drug traffickers, although high-profile extraditions included Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, brothers who helped found the Cali cartel. Montoya's group appeared to learn from the successes and failures of the earlier cartels. While Escobar and the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers seemed to relish the limelight that eventually brought them down, the newer generation of traffickers sought a lower profile. They also learned to use unrestrained violence at the slightest provocation.
One high-ranking Norte del Valle cartel member, Victor Patino, who decided to testify in the U.S., saw at least 35 family members and friends slaughtered in retaliation for his betrayal.
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