ROLDANILLO, Colombia - (KRT) - Miguel Solano was a major player in one of the biggest drug cartels in the world when he began feeding information to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
Extraditions play role in Colombian drug cartel's internal warBY STEVEN DUDLEY
Knight Ridder Newspapers
Like so many others before him, Solano was tempted by the Americans' offer of a deal: By secretly helping them to build cases against the much-feared Norte del Valle Cartel, he could later get a lenient sentence in a U.S. courtroom.
His dangerous dance with the law landed him in a tomb: In November of last year, Solano was gunned down as he left a nightclub in the coastal city of Cartagena.
Yet his murder touched off a war within the cartel that has left an estimated 1,000 dead - from drug capos to taxi drivers whose bodies were meticulously piled on roadsides - and sent one cartel faction rushing into an alliance with left-wing guerrillas and its rivals into the side of right-wing paramilitaries.
While the increasing threat of U.S. extraditions and heavy sentences for Colombian drug lords didn't cause all that, it certainly played a role. Once a suspect is up for extradition, the question becomes not if they will start cooperating with U.S. law enforcement, but when. And that, authorities here say, can dramatically affect their business.
"Anyone who is alleged to be cooperating with law enforcement is automatically seen on the other side: You are the enemy, and whether or not that's accurate is often ignored," said one U.S. counter-drug official speaking on condition of anonymity.
The origins of the internal dispute in the Norte del Valle Cartel predate Solano's snitching and subsequent murder. But they always come back to the question of extradition.
Named after this fertile valley in the northern part of the province of Valle del Cauca from where many of its members hail, the cartel was itself born of war.
After authorities jailed Cali Cartel leaders Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela in the mid-1990s, several of their associated clan leaders eventually filled the void, including the Henaos, Urdinolas, Montoyas and Patinos.
Business immediately boomed. A U.S. indictment of nine cartel members unsealed in May in Miami and New York alleges the organization exported over $10 billion in cocaine to the United States since 1990, much of it through Mexico and South Florida. That makes the cartel at least as efficient as the far more famous Cali and Medellin Cartels that preceded it.
The Norte del Valle group was also known for its connections in the police. Leaders Danilo Gonzalez, Orlando Henao, Wilber Varela, Victor Patino, and Patino's half-brother, Luis Ocampo, were all former policemen - a connection that gave them unparalleled refuge from the law.
Of these, Gonzalez, a former colonel, kept strong contacts with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and Colombian police officers long after he left the agency and joined the drug trade. Those in the force who didn't work with the cartel were eliminated or forced to retire, a former police official told The Miami Herald.
Gonzalez "maneuvers in the police as if he were a commander," a Norte del Valle snitch told Colombian authorities in 2001; the informant was killed shortly after supplying this information.
Still, as good as business was, the issue of extraditions to face U.S. charges began clouding the cartel's future.
By 2001, several top cartel members - including Hernando Gomez, Victor Patino and Diego Montoya - had U.S. indictments hanging over them. Montoya hit the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list, and his photo still appears next to Osama bin Laden's on the bureau Web site.
Some of those indicted began thinking about turning themselves in, to secure shorter U.S sentences. Gomez met with DEA agents in Panama to discuss the matter, one person who attended two such meetings told The Herald, while others sought more creative ways to end their drug trafficking careers.
In January 2002, top cartel leaders met with right-wing paramilitary leader Carlos Castano at one of Gomez' farms. The traffickers had given money to Castano in the past to help his gunmen fight against leftist guerrillas. And Castano had previously helped some lesser-ranking traffickers surrender to U.S. authorities through his Miami lawyer Joaquin Perez.
A senior Castano aide who took part in the meeting at Gomez's farm described it as "tense" and said it failed. "None of them trusted each other or Carlos."
The situation began to unravel quickly after that, the Castano aide said.
In April 2002, Patino met with DEA agents in Bogota, thinking he was going to negotiate his surrender. When he was instead arrested, the rest of the cartel suspected Castano had set him up. Patino was extradited in December that year.
"The part where things began to unravel came with the capture and extradition of Patino," said the head of Colombia's investigative police, Gen. Oscar Naranjo.
Not long after Patino's arrival in Miami, fear pervaded the cartel. Patino had the power to snitch on all of them, and he did, according to Naranjo. The U.S. indictment issued in May is believed to have been partly based on his cooperation.
Some cartel members, like Miguel Solano, began filtering information to the DEA, sources close to the cartel said. When cartel leader Wilber Varela found out, he had Solano killed and created a group that began searching high and low for snitches: He called it COPERGRIN - Colombians Persecuted by the Gringos.
Diego Montoya, who had also toyed with the idea of surrendering to U.S. authorities, didn't know Solano had been ratting on him and launched a war of retaliation against Varela, cartel sources told The Herald.
Since then, mistrust and paranoia have spun into full fledged war.
Varela, Montoya and their estimated 1,000 gunmen have laid waste to a half dozen towns in the region. In one particularly brutal case, Montoya's men ambushed Varela's, then piled the corpses in a pyramid on a road.
In January, Patino's half-brother, Ocampo, was killed. In March, gunmen killed Gonzalez. Both men were rumored to be collaborating with the DEA. Gomez was arrested in Cuba for using a false passport and Arcangel de Jesus Henao was captured in Panama in January and extradite to the United States. Castano himself disappeared in April and is presumed dead.
At the lower levels, a host of alleged cartel collaborators have also fallen, including nine drivers from a single taxi company in Roldanillo, Varela's hometown and one the region's worst hit.
"The tourists just don't come anymore," said one 48-year old driver, who didn't want to reveal his name. "In my neighborhood alone, they've killed 37 people."
But the Varela-Montoya fight has also spilled into this corner of Colombia's civil war, authorities say. Montoya has sought out alliance with Castano's right-wing paramilitaries, known as the AUC, while Varela has welcomed the leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, to his home turf.
In an effort to regain control of the situation, the Colombian government has sent in a 500-man police search bloc that makes its home in the Roldanillo police station. Posters with pictures of the cartel's main leaders and offering a $5 million reward, made available by the U.S. government, adorn its walls.
The bloc has successfully quelled some of the violence in the cities, but control over the countryside remains elusive and there's a sense their work will never be done.
While extraditions can scare some drug lords and keep politicians in Washington happy and lawyers and prosecutors in Miami busy, many experts argue this policy has done little to alter the overall flow of drugs to the United States.
In the last two years Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has extradited close to 200 suspected traffickers to the United States to face trial, including several leaders of the Norte del Valle Cartel and key Cali Cartel leader Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela.
Yet the price of cocaine on U.S. streets continues to drop - a sign of increasing availability.
"The only question is: How long will it take for a new cartel to emerge?" said Wilson Reyes, a consultant for a Valle del Cauca provincial peace initiative.
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