The Rastrojos are a Colombian criminal group with influence in Norte de Santander, the border department between Colombia and Venezuela. While they were once considered to be the largest criminal organization in Colombia, they are now a small group with a limited territorial presence.
The group emerged out of the once powerful Cartel Norte del Valle. The Rastrojos held power over large territories of Colombia, until their main leaders all either surrendered or were captured. The group has since managed to remain in power in a small border area, while larger criminal organizations seek to expel them from the territory once and for all.
The Rastrojos first emerged in 2002 as the armed wing for Wilber Varela, alias “Jabon,”one of the main leaders of the Norte del Valle Cartel. At the time, Varela was fighting a rival in the Norte del Valle Cartel, Diego Montoya, alias “Don Diego,” and Montoya’s private army, the “Machos.”
One of Varela’s lieutenants, Diego Perez Henao, alias “Diego Rastrojo,” recruited the first members, and the group took on his name. In addition to providing armed support for the CDNV’s internal war, members of the group also protected drug laboratories and key routes for their leader and top lieutenants.
Later, in an attempt to enter peace talks between the government and paramilitary groups, the group called itself Rondas Campesinas Populares or Popular Peasant Patrols (RCP). The paramilitaries, under the banner of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), signed a peace agreement with the government in July 2004, and finished demobilizing their troops in 2006. However, the government did not allow the RCP to participate in the negotiations.
Beginning in 2006, the Rastrojos left their traditional center of operations along Colombia’s Pacific coast, and started to expand, first towards the coffee region of Quindío, Risaralda, and Caldas, and later towards the border department of La Guajira, in northern Colombia.
As the Rastrojos grew, Varela began to lose control. In 2008, he was murdered by Javier Antonio Calle Serna, alias “Comba,” and Diego Rastrojo, after he attempted to prevent them from expanding operations in the northern Colombia departments of Santander and Norte de Santander. Following Varela’s death, his former armed wing grew to become one of the most powerful players in the drug trafficking, extortion and kidnapping businesses.
From 2006 onwards, the Rastrojos left their traditional hub along the Pacific Coast and began to expand, first into the coffee-growing region of Quindio, Risaralda and Caldas, later into the northern Colombia border department of La Guajira. They eventually had operations in more than a third of Colombia’s 32 provinces.
One powerful ally of the group was Daniel Barrera, alias “El Loco,” who, along with the Comba brothers and Diego Rastrojo, was part of the Rastrojos’ top leadership. Loco Barrera maintained operations in the eastern departments of Meta and Guaviare and was in charge of much of the international trafficking, while Diego Rastrojo commanded the rural Rastrojos.
The Comba brothers worked in urban areas such as Cali, running their networks of “sicarios,” or assassins. While maintaining their traditional stronghold in Valle del Cauca, the group expanded into neighboring Nariño and Cauca, and deepened alliances with the National Liberation Army (ELN).
The group even managed to expand into Antioquia, specifically to the sub-region of Lower Cauca, where, despite the presence of the Urabeños, they managed to control production laboratories and take on key drug trafficking routes to the north of the country.
The Rastrojos ended up operating in more than a third of Colombia’s 32 departments, with more than 1,500 fighters and controlling almost all cocaine production in the country, becoming the most important criminal group in Colombia.
By 2010, the Rastrojos had arguably risen to become Colombia’s most powerful criminal group. However, the group collapsed in 2012 with the fall of three of its top leaders. Javier Calle Serna, alias “Comba,” who surrendered to the United States in May 2012, and Diego Perez Henao, alias “Diego Rastrojo,” was captured the following month. In September of the same year, Loco Barrera was captured in Venezuela and in October 2012, Comba’s brother, Luis Enrique, also handed himself over to US authorities, leaving the group with no clear leader.
In further blows to the group, the US Treasury Department placed sanctions on the Rastrojos under the Kingpin Act in early 2013, while one of its former leaders, “Diego Rastrojo” was extradited to the United States on drug trafficking charges that same year.
Following these blows to the Rastrojos, it was believed that the group would disappear. However, despite having lost most of its territorial presence and armed capacity by 2013, small cells of the group remained in departments such as Nariño, Cauca, Valle del Cauca and Norte de Santander.
This last cell in Norte de Santander managed to lift the Rastrojos from the ashes and regain strengthen, from the resources obtained from drug trafficking, smuggling and other criminal economies in border areas with Venezuela.
The resurgence of the Rastrojos attracted the interest of other criminal groups that sought to take territory from them. Since 2015, they have lived an intense struggle with the Urabeños, their enemies of yesteryear, for control of the municipalities of Cúcuta, capital of the department, and Puerto Santander. However, by 2017, the Rastrojos had already declared victory, even expanding their presence to the Venezuelan state of Táchira. But their victory was short lived.
At that time, the National Liberation Army (ELN) had already begun its expansion into the Rastrojos’ territory. By 2019, the direct confrontation had already begun, arriving at a bad time for the Rastrojos because by they were experiencing friction within the organization.
Confrontations with the National Liberation Army (ELN) continued in 2020, greatly weakening the Rastrojos. That year, Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Armed Forces (Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana – FANB) also started targeting the group. This brought the Rastrojos to a critical state. From there, the Rastrojos lost their presence in Venezuela and their influence in Norte de Santander diminished considerably.
In 2021, in a desperate attempt to maintain its footing, the Rastrojos turned to their former enemies, the Urabeños, for support in the fight against the ELN in Norte de Santander.
While they received the reinforcements, the Rastrojos did not fully recover. The group is believed to now only have 60 armed members, and sources in Norte de Santander even mentioned to Insight Crime that the group could become absorbed by the Urabeños.
The Rastrojos’ leadership has been characterized by constant internal divisions.
In the beginning, even before the arrests of the group’s original leaders, there were internal disputes between the followers of Los Comba and those of Diego Rastrojo. After the surrenders and captures of these leaders, the group failed to hold a leadership similar to that exercised by the founding commanders.
The Rastrojos were internally divided even before the loss of Comba and Diego Rastrojo, due to a split between the followers of Comba and his brothers, and those of Diego Rastrojo. The loss of these bosses has left the group without a clear leader, which has in turn caused it to lose membership.
Another internal fracture was evident within the group’s leadership in 2019. In March of this year, Wilfrido Torres, alias “Necoclí,” the main leader of the Rastrojos was arrested in Venezuela. After this, Jhon Jairo Durán, alias “Menor” one of Necoclí’s subordinates, assumed leadership. However, even from prison, Torres was unwilling to cede power, which triggered a war within the group.
The group’s main leader is currently José Gregorio López Carvajal, alias “Becerro.”
The Rastrojos group was a key player in Colombia’s drug trafficking panorama for several years. Initially, they protected laboratories and routes for drug shipments, however, as they consolidated in key territories for criminal economies, they gained greater importance within drug trafficking dynamics that allowed them to establish important relationships nationally and internationally.
The group’s ties to Daniel “El Loco” Barrera, propelled them onto Latin America’s criminal chessboard, and even trafficked not only drugs but chemical precursors for the Sinaloa Cartel.
Following the arrests of its top leaders, with other surrendering, the group’s reach was significantly reduced and with it its involvement in criminal economies. In Norte de Santander,
Where they maintain their main criminal enclave, the group collects income from their participation in the drug trafficking chain, smuggling, extortion, and smuggling and trafficking in persons through the so-called trochas, located on the border with Venezuela.
Initially, the Rastrojos stronghold was in the departments of Valle del Cauca and Cauca, along the Pacific coast. In its golden years, the group also had a presence in Antioquia, Bolívar, Cesar, Chocó, Córdoba, Nariño, Norte de Santander, Putumayo, Santander and Valle del Cauca. They even had influence and participated in drug trafficking operations in countries such as Venezuela and Ecuador.
Today, the group’s dominant presence is concentrated in Norte de Santander, a department bordering Venezuela. However, its presence is getting weaker and weaker.
Allies and Enemies
At the peak of their criminal activity, the Rastrojos differed from other Colombian criminal groups in that they did not necessarily seek to control every part of the drug distribution chain, operating instead via strategic alliances. These alliances included working with rebel groups and former right-wing paramilitaries to move their product.
For several years, the Rastrojos had an agreement with the National Liberation Army (ELN) in the provinces of Cauca and Nariño and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in certain other parts of the country. Both these alliances gave the Rastrojos direct access to coca base — the raw material for cocaine — at very low prices.
The Rastrojos’ other main ally, El Loco Barrera, had struck similar agreements with the FARC in some areas prior to his capture in Venezuela in September 2012. Together the Rastrojos and Barrera obtained a huge competitive advantage, one that also led to strong partnerships with Mexican cartels.
After the resurgence of the group in Norte de Santander, the Rastrojos maintained an alliance with the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL), this consisted of non-aggression agreements that provided both groups with access to criminal economies along the border. But that alliance seems to have broken after the certain blows to the Rastrojos.
After losing their former ally, the Rastrojos turned to their former enemies, the Urabeños, in 2021, to join forces and confront the ELN in Norte de Santander. While the joint work continues, the Rastrojos remain weak.
Despite this, the group has managed to maintain alliances with other criminal actors such as the Tren de Aragua. Both groups are involved in human trafficking on the Colombia-Venezuela border.
The Rastrojos have been at odds with the ELN for several years. The ELN has sought to gain territory in key areas for criminal rents in Norte de Santander. This war, along with the blows dealt by the authorities and the FANB, has led the Rastrojos to a critical state. The group may even be on the verge of disappearing.
After the intense blows suffered by the Rastrojos in recent years, the group has lost almost all its armed and territorial capacity. Meanwhile, the Urabeños, their allies, and the ELN, their main enemy, have grown stronger.
It is a matter of time before the Rastrojos cease to exist as a criminal group. The remnants of the group could be absorbed by the Urabeños or remain as small franchises that acts under the group’s name without maintaining clear unity and a line of command.
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