By the end of 1993, Pablo Escobar was cornered. The cocaine king — known as “El Patrón” — was running out of money and options. His top assassins were either dead or had turned themselves in. Almost all of the senior members of the Medellín Cartel were either in prison, or had gone over to his rivals, a shadowy paramilitary group that called itself People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar (Perseguidos por Pablo Escobar – PEPES). Leading the hunt against him for the PEPES was one-legged former guerrilla and cartel enforcer Diego Murillo Bejarano, alias “Don Berna.” Berna had turned on Escobar after El Patrón killed his boss, Fernando Galeano. As part of the plan to destroy Escobar, he and the PEPES had teamed up with the Colombian police’s famed Search Bloc.

On December 2, Escobar made a call to his family, who were by then holed up in a hotel in Bogotá. The Search Bloc was waiting and triangulated the call to a small house in the Los Olivos neighborhood of Medellín. Don Berna moved to the location with the police along with his brother and 20 of his men. In a book written years later, Berna described what happened next:

They broke down the door with a sledgehammer. El Patron, deep into his phone call, did not hear the noise. The only man who accompanied him, alias El Limon, shouted: ‘El Patron, they have found us’ and ran out the back door of the residence. Pablo did the same, but his movements were slow because he was so overweight. He went to the second floor because there was a small window overlooking the roof to a neighboring house. Pablo was running across the roof when my brother came to the window, took aim and shot him in the head with his 5.56 M-16 rifle.1

A few minutes later, the police major leading the search for Escobar arrived and hugged Berna and his brother, Berna said.

“He congratulated us, was happy and in the general euphoria,” Berna wrote. “There were shots in the air and shouts of ‘Viva Colombia!’ He asked me to leave because the press was coming and it would not be convenient if they saw me there.”2

Pablo Escobar KilledThe PEPES had decimated the Medellín Cartel with a combination of guile, brutality and strategic alliances, leaving its leader Escobar with just one bodyguard. Financed by the rival Cali Cartel, fed by intelligence from cartel associates tired of Escobar’s treachery and murder sprees, and protected by the Colombian police, the PEPES were a powerful force that was about to change the criminal landscape of Colombia.

The principal benefactor of the fight against Escobar was Berna himself, the little-known foot soldier of Fernando Galeano, one of the criminal clans of the Medellín Cartel. In contrast to Escobar, Berna did not pick a fight with the government, kill police and judges, or kidnap elites. He understood that the police were an implacable enemy but could be a superlative ally. The police’s increasing control over resources and the political importance of their battle against El Patrón made them a type of bureaucratic elite. And they used this power to influence how Colombia’s government deployed its military, judicial, and political resources.

Don Berna was to place himself at the heart of this criminal-bureaucratic elite alliance that proved pivotal in the battle against Escobar. Berna and his PEPES colleagues used these connections to track Escobar’s family and associates, killing many of them with impunity, isolating El Patrón and pushing many of Escobar’s forces over to their side. The police used Berna for information, which led to captures of key Escobar figures, seizures of properties and the freezing of Escobar’s bank accounts.

With El Patrón dead, Berna was to maneuver himself into the top spot in Medellín’s underworld. He later spread into the countryside and created a personal army that included thousands of urban militias and rural paramilitaries. His bureaucratic elite contacts also spread. He built relationships not only with the police, but penetrated the Attorney General’s Office, the military and even the presidential palace.

In the end, Berna had army officers, policemen and judges on his criminal payroll. As this case study shows, he was able to get authorities in Medellín to not only ignore his criminal activities, but to actively support and promote them. In essence, through alliances with bureaucratic elites at the regional and national levels, he was able to put elements of the state apparatus at the service of organized crime.


This is one part of a multipart series concerning elites and organized crime. Read the full Colombia report (pdf). See other parts of the series here.

The relationship Berna developed with bureaucratic elites in Colombia went far beyond the traditional organized crime dynamic of high-level corruption. In a perverse way, it was also about state-building. The state needed him in the hunt for Escobar, but this was just the beginning of a criminal-elite alliance that was replicated across the country, where the government used criminal elements to help fight its biggest battles. The security forces became reliant on the collaboration of organized crime to carry out their government-appointed duties. It is this mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship that this case study covers.

Phase I: ‘Don Berna’ and the Hunt for Pablo Escobar (1985 – 1993)

From Guerrilla Soldier to Bodyguard

If you had told members of the Medellín Cartel in the late 1980s, when the group was at the height of its power, that Diego Murillo Bejarano, alias “Don Berna,” would be the successor to their boss, Pablo Escobar, the response would have been one of total incredulity and perhaps not a little ridicule.

To begin with, Berna was not a “paisa,” as the fiercely proud inhabitants of Medellín and its surroundings call themselves. He was from Tuluá, in the Valle del Cauca province along the Pacific Coast. Secondly, his first forays into illegality were not in the drug business, but in the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL), one of the many left-wing rebel groups that had sprung up in Colombia in the 1960s as the result of Colombia’s closed political system.

SEE ALSO: Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Berna was part of an EPL splinter group, known as Estrella Roja.3 Like many other left-wing militants, he gave up communism in the late 1970s. According to a later testimony,4 he went to Medellín to study law, but there is no evidence he ever spent a day in class. Instead, in the mid-1980s, he started washing cars for an important businessman and mafioso in the municipality of Itaguí, on the outskirts of Medellín. This man was Fernando Galeano who, along with his brother Mario, was a close friend of Escobar’s and part of the Medellín Cartel.

Medellin Antioquia english

Founded in the 1970s by the Ochoa brothers and Pablo Escobar, the Medellín Cartel by the late 1980s controlled the lion’s share of the cocaine trade, with most of the rest handled by its bitter rivals in Cali. Initially, the Ochoa brothers (Jorge Luis, Juan David and Fabio) were the business brains of the outfit, and Escobar was the “protection.” Others, such as Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, also provided muscle and logistical support.

But over time, Escobar became the undisputed leader of the cartel while still controlling much of its military apparatus, principally the “sicarios,” or “assassins,” from the slums of Medellín who carried out the cartel’s killings, placed the car bombs, and fulfilled virtually any whim of El Patrón. So while the Medellín Cartel was comprised of many members and clans — who smuggled drugs either in conjunction with Escobar, using routes he controlled, or independently — they all paid El Patrón a cut, which meant they acted with Escobar’s blessing and protection. They would also pay quotas for specific cartel related activities, like, for example, the bloody campaign he later launched against the government to protest its policy of extradition.

Berna was but a soldier, a small cog in this large organization. A former guerrilla fighter, he soon became a trusted member of the Galeano criminal clan, a subset of the Medellín Cartel. But initially he never sat in on meetings. He was more the type to be outside with the car, waiting for his boss, Fernando Galeano, to finish with his business. The main partners in the organization remained the Ochoa brothers, Rodríguez Gacha, and the relatives of Escobar himself, foremost among them Escobar’s cousin Gustavo Gaviria. Berna was far, far down the pecking order with no family ties to the leadership.

Don Berna youngBerna’s past complicated things further. The Galeano family was fiercely anti-communist, a stance that put them in good stead with others in the Medellín Cartel. In part, this anti-communism stemmed from the fact that the EPL and other guerrilla groups funded themselves through kidnapping, robbery and extortion and at times targeted wealthy criminals who often responded in kind. To be sure, the 1981 kidnapping of the sister of the Ochoas by M-19 rebels had led to the creation of a Medellín Cartel-funded paramilitary group known as Death to Kidnappers (Muerte a Secuestradores – MAS). Rodríguez Gacha set up his own paramilitary groups as well when guerrillas stole money from his network. The Galeanos’ political tendencies went further than most. Jhon Jairo Velasquez, alias “Popeye,” one of Escobar’s top sicarios, once described Fernando Galeano as “ultra right-wing.”5

This hatred of the rebels was something that united the Galeanos with another clan that worked for the Medellín Cartel: the Castaño brothers — Fidel, Carlos and Vicente. After the 1981 kidnapping and murder of the Castaño clan’s patriarch by rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), the eldest brother, Fidel, set up a paramilitary group known as the “Tangueros.” Named after one of Fidel’s estates in Cordoba, “Las Tangas,” and working with elements of the military, the Tangueros summarily killed suspected FARC guerrillas and insurgent sympathizers, and, wherever possible, attacked rebel camps. Over time, the three Castaño brothers became one of the most powerful criminal clans in Colombia. By the mid-1980s, Fidel was an important member of the Medellín Cartel, and ran one of the Bolivia cocaine pipelines that funneled coca base from Bolivia to the cartel’s laboratories in Colombia. A decade later, the family would form the core of a nationwide, right wing paramilitary movement.

In Itaguí, the EPL rebels’ fundraising efforts eventually came into conflict with Galeano’s family. There are two versions of this story: one is that Galeano’s father was kidnapped by the EPL for ransom;6 the other is that the EPL attacked a supermarket he owned. Either way, Galeano went to war with the EPL.

The fight presented an opportunity for Berna, who could show his bosses that he had no qualms about using his contacts and experience against his former revolutionary colleagues. Under Berna’s leadership, Galeano hitmen found and killed one local EPL leader at his favorite ice cream shop. The EPL retaliated, attacking one of Galeano’s businesses — a car dealership where Berna worked.7 Berna was shot 17 times and left for dead. He recovered from the attack and acquired a prosthetic leg, a shambling gait and a fierce reputation as a survivor.

Berna regrouped and kept the EPL at bay for years until he could launch a more sophisticated multi-pronged assault on the rebels with a new set of allies in the government.

‘This was the beginning of the end’

Throughout this period, the Medellín Cartel’s power kept growing, as did its battle with the government and Colombia’s elites. At the heart of this conflict was the prospect of extradition to the United States.

The battle over extradition was typical Escobar. Instead of negotiating, Escobar formed what he called the “Extraditables” and began a bitter war. In 1984, his gunmen assassinated Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla. His men later killed Guillermo Cano, the dogged editor of El Espectador newspaper. They also kidnapped political elites and their children.

Escobar soon targeted police, upon whose heads he placed a bounty and who saw hundreds of their ranks fall to Medellín Cartel assassins. And he went after judges — killing dozens — and the courts. In 1985, Escobar — interested in the destruction of files and the intimidation of the country’s Supreme Court — was believed to have backed the M-19 left-wing rebel group’s attack on the Palace of Justice. In 1988, Attorney General Carlos Mauro Hoyos was murdered by Escobar assassins.

By 1989, politicians had become Escobar’s targets. August saw the assassination of his most bitter political opponent, the Liberal Party presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán. In November, a bomb brought down a domestic airliner, killing all 107 on board, as Escobar mistakenly thought Liberal Party presidential candidate — and Galán’s replacement on the ticket — César Gaviria was on the flight. Then, in December, a massive car bomb was placed outside the headquarters of the secret police, the Administrative Security Department (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, – DAS). Some 52 people were killed and over 1,000 injured in the blast.

However, the war also took its toll on Escobar and the Medellín Cartel. Escobar’s ally, Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, alias “The Mexican,” was shot and killed by Colombian police in mid-December 1989. The Ochoa brothers turned themselves in to authorities and negotiated a light prison sentence. Escobar was also tired of living like a fugitive, cash broke and dire need to regroup. In 1991, shortly after a Constitutional Assembly prohibited extradition, Escobar negotiated his surrender and the construction of a special prison overlooking Medellín where he and his men would serve out their sentences. For the moment, the war was over.

The “Cathedral,” as Escobar’s prison was known, was a jail in name only. Escobar had total control over the guards, and people came and went as he pleased. Escobar even had a playhouse built on the grounds for when his daughter came to visit. It was exactly what Escobar needed. But while he still had hundreds of millions of dollars in properties, he had no liquidity, so he used his first year behind bars to reorganize the Medellín Cartel and get his cash flowing again.

For this job, he turned to Galeano and Galeano’s close associate, Gerardo Moncada, to whom he ceded two important drug routes into Central America and the US. One was known as “La Fania” (also described in some sources as “La Fanny”) and the other was called “Rancho.”8 The most lucrative route was “La Fania,” which left the Pacific port of Buenaventura by ship, traveled to Mexico — where the drugs were transferred to speedboats — and then completed the journey to Los Angeles. This route was capable of moving ten tons of cocaine a month, generating over $200 million a year. The move made Galeano and Moncada the leading drug traffickers in the cartel. In return, they promised Escobar payments of $500,000 a month.9

Fernando GaleanoTrusted by Pablo Escobar, the Galeano brothers were also involved with the Oficina de Envigado, Escobar’s feared mafia collection system. The Oficina got its name because it was quite literally an office in Envigado’s City Hall. In the late 1970’s, Mayor Jorge Mesa set up the Department of Security and Control in Envigado (Departamento de Seguridad y Control),10 which later took on the name the Oficina de Envigado.11 Its job was initially to fight common crime in the municipality.12 But when Escobar became the law in Envigado, where he grew up, and developed a close relationship with Mesa, he started to use the Oficina for his own ends. It collected debts and ensured that all elements of the Medellín Cartel paid El Patrón his dues.

The Oficina de Envigado also had close links to “La Terraza,” one of the most feared groups of “sicarios” in the city. If anyone resisted an attempt on the part of the Oficina de Envigado to collect a debt, La Terraza was contracted to carry out the murder. Few resisted, and the Oficina de Envigado became an important part of the criminal landscape in Medellín.

Figure1 PabloEscobar MedellinCartelNetwork

Berna’s role also increased. In the aftermath of the war against the EPL, Berna had gained the trust of the Galeanos, and was made their head of security.13 As well as running the Galeanos’ bodyguards, Berna allegedly managed money-laundering operations through currency exchange houses and property purchases.14 Berna was by no means a leader in the Medellín Cartel, but he was now a well-known figure and had access to all the major players and control over the Oficina de Envigado and its sicario network. Chris Feistl, a veteran DEA agent with several tours in Colombia, believes that by 1992 Berna was a respected figure in the cartel and very hands on.

“He (Berna) would have been privy to a lot of the inner workings, a lot of the details, a lot of who was doing what in Medellín, who was being paid… a lot of that stuff,” Feistl told InSight Crime. “He was privy to a lot of internal, kind of sensitive information as far as it related to the Medellín Cartel and crime going on in that area.”15

Despite his privileges in the Cathedral, by 1992, Escobar sensed, perhaps correctly, that he was losing control over the Medellín Cartel. All the traffickers affiliated with the Medellín Cartel still had to pay El Patrón a fixed amount every month to be allowed to continue doing business, and increasingly they were resenting it. But as Escobar saw it, he had made the sacrifice of going to prison, taking the pressure off them so they could make money without serious harassment.

Resentment against Escobar grew when El Patrón decided to raise his “tax” on cartel members from between $200,000 and $500,000 a month to up to $1 million. Some members complained.16 Galeano and Moncada were among them. What’s worse, El Patrón thought they were stealing from him. In July 1992, Escobar’s worst suspicions were confirmed when his men found a stash of $20 million rotting on one of Galeano’s properties. Escobar was furious. He authorized the money be stolen and summoned Galeano and Moncada for a meeting at the Cathedral.

“I was the chief of security for Fernando Galeano, and on Friday, July 3, 1992, almost a year after having surrendered, Pablo summoned him to the Cathedral,” Berna later testified. “I told him: ‘Patrón, do not go up to the Cathedral, send somebody else,’ because I greatly distrusted Pablo. But Fernando felt that Escobar would never hurt him, that up till now he had served as the best of friends.”17

Escobar’s hitman, Popeye, later related what happened next: “Otto (real name Otoniel de Jesús González Franco) and I killed them in Roberto’s cell, within the grounds of the Cathedral. We chopped them up and later set fire to what remained of them. This was the beginning of the end, the trigger for all the war that in the end would send many to the grave.”18

Aware that there would be retaliation from the Galeano and Moncada clans, Escobar dispatched sicarios to wipe out any threats from either family. The two men’s brothers and successors, Mario Galeano and William Moncada, were murdered, as well as other allies of the two families.19 Escobar demanded that the Galeano and Moncada families’ employees turn over their employers’ property. All of those who owed money to the families now had to pay the debts to Escobar. In one stroke Escobar earned tens of millions of dollars.

However, Escobar’s sicarios missed one key member of the Galeano clan. Berna was apparently taking Galeano’s wife to the beauty salon when the sicarios struck, and escaped assassination. He quickly realized what was happening and went underground. Using intermediaries, Escobar managed to get Berna on the telephone.

“He called me,” Berna later testified. “With total calm, that filled me with terror, he said: ‘This is an economic coup. I don’t want publicity. If you want to work with me, I will respect your life. I need you to deliver to me Rafaelito Galeano (another of the brothers).”20

Berna refused.

Galeano and Moncada were held in high esteem by many members of the cartel, and the murders — which were seen as an act of treason by Escobar — combined with the higher “taxes,” ignited a civil war within the organization.21 Colombia’s underworld would never be the same.

News of the killings of Galeano and Moncada within the Cathedral also reached the Colombian and United States governments. This was the final straw for President César Gaviria who gave orders that Escobar be moved from the Cathedral to a military base in Bogota. Alerted by his spies of the president’s order, Escobar walked out of the Cathedral and became a fugitive once again. The war with the government was back on.


Pablo Escobar had made a long list of enemies, both in the legal and criminal worlds, and these two were about to unite their efforts to take down the drug lord. The vehicle for this alliance was known as People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar (Perseguidos por Pablo Escobar – PEPES). The PEPES were the brainchild of the Castaño family and Don Berna. According to Carlos Castaño, a PEPES founder, the group’s first meeting took place in the middle of August 1992, some 30 days after Escobar had fled the Cathedral.22 Berna represented the still powerful Galeano and Moncada criminal clans, but it was Fidel Castaño, according to Berna, who was the undisputed leader of the PEPES.23

The Castaños had grown distant from Pablo Escobar for several reasons, not least because of Escobar’s stated affinity for left-wing guerrillas, and his alleged links to M-19 and another rebel group, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN). Berna’s motivations were less clear cut. Berna was upset about the murder of his boss, Galeano. But for journalists Santiago La Rotta and Natalia Morales, who wrote a book on the PEPES,24 Berna’s defiance of Pablo Escobar was more about an opportunity to move up in the criminal world than vengeance for his boss’ assassination.

Fidel Castano GilMany say that the support he gave to the Galeano and Moncada families was only a product of opportunism and that the decision to fight the Medellín Cartel was not a show of daring and loyalty,” they write, “but rather a master play to acquire the assets and power of the deceased, that permitted him to move from chauffeur and bodyguard to powerful capo.”25

It is likely that both factors were at play: that Berna was genuinely sickened by Escobar’s betrayal with the killing of his boss, and that he also saw a significant opportunity to advance himself.

With the Castaños and Berna on board, the PEPES had muscle, but now they needed money. Here, Escobar’s bitter rivals of the Cali Cartel, who had long been at war with the Medellín drug lord, were happy to oblige. Berna managed this relationship,26 a key indicator of his leadership role in the organization.27 The fight against Pablo would cost an estimated $50 million, most of which came from the Cali Cartel. One of the Cali Cartel leaders, Helmer “Pacho” Herrera, later asserted that he alone invested $30 million in the war against Escobar.28

The PEPES, once they had the backing of the Cali Cartel, were formally constituted in November 1992. At the top were the Castaño brothers; a former army officer and longtime Castaño associate, Carlos Mauricio García Fernández, alias “Rodrigo 00”; and Berna.29 They divided the tasks. Fidel Castaño preferred to remain in his stronghold in Córdoba.30 The day-to-day was left to his brother Carlos — who preferred the bright lights of Medellín31 — his right-hand man Rodrigo 00, and Berna.

The PEPES and Their Bureaucratic Elite Connections

While the PEPES were formed in November 1992, it was not until February the next year that they made their first public act of defiance, leaving a corpse in the boot of a car with the sign: “For placing car bombs. Papiado for Pablo Escobar. For Colombia, Los PEPES.”32

As Mark Bowden wrote in his seminal account of the hunt for Escobar, the group’s initial appearance was “electrifying, and started a national guessing game about their identity.”33

After that, the appearance of the corpses of Escobar associates became a regular occurrence. This “controlled bloodbath,” as Bowden wrote, spooked Escobar.34 Their targets were anyone who was either close to El Patrón personally, or important to his operations. They tracked and then murdered Escobar’s lawyers, allies, money launderers, family members, and business partners, targeting the “secret white-collar infrastructure” of Escobar’s organization, dealing crippling blows to his finances, Bowden wrote.35

The PEPES also worked their official connections. Carlos Castaño was already registered as a DAS informer, under the name “Alekos,” and he continued to feed the agency intelligence.36 Rodrigo 00, the former army officer, managed relations with the armed forces. And Berna was the PEPES’ conduit to the Police Search Bloc.

The PEPES and the Search Bloc

The Search Bloc was formed in 1989, as Escobar’s war against the state reached its height. After Escobar surrendered in 1991, the members were dispersed and rejoined regular units. Following Escobar’s escape from the Cathedral, however, the Search Bloc was quickly reformed. In this second hunt for Escobar, the bloc counted just over 600 members and was based out of the Police School Carlos Holguín in Medellín. Twenty-five officers, the cream of the national police, commanded the bloc. They were by definition a bureaucratic elite,37 with direct links to the presidency and carrying out the highest profile and priority task of the government.

One officer in particular had been picked for his skill in gathering intelligence and planning operations. He was Major Danilo González, and he lay at the heart of the Search Bloc. González graduated at the top of his class at the police cadet training school in 1977 and was seen as one of the brightest policeman of his generation. The DEA, after the death of Escobar, would sing his praises and would give him a commendation complete with an autographed fingerprint of the Medellín drug lord at the bottom: “Because of your selfless dedication and willing sacrifices, the world’s most sought-after criminal was located and killed,” the certificate read.

Danilo Gonzalez“He collaborated with us very closely,” Joe Toft, who headed the DEA office in Colombia, told a journalist later. “He was definitely one of the best.”38

González was to become the key contact with the PEPES, most particularly Berna but also Carlos Castaño. His job was to get the intelligence needed to bring down Escobar, and he was prepared to do this even if it meant throwing the rulebook out the window.

He also represented Berna’s first alliance with the bureaucratic elite and perhaps his most important, one which was to last until González’s assassination in Bogota on March 25, 2004. There is no doubt that Berna and González became close in the hunt for Escobar. In his book, Berna describes his first meeting with González: “the connection was immediate,” he wrote “…. He took notes of everything I told him and was happy with the great quantity of information that he received.”39

An ex-Search Bloc official reported that “Danilo often patrolled with Berna, and this sinister character often walked into the Carlos Holguin School like he owned the place.”40

This was not González’s first dalliance with the underworld. He did a stint in Cali early in his career, where he first made contact with mafia elements, in particular two former policemen, Wilber Varela and Victor Patiño-Fomeque, who later became part of what was called the Norte Del Valle Cartel (NDVC), an organization that dominated Pacific Coast drug trafficking during the decade following the fall of the Cali Cartel in 1995.41

The relationship between the PEPES and the police was not just personal but institutional. In the battle against Escobar, the PEPES principal job was to provide intelligence to the Search Bloc. It was this intelligence that the police desperately needed. Escobar had humiliated the security forces in the past, and they realized that the only way to beat the Medellín drug lord was through accurate and timely information about his operations, his safe houses, and, if possible, his whereabouts. “The order was given from above and they told us: ‘If you have to meet with the devil do it, but you have to finish off this monster (Escobar),” reported a member of the Search Bloc.42

This pressure meant that the Search Bloc was all too ready to get into bed with the PEPES. Indeed, it could be argued that without the PEPES the elite police body would have been stumbling blindly through Medellín’s criminal landscape, something that had already happened at the end of the 1980s during its first incarnation. There are, in fact, innumerable sources that have spoken of the links between the Search Bloc and the PEPES. The former National Police chief, Gen. Oscar Naranjo, for instance, admitted that: “There was a direct channel of communication between the police and the PEPES and this fed the agencies of the United States.”43

The DEA boss in Colombia at the time, Joe Toft, went further.

“Evidence indicates that some members of the Search Bloc and the PEPES were not only carrying out joint operations, some of which resulted in kidnapping and possibly killings, but that it was actually the bosses of the PEPES, and not the police, who gave the orders to shoot.”44

The Search Bloc commander, retired Col. Hugo Águilar, also admitted that Berna was important in the hunt for Escobar and said that he worked as an informer for the police. He said that Berna delivered information that allowed the Search Bloc to set up wiretaps and prevent attacks by Escobar’s men.45

Berna himself has spoken about his time with the Search Bloc and stated that his contacts also included members of the US government security and intelligence forces: “Frequently I would go to the headquarters of the Search Bloc, near a car park by the Atanasio Girardot Stadium. The CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), the DEA and members of the Naval Special Forces [Navy Seals] of the United States were there. The ones I spoke to the most were the men of the DEA.”46

Chris Feistl, a veteran DEA agent who worked in Colombia for more than five years, agreed. Berna “was one of the main liaison guys, for lack of a better word, that went between the PEPES and police and the DEA to provide information,” he said.47

Figure2 ThePEPESnetwork

As Forrest Hylton noted, there have even been suggestions that the DEA “used Berna’s men — who lived down the street from them — as bodyguards when going on missions off the base to which they were theoretically confined.”48 And, according to Mark Bowden’s account, Berna and other members of the PEPES, “stayed in a house just outside the Holguin [police] base,”49 something top members of the PEPES also said.50 This allowed constant and permanent interactions with the Search Bloc.

The PEPES became so effective, so quickly, that other members of the Medellín Cartel either turned themselves in to authorities, feeling they would be safer in prison, or lined up to cooperate with Berna and his colleagues. As Pablo Escobar got weaker, and the PEPES got stronger, the line of drug traffickers deserting the Medellín drug lord grew longer. In order to ingratiate themselves with the PEPES, they were happy, indeed keen, to tell all. Berna became privy to the deepest secrets of Medellín’s drug trafficking world. And he was soon to convert this knowledge into power.

By December 1993, Berna and his police cohorts had surrounded and defeated El Patrón, his shooting on the roof of a Medellín house an inevitable result of their powerful alliance. Escobar was dead, as Carlos Castaño once boasted, “thanks to the PEPES and the union with the state.”51

For Berna, the relationships he developed with the police, particularly with Col. Danilo González, were to be as important in his continuing rise in the underworld as those forged with the Castaño brothers, the remnants of the Medellín Cartel, and the drug traffickers from the Pacific Coast who were to transform themselves into the Norte Del Valle Cartel (NDVC). First, he had to consolidate his hold on the remnants of the Medellín Cartel and the criminal economy of the city itself.

Phase II: ‘Don Berna’ Consolidates Medellín (1994-2000)

The Oficina de Envigado

The year 1994 was one of huge turmoil in the Colombian underworld. Escobar, this towering force, was gone. The PEPES dissolved. The Castaños and Rodrigo 00 returned to Cordoba, where Fidel Castaño, the family’s pillar, was killed, allegedly by Marxist rebels. Carlos, his other brother, Vicente, and Rodrigo 00 began to set up the prototype paramilitary group, the Peasant Self Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá (Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá – ACCU). And they turned their attention to fighting the FARC guerrillas. Danilo González and the Search Bloc left Medellín for Cali, where they turned their attention to their former allies of the Cali Cartel, which simultaneously strengthened the NDVC.

For his part, Berna stayed in Medellín, seeking to fill at least part of the power vacuum left by the death of El Patrón. He was now perhaps the most powerful enforcer in Medellín, having control over the Oficina de Envigado and La Terraza, the notorious group of sicarios. But following Escobar’s death, many groups of sicarios and bagmen who had worked for El Patrón began to strike out on their own and were carving out territory in the city itself and selling their services to the highest bidder.52

Studies indicate that between 1985 and 1990 there were 153 criminal gangs in the Valle del Aburra — home to Medellín and neighboring municipalities Itaguí and Envigado — most of which were linked to the Medellín Cartel.53 In the aftermath of Escobar’s downfall, these groups became “small armed businesses.”54 The Oficina de Envigado set out to control them, organize what was quickly becoming disorganized crime. In 1994, as part of this effort, Berna arranged a meeting with a selection of gang leaders. He told them that he was going to be in charge of what remained of the Oficina de Envigado and, of course, their operations. Defiance, he added, would be punished.55

Over time, the Oficina developed into a sort of Attorney General’s Office for criminals. It was used to police the drug trafficking groups, ensure debts were collected and punish those who refused to obey underworld “law.”56 There were several aspects to this “regulation” of the drug world: how to guarantee deals, how to ensure that people paid the “tax” on drug shipments, and who responded for lost or seized shipments and broken agreements.57 Enforcing rulings required an armed structure, and while the Oficina had a core of trusted people, much of the work was “contracted” out to sicarios like those of La Terraza.58

The Oficina also became the body that collected the “quotas” or taxes that Berna demanded from traffickers in the city.59 During Escobar’s time, the Oficina knew all the criminal players in Medellín and was an extremely powerful criminal entity, but Berna took it to the next level. With time, he developed a more sophisticated set of “taxes” on criminal activity, charging a tax on every kilo of cocaine smuggled; charging for the rights of certain gangs and personalities to operate in parts of Medellín; charging protection for senior drug traffickers to live unmolested in the city. Soon it expanded from taxing purely drug trafficking activities into taxing local drug dealing, gambling, private security, prostitution, extortion and illegal gasoline sales, to name but a few.

With the collapse of the Cali Cartel in 1995, the Oficina’s function as underworld policeman went national. No single leader or structure controlled all the links in the drug trade, and different players began to specialize in different links of the drug chain. This was to crystalize in the second generation of Colombian drug trafficking organizations, the Norte Del Valle Cartel and the United Self-defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC), which the Castaños set up as they expanded their paramilitary model across the country. These were federations where powerful drug traffickers and mafia figures worked together, coordinating not just drug trafficking activities and corruption of security forces, but the staging of a national political movement. They did not always get along and when there was conflict Berna would step in, resolving disputes using any means necessary.

Berna was also engaged in a campaign to stamp his authority across parts of Medellín where it was still not recognized. In the late 1990s, Forrest Hylton writes, “Publicly sanctioned security forces incorporated into Berna’s growing network ‘cleansed’ a large part of the city center,” which contained Medellín’s red-light district and a large open air drug market.60 In order to make the city “safe for urban redevelopment,” Berna’s men “threatened, displaced, or murdered the district’s ‘disposable’ inhabitants — drug sellers, addicts, prostitutes, street kids, petty thieves, called ‘desechables’,” Hylton adds.61 After 2000, Berna’s “city-wide ‘pacification’ campaign was supported by state security forces, businessmen, politicians of both parties, and the Catholic Church,” he says.62 It was the beginning of what many would later term “Donbernabilidad,” a play on the Spanish term, “gobernabilidad,” or “governability.”

Berna and the Bureaucratic Elites

During the hunt for Escobar, Berna met Carlos Mario Aguilar Echeverri, who worked with the Attorney General Office’s Technical Body of Investigation (Cuerpo Tecnico de Investigacion – CTI). He became part of Berna’s team of people working to undermine Escobar. And in the aftermath of Escobar’s death, Aguilar Echeverri left the CTI, took on the alias “Rogelio,” and expanded his role in Berna’s group. Using his CTI contacts, he ensured that no cases were built against Berna and the Oficina de Envigado. He would also send warning of any imminent security force operations against the group.

Carlos Mario Aguilar Echeverri alias RogelioRogelio eventually emerged as one of the most important figures in the Oficina, his power deriving from his management of other bureaucratic and political elites. He managed the payments to corrupt members of not just the CTI and the Attorney General’s Office, but also policemen, soldiers and even politicians.64 In 1997, he came to the attention of Colombian authorities when he was linked to arms and drug trafficking.65 By then the infiltration of the Attorney General’s Office in Medellín had become notorious,66 and Rogelio had entered Berna’s inner circle.

Berna also stayed in touch with Danilo González, his former Search Bloc ally. Andres Lopez, the former trafficker made famous by his book and telenovela “El Cartel de los Sapos,” said that González had a deep and longstanding relationship with Berna and the Oficina de Envigado long after Escobar died. This has been echoed by other underworld sources, including Norte del Valle Cartel member Hernando Gómez, alias “Rasguño,” and former AUC commander Salvatore Mancuso.67

The relationship between the two men after Escobar died went well beyond passing intelligence. In March 1996, for instance, González had a hand in the killing of a former Berna ally turned rival, Cali Cartel kingpin Jose Santacruz Londoño. Santacruz had escaped a Bogota prison seven weeks before, humiliating the government. He became the priority target of the Search Bloc which, according to official reports, cornered him on a mountainside above Medellín and killed him in a shootout. Right from the start there were questions about the killing and inconsistencies in the police version of events. The family of the capo cried foul and said he had been executed.68 Unofficially, it seems Santacruz was located and executed by González’s old PEPES contacts, Carlos Castaño and Berna, then passed over to the police to stage his death. No one in the police was prosecuted for any wrongdoing.

González, meanwhile, was creating his own criminal organization that eventually would rival the Oficina’s power. Indeed, in the underworld, González and his network of active and retired policemen eventually took on the name, the “Devil’s Cartel.” So powerful was González that DEA agent Feistl said he was the unofficial commander of the police for years: “Danilo González, even after he retired from the police, was the most powerful person within the police in Colombia. He basically ran them. He would tell people who were to be the commanding generals, who would be transferred where; he would have certain people stationed in certain areas, he had that much influence and exerted that much control.”69

Berna was not only to use the services of the Devil’s Cartel, but he would also provide services to the network. This relationship with González gave Berna a huge advantage and provided him with connections to a long series of bureaucratic elites within the police. One of these connections was with the government’s anti-kidnapping unit. Like the Search Bloc, the Special Anti-kidnapping Unit (Grupo de Acción Unificada por la Libertad Personal – GAULA) was a critical node in the government’s fight against criminals and insurgents. They also controlled wiretaps, a huge source of information and power in both the political and criminal worlds.

González served as GAULA’s head of intelligence following his stint with the Search Bloc, and, on at least one occasion, he used his connections in the underworld to resolve a kidnapping case for one of Colombia’s most powerful political elite families.70 González also most likely introduced Berna to Maj. Mauricio Santoyo Velasco, who took over GAULA in Medellín in 1996. Santoyo was to become an important part of Berna’s criminal structure and put his command at the service of organized crime.

Santoyo was a well-placed bureaucratic elite. During his time as head of GAULA, he worked closely with politicians across the country, among them then Antioquia Governor and future Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. In 2000, Santoyo became commander of the Elite Anti-Terrorist Unit (Cuerpo Élite Antiterrorista – CEAT). And in 2002, he became the head of President Uribe’s security detail. Santoyo’s relationship with Uribe later got Berna access to the presidential palace and Santoyo immunity in Colombia.

The relationship between Berna and Santoyo was important on various levels. According to one agent who worked with Santoyo, it involved arms trafficking and sharing of intelligence, some of which was culled from the GAULA wiretaps. “The collaboration [between Santoyo and Berna] comprised of escorting arms from the rural zones of Antioquia, and intercepting telephone lines, belonging to guerrillas, people who owed something to the paramilitaries, or NGOs that had something to do with the subversives,” the agent said.71

In a US indictment later filed against Santoyo, US prosecutors corroborated these information exchanges. “It was further part of the conspiracy that in exchange for these bribes, the Defendant would provide intelligence information collected by Colombian law enforcement to drug traffickers, including information on individuals who were later targeted to be murdered by these drug-traffickers,” the indictment against Santoyo read.73

Mauricio Santoyo VelascoIn return, Berna paid Santoyo large sums of money. Francisco Javier Zuluaga Lindo, alias “Gordo Lindo” — a drug trafficker who worked with the AUC paramilitary organization — said that Santoyo received up to $100,000 a month from Berna.74 Zuluaga also claimed that Santoyo had given the Oficina information of a DEA operation against the criminal structure, for which he was paid an additional $250,000.75

Santoyo also helped Berna deal with his rivals. In 1999, members of La Terraza robbed a stash of money that Carlos Castaño had left in Medellín. The affront came as Berna was consolidating his hold on the Medellín underworld and building up the Oficina de Envigado as the organization that dominated all criminal activity in the city. La Terraza, which had 25 leaders and over 200 assassins on the payroll, felt they were being paid “worker salaries,” while members of the Oficina were getting shares in drug routes and other criminal activities across Medellín.76

After the robbery, Berna turned on the gang. In August 2000, his men murdered the head of La Terraza, Elkin Sanchez Mena, alias “El Negro.” La Terraza responded by killing Berna’s brother, Rodolfo, the man who allegedly killed Escobar on that Medellín rooftop. Soon, the war was felt across the city. In addition to numerous bloody, public assassinations, there were two high profile bomb attacks: one that exploded in the upmarket shopping mall of “El Tesoro,” which left one dead, and 53 wounded,77 and a second in the popular night spot, Parque Lleras, where eight people were killed and more than 130 injured.78

Eventually, Berna turned to Santoyo to help crush the dissident group. According to the US indictment against the police official, Santoyo provided intelligence, including wiretaps, that helped locate the leaders of La Terraza, and may have used the CEAT to carry out some of the killings.79 Several criminals who worked closely with Berna corroborated these accounts. “He fought La Terraza with the help of the CEAT, commanded by Mauricio Santoyo,” said convicted drug trafficker and AUC member Juan Carlos Sierra, alias “El Tuso.”80

In 2002, Santoyo became the head of security to the newly elected president, Alvaro Uribe, a position he was to hold until 2006, but his relationship with Berna continued. This was one of the most powerful positions in the police, rivaling even the national police chief in terms of access and influence. Indeed, Santoyo had become one of the most powerful bureaucratic elites in Colombia, with the ear of the president. According to El Tuso, he used this influence to ensure the transfer of officers who refused to cooperate with the Oficina, sending them to dangerous and remote postings,81 as well as providing a steady stream of intelligence to the criminal group.

Phase III: ‘Don Berna,’ the Paramilitary Commander (2000 – 2005)

Don Berna and the AUC

It is not exactly clear when Berna formally became a part of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the nationwide paramilitary umbrella organization formed by the Castaño family in 1997. Although a former guerrilla, his politics were not obvious, even when he turned on his former comrades in the EPL. Yet his allying himself with the paramilitaries against the Marxist rebels was another turning point in his criminal career. It strengthened his relationship with another set of bureaucratic elites and allowed him to expand his criminal empire. It also led to what amounted to a bloody coup by drug traffickers like Berna to take over the AUC.

In his own testimony, Berna insisted he was there right from the start, when the Castaño family formed the ACCU in 1994. And in declarations to prosecutors in 2007, he suggested that it was the PEPES who founded the ACCU.82 Berna certainly had maintained contact with Carlos Castaño from the days of the PEPES, and he attended meetings with Castaño around the birth of the AUC.

The relationship with the Castaño family grew following the death of Santacruz Londoño, when Berna hid in Cordobá, with protection from the Castaños.83 And it was solidified during the Castaños’ and Berna’s war against La Terraza, a watershed moment for Berna not only for his campaign to establish a criminal hegemony over Medellín with the Oficina de Envigado, but also in terms of his relationship with the AUC.

“In my particular case, we are talking about more than 20 years of activity in the ACCU and AUC, and of the actions carried out by the three blocs of the Self Defense Forces that I commanded,” he told the Colombian Supreme Court in 2009.84

Don Berna ParamilitaryThis version has been challenged, however, by other paramilitary leaders and authorities alike. Former ACCU commander Fredy Rendón Herrera, alias “El Aleman,” said that Berna was not there when they formed the group. He added that he thought Berna’s anti-subversive stance was simple posturing, a means by which he could escape prosecution for drug trafficking when later the AUC demobilized and negotiated a settlement with the government.85 Rodrigo 00, Berna’s former PEPES’ ally and later his enemy, echoed Rendón’s statement,86 and said Berna saw the AUC as a way to expand his criminal reach.87 For their part, government prosecutors could not establish Berna’s connection to AUC activities until 1999, also contradicting his testimony.88

It was Rodrigo 00 who had the most to lose from Berna’s emergence as a paramilitary commander. By 1999, Rodrigo and his Bloque Metro were operating in much of Medellín. This had not been part of Berna’s plan. He had wanted the paramilitaries to help eliminate rivals and then leave the city to him. However, Rodrigo was from Medellín and had already conducted successful rural counterinsurgent campaigns, working alongside the military in Cordoba and in large swathes of Antioquia. He was also staunchly against the AUC’s direct involvement in drug trafficking, something he regularly told the Colombian and international press.

To be sure, Berna’s entrance into the AUC was part of a massive expansion of the paramilitary army from its core in Antioquia and Cordoba across the country, which included numerous criminal organizations. Franchises of the paramilitary group appeared in many places around the country, and many of the new leaders were quite simply drug traffickers. These included Juan Carlos Sierra, alias “El Tuso,” Carlos Mario Jiménez, alias “Macaco,” and Francisco Javier Zuluaga Lindo, alias “Gordo Lindo.” Different paramilitary groups also began to engage in a wide range of criminal activities, even kidnapping, a practice which in no small part had led to the formation of the AUC. But the biggest business was drug trafficking.

In 2000, Berna opened his own AUC contingent. Known as the “Bloque Cacique Nutibara” (BCN), its principal mission in Medellín, according to government investigators, “was to combat the combos and gangs that were still not pledged to the organization of the self-defense forces and whose actions were causing damage to the civilian population.”89 (Berna officially appeared in the high command of the paramilitaries in 2002, when he was featured as the “Inspector General” of the AUC under the alias of “Adolfo Paz.”90)

In reality, the BCN was a wing of the Oficina de Envigado. More mafia than military network, it was the type of organization best suited to moving across the criminal fault lines in Medellín, where bribery and intimidation were far more effective than direct military confrontation. One of the BCN commanders, for instance, was Rogelio, the former government investigator turned Oficina operative.91 Rodrigo 00 went as far as to say that BCN was really little more than the remnants of La Terraza, reorganized and re-equipped.92 Other non-paramilitary observers agreed.

“The BCN never operated properly like a paramilitary force or self-defense force as we know them. It operated here in the comunas (poor neighborhoods). It came from the period of Escobar and was at the service of drug trafficking, of the Oficinas,” Jaime Fajardo Landaeta, a former peace adviser to the Governor of Antioquia province, told Verdad Abierta.93

To a certain extent, the strategy worked. By the end of 2001, Berna was the undisputed head of the drug trafficking world in Medellín. Within the city, only Bloque Metro and leftist militias, strongest in the Comuna 13, a sprawling ghetto overlooking the city, refused to do his bidding. Bloque Metro leader Rodrigo 00 was becoming a particular problem, not due just to his power in Medellín, but also to his constant declarations of how the drug traffickers had taken over the AUC, with Berna at their head. Berna now began to plan the removal of these two obstacles in Medellín and the surrounding area, but he needed bureaucratic elite allies to make it happen.

Operation Orión

By August 2002, Alvaro Uribe had taken up residence in the Casa de Nariño, the presidential palace, voted into power on the back of a promise to take the war to the Marxist rebels. It was fitting that he began his counterinsurgency campaign with his native Medellín, ordering the security forces to expel the left-wing militias from their stronghold of the Comuna 13.

The militias were perhaps the fastest growing and most disciplined illegal force in the city. They had been formed during the 1970s in response to the threat of criminal gangs and the state’s poor effort to control them.94 In the 1980s, these groups had transformed into what were termed “militias,” molded by guerrilla ideology, mainly thanks to ELN and EPL influence.95 Their objective — according to experts like Alonso Espinal, Jorge Giraldo Ramírez, and Diego Jorge Sierra — was to take back neighborhoods from the criminal gangs that had “completely taken control over these territories, often with the complicity of local authorities.”96

In the 1990s, this process had accelerated. With the disintegration of the Medellín Cartel, the militias began multiplying and successfully took down several criminal gangs.97 Their campaign to “clean” the barrios won them broad support as they “[appropriated] the security function of the state,” Espinal, Ramírez and Sierra write.98 And from 1993 onwards, the militias expanded from one single group to ten.99

As groups like the “Milicias Del Pueblo y Para el Pueblo,” (Militias of the People and for the People) expanded, they began the recruit from the gangs they had vowed to expel. The militias also became a fixture of Medellín criminal life, dominating many parts of the city, particularly the Comuna 13. Their ties to illegal activities, even drug trafficking, deepened,100 and soon they began to look more like the criminal gangs they had been formed to fight.101 They also challenged Berna’s aim to establish a criminal hegemony in Medellín and became a top security threat for the state.

The proliferation of the left-wing militias alarmed the political and economic elites, who were also watching the Marxist rebels of the FARC and ELN expand their power in the countryside. In 1996, the alarm bells rang when the FARC concentrated some 500 rebels against the military base of Las Delicias in the southern province of Putumayo, killing 27 soldiers and capturing 60 more. Other startling rebel assaults followed. For the first time there was a real fear that the FARC would be able to take power. That there were left-wing militias in Medellín, Colombia’s second city, was a cause for intense concern on the part of the bureaucratic elites who sought to realign themselves with those who could help them deal with this threat.

Among these elites was Gen. Mario Montoya. Montoya was the commander of the army’s IV Brigade. Based in Medellín, but with responsibility across much of Antioquia, the IV Brigade had a working relationship with many paramilitary groups already. For his part, Montoya had been working with Rodrigo 00 in the rural areas, where as part of what was known as “Operation Mariscal,” the military had taken on the ELN in their stronghold of Cocorna and the FARC along the strategic highway that linked Medellín with Bogota.102 Montoya had also passed weapons to Bloque Metro.103 Athough Montoya would later deny these relationships existed, both Rodrigo 00 and other former paramilitary leaders corroborated these accounts.104

By August 2002, Montoya was allegedly working with Berna as well. Juan Carlos Sierra, alias “El Tuso,” one of many drug traffickers to enter the AUC ranks, said that Montoya “was on the payroll” of the Oficina de Envigado.105 And US cables asserted that in Medellín the BCN was supported by elements of the military.106

Berna is also believed to have recruited Medellín’s police chief, Gen. Leonardo Gallego, who allegedly went onto the Oficina’s payroll to the tune of almost US$10,000 a month.107

Berna’s interests certainly coincided with those of the military even if his motives did not: he wanted the leftist militias destroyed because it furthered his criminal interests. It was a perfect example of a mutually beneficial relationship where the bureaucratic elites needed Berna and organized crime to carry out their mission, and Berna needed the bureaucratic elites to help him eliminate a rival. Berna himself testified as much. In a letter to Judge Richard M. Berman of the New York Southern District Federal Court written some years later, Berna explained that the state security forces under Montoya and Gallego “asked for [Cacique Nutibara’s] help in liberating the zone from the guerrillas.”108

Figure4 DonBernaParamilitaryNetwork

Coordination reportedly started well before the operation. A CIA informant alleged that the army, the police, and the BCN drew up a document laying out their plan for what would be called Operation Orion in the days leading up to the coordinated assault; Montoya, Gallego, and paramilitary leader Fabio Jaramillo all signed it.109 And on October 16, 2002, BCN and Oficina personnel entered Comuna 13, army helicopters hovering above for support.

By day two, the military was moving through the neighborhoods; and at night the paramilitaries were doing the same. Often operating from official security force-vehicles and using militia deserters, BCN and Oficina personnel found militiamen, snatched them from the streets, then tortured and executed them.

By day four, it was over — the leftist militias were gutted and expelled from the Comuna 13. At least 92 victims were later identified, but hundreds are believed to have been murdered by Berna’s men and security forces.110

Destroying Bloque Metro

Getting rid of Bloque Metro and Rodrigo 00 was much more difficult. Initially, Berna could not openly challenge him. Rodrigo 00 was a fellow member of the PEPES, one of the ACCU and AUC founders and had trained most of the original cadres that formed the core of the paramilitary army. He was also a close friend of Carlos Castaño. Berna had to bide his time and build up his army, which he did with the formation of the BCN.

Berna also had to foster a change in the makeup of the AUC so that the paramilitaries were more favorable to his drug trafficking side than Rodrigo 00’s anti-drug trafficking side. Little by little, Berna was able to isolate his rivals. In 2001, Carlos Castaño resigned as head of the AUC. And in 2002, Rodrigo 00 withdrew from the AUC and proclaimed Bloque Metro “a dissident force.”111

By then, Berna was part of the paramilitary “Estado Mayor” (the ruling body) and had, thanks to his power in the drug trafficking world, far more friends than Rodrigo 00 in the paramilitaries. For his part, Rodrigo 00 had refused to involve himself in drug trafficking and had therefore earned the distrust of almost every other paramilitary leader who was feeding off the drug trade. Incredible as it may seem, by 2002, the AUC had become the main regulator and arbiter of the cocaine trade, with more reach and power than Pablo Escobar had ever had.

However, Berna knew that he was never going to be able to destroy Bloque Metro militarily without help from his contacts in the bureaucratic elites. Indeed, according to Rodrigo 00, the defining moment in his struggle with Berna was when Gen. Montoya switched sides.112 He said evidence of this came in August 2002, when Montoya’s troops ambushed a Bloque Metro convoy in Segovia, Antioquia, killing 20 of Rodrigo’s men. “Berna offered him far more money than I ever could, and he took it,” said Rodrigo 00.113

Mario MontoyaThe battle had begun. Within a few months BCN, the Oficina de Envigado and their allies in the police had pushed Bloque Metro out of 37 of Medellín’s 45 districts.114 Berna and his men then took aim at Bloque Metro’s heartland, the rural area of Antioquia, principally the northeast of the department and Rodrigo 00’s headquarters in the municipality of San Roque. Working with the army and Carlos Mario Jimenez, alias “Macaco,” another drug trafficking-paramilitary ally, Berna closed in on Rodrigo’s rural holdings. According to Rodrigo, the battle between his Bloque Metro and his two rival paramilitary groups led to over 1,000 deaths in various municipalities of northeast Antioquia.115 Faced with an enemy that had the support of the Colombian security forces as well as very deep pockets, Rodrigo 00 fled the area.

With the help of his bureaucratic elite allies, Berna had won another battle.


By November 2003, Berna had it all. To begin with, he was the undisputed master of Medellín, exercising via the Oficina de Envigado, control over all criminal elements of the city. The Oficina could count on some 6,000 armed men, and control of Medellín was assured through the Oficina’s control over at least 300 combos with thousands more gang members at the ready.116

By 2004, the Oficina de Envigado and its model had expanded. It was, in essence, an umbrella organization under which a multitude of smaller “oficinas de cobro,” or collection offices, operated throughout the country. It was through these smaller oficinas that Berna controlled all criminal activity in Medellín and in much of Colombia.

These oficinas were localized, semi-autonomous criminal structures but that all had the same function of regulating the underworld. They resolved criminal disputes, ran extortion rackets, collected debts related to drug trafficking or gambling, and offered assassination services. Many also provided local private security services. Punishment for failing to pay one’s debts, however small, ranged from having one’s fingers amputated to being shot dead in the street.117 The oficinas were not just muscle. If one needed to seize an indebted drug trafficker’s possessions, such as his house, ranch, or cars, it would dispatch a lawyer to coerce or bribe people into signing over the goods.

In Medellín, the Oficina de Envigado was so efficient that Berna was even able to control homicide rates. From 2003 until 2008, Medellín’s spectacularly high murder rate dropped some 50 percent after Berna ordered his organization to keep murders down. The international press talked of the city’s “renaissance.”118 But within the city, this control was known as “Donbernabilidad,” a play on the term Spanish word for governance, “gobernabilidad.” Nobody was allowed to kill without Berna’s express permission.

“Nothing happened in that city [Medellín] without Berna or the Oficina de Envigado giving the blessing,” Feistl told InSight Crime. “And if it did happen without their consent or approval, those people paid the price for it. Everybody was basically afraid to do anything; unless it was regulated by Berna, it didn’t happen. So, crime was under control, murders were under control, unless they were the ones doing the crime or the murders.”

The Oficina, he added, had essentially taken “a page out of the chapter of the old US mafia days, you know the mafia in New York and Boston, going back to some of the organized crime in Chicago, where these guys were so intimidating, and exerted so much pressure and influence throughout that entire city and all that implied, that people were terrified to do anything.”119

Berna’s near hegemonic control over Medellín enabled him to impose a business-like order on criminal activity: businesses paid a single collector, and especially for small businesses the sum was often manageable enough that sometimes some said that it “didn’t even feel like extortion.”120

Berna had undisputed control of the Oficina de Envigado, but apart from him at the top there were many intermediary leaders and many distinct mechanisms within the network, which worked on a subcontracting basis.121 Berna’s strength lay in his role as the “great regulator”: he strategically redistributed power, resolved disputes, and managed the many nodes of his large organization.

The combos within his vast network also functioned as small, specialized businesses, often dedicated to just one illegal activity: carjacking or assassinations. He was a natural mediator and negotiator, described by sources within the Attorney General’s Office as “more of an attorney than we are.” This allowed him to continue his relationship with the elites in Medellín, as he was able to deliver governability and guarantee security results.

The model was so successful that other AUC leaders adopted it. By the time the AUC had demobilized in 2006 as part of a national peace process with the government, there were oficinas de cobro in almost every city in the country, and in every area where the paramilitaries had a presence. This network of criminal structures became the artery along which the lifeblood blood of the cocaine trade flowed. Berna, of course, sat at the top of that pyramid.

“Berna…holds the title of Inspector General of the AUC, but is the de facto leader of the AUC, and directs all of its narcotics trafficking activities, including all of its cocaine transportation and financial operations,” the 2004 US indictment against him read. “Murillo Bejarano has maintained his power in the AUC in part from the proceeds of his drug trafficking activities.”122

In sum — with the Oficina de Envigado, his paramilitary units, his gangs and his bureaucratic elite connections — Berna had created the most powerful and sophisticated organized crime syndicate in Colombian history.

Analysis – Conclusion

The criminal influence of Berna in Colombia is hard to overestimate. In order to understand the evolution of Colombian organized crime, one has to understand the systems put into place by Berna in Medellín. And to understand these systems, one has to understand the alliances Berna developed with bureaucratic elites.

Berna’s relationship with these elites began during the hunt for Pablo Escobar. Berna was one of the founders and leaders of the PEPES, an illegal group dedicated to taking down the Medellín drug lord. His first alliances were both personal and institutional. Berna worked closely with police Col. Danilo González. González was the prototypical bureaucratic elite — a career officer who worked the government’s most important cases giving him access to huge amounts of resources, connections to politicians and international law enforcement. He was also a criminal, with ties to a powerful group of former police who were building an underworld empire of their own.

Berna’s relationship with González, along with his membership of the PEPES, was to catapult the former guerrilla, who was initially a middle ranking member of the Medellín cartel, into a top position in the drug trafficking world. The PEPES provided not just intelligence for the police, but also firepower and willingness to do the dirty work needed to flush El Patrón into the open long enough for authorities — or possibly Berna’s brother — to kill him.Don-Berna-in-field-by-Carlos-Villalon

(Photo by Carlos Villalón)

Fernando Quijano, a former left-wing militia leader in Medellín, who now runs a non-governmental organization, lived through the violence and continues to follow the security situation in Antioquia’s capital. He said the PEPES functioned as the “dogs of war” for the police, doing the dirty work that the security forces couldn’t openly perform.123

But it was Carlos Castaño, Berna’s ally in the PEPES and the founder of the AUC, who said it best when he stated that the PEPES “were tolerated by the attorney general, the police, the army, the DAS, the inspector general’s office, and President Cesar Gaviria himself never ordered that they pursue us.”124

In essence, the most powerful bureaucratic elites in the country were happy to work with the PEPES, as noted by DEA Agent Feistl.

“I think one of the more significant reasons why they (Berna and the Castaños) got to be so powerful and why the PEPES were such an important stepping stone to the AUC and everything else, was because of that alliance that the PEPES formed with the government of Colombia in an attempt to kill Escobar,” explained Feistl. “They were, down the road, granted — I don’t want to say favors — but a lot of officials in Colombia kind of looked the other way while they were doing business because they didn’t want to go after them or target them because of what they did and the information they provided to get Pablo and have him killed.”

Feistl added: “I think those alliances that they formed with the government, kind of like a debt so to say, meant that the government didn’t really go after them for quite some time, which really enabled them to get their start and build a lot of power in Medellín and the surrounding areas.”125

To be sure, the contacts Berna made during this period, both state and underworld contacts, were also to shape his criminal career and his strategy going forward. That strategy has been described by analysts such as Morales and La Rotta, as opportunistic and ruthless. This is true: Berna was ambitious, prepared to stab anyone in the back to get ahead. However, you do not survive wars with Pablo Escobar, left wing militias, rival paramilitary factions, and rise to the top of one of the world’s most brutal underworlds as a simple opportunist.

There was something more. While he was not a charismatic man, and his physical appearance was not the most appealing — even before he took 17 bullets to his body and lost one of his legs — Berna was a master negotiator and regulator. All markets, particularly illegal ones, need regulators, systems of protection so that transactions are honored and business can function. In the cocaine world, where the stakes are high and loyalties fragile, the regulator needed to be utterly ruthless and totally reliable. This was Berna’s skill.

In the case of his criminal peers, he was able to create a system that regulated the underworld market from the local to the national scale. This system, known popularly as the oficina de cobro, based on the Oficina de Envigado prototype, is now present in all of Colombia’s major cities and have spread across Latin America, in many of the transit nations through which Colombian cocaine passes, with branches as far afield as Spain.

For the bureaucratic elites, Berna was also useful. Not only could he provide them with money, but he also helped them fight their principal enemy and provided the kind of “law and order” they never could. In other words, Berna was able to corrupt elements of the bureaucratic elites, and to make himself indispensable to them on a strategic, operational level. This was clear in both his efforts to fight leftist militias and his ability to tame the criminal gangs in Medellín itself, including, of course, Pablo Escobar.

The result, as was illustrated, was a plethora of allies amongst the bureaucratic elites. Danilo Gonzalez assisted with the PEPES and later helped clear out a rival trafficker from the Cali Cartel. Santoyo’s relationship with Berna began when he was a police major in Medellín, and ended when he was a police general in charge of the security of the president. Throughout, he assisted Berna as he took on Medellín gangs, helped him consolidate his hold on Medellín and made sure it remained under Berna’s control for years thereafter. Police Gen. Gallego and army Gen. Montoya helped Berna in his fight to obtain control of Comuna 13 and to eliminate his paramilitary rival, Rodrigo 00. Throughout, ranking members of the Attorney General’s Office made sure that Berna was not prosecuted. And numerous other officials and security forces personnel aided Berna and his criminal groups in myriad ways. 126

These allies obtained what they wanted, but everything Berna did to “help” the bureaucratic elites furthered his own position as well. He was the principal beneficiary of the downfall of Escobar and turned Medellín into the capital of his criminal empire which stretched from the Pacific Coast right up to the Caribbean. When the left-wing militias were expelled from Medellín, it was not the state that occupied the power vacuum, but Berna, and the Comuna 13 became one of the strongholds of the Oficina de Envigado. In the countryside, the territory that belonged to Bloque Metro became the rural stronghold of Don Berna.

In short, bureaucratic elites played a role in every stage in Berna’s career. There can be no doubt that without the help of powerful bureaucratic elites, Berna would not have reached the pinnacle of Colombian organized crime. Along the way, Berna achieved what Escobar could not, what El Patrón did not even realize could be the key to criminal power — what Forrest Hylton described as, “the unification of organized crime with the establishment.”127

Many people believe the Medellín Cartel died with Escobar in 1993. It did not. It transformed itself under the leadership of Berna, and evolved into the most sophisticated organized crime syndicate in Colombia, perhaps the most sophisticated in all of Latin America. Berna, a rational and strategic thinker who shunned Escobar’s high-profile lifestyle but embraced his brutality, learned an important lesson from Escobar’s ill-fated and expensive war with the Colombian government: the key to success lay in coopting, rather than confronting, the state. As such, his alliances with bureaucratic elites were the key to his rise and perhaps the strongest weapon in his arsenal.


In November 2004, I met with Berna on one of his haciendas in Cordoba. At the time, he was the single most powerful figure within the AUC and a household name in Medellín. He had also recently dispatched of his chief rivals, Carlos Castaño and Rodrigo 00.

The irony is thick: Berna and Castaño had clashed over extradition, the same theme that had brought down their nemesis, Pablo Escobar. Berna and his drug trafficking cohorts in the AUC were negotiating to avoid extradition; Castaño thought extradition was inevitable. Not only was Castaño working against Berna at the negotiating table, there were rumors that he was in talks with the DEA, preparing to hand himself in in exchange for a more lenient prison sentence in the US.128 But on April 16, 2004, Castaño and his close protection team were killed by trusted collaborators, acting on the orders of Berna and Carlos’ brother, Jose Vicente.

“Berna [is] the head of drug trafficking, not only in the AUC but in the whole country,” Rodrigo 00 told Semana just after Castaño’s murder. “Carlos had become an enormous obstacle for the drug traffickers to obtain unity and absolute power within the AUC, in order to radicalize their position in the negotiations with the government. Carlos was against the principal issues of the negotiations becoming those of extradition and the defense of the interests of drug traffickers.”129

Carlos CastanoFor his part, Rodrigo 00 had escaped Colombia after Berna’s and the army’s all out assault on him and his Bloque Metro in 2003. He was later debriefed by both the CIA and the DEA in Panama. However, defiant and determined to undermine Berna, he had returned to Colombia by 2004.130 But he was careless, and Berna’s vast intelligence network tracked him down by following one of his girlfriends from Medellín to the coastal city of Santa Marta where he was hiding. The former member of the PEPES, the founder of the ACCU and AUC, and former Bloque Metro commander was assassinated in May 2004, just a month after Berna had Rodrigo’s friend, Carlos Castaño, murdered.

Berna did not talk about these killings during our interview. Instead, the drug lord and underworld regulator presented himself as a purebred paramilitary, forced in the face of guerrilla atrocities, to defend himself and those communities that trusted in him, as the state was impotent or unable to fulfill even its basic function of protecting its citizens. As he spoke, he looked across his desk to a picture of Carlos Castaño, speaking in affectionate terms of his “old friend,” and how in the aftermath of Castaño’s death, he had to continue his work.131

Despite his heroic posturing and strength in the underworld, Berna’s façade was beginning to crumble. In 2003, Colombia’s Inspector General’s Office revealed that GAULA had orchestrated more than 1,800 illegal phone taps between December 1997 and February 2001, while under the watch of Berna’s longtime ally, Gen. Santoyo.132 At the time of the accusation, Santoyo was the chief of security for President Uribe, and the case was dropped for “lack of evidence.” But just one month after his retirement from the police in 2009, Santoyo was charged in the United States for drug trafficking and in 2012, he was sentenced to 13 years in a US prison.

In March 2004, Berna’s former top connection to the police in the Search Bloc, Danilo González, was murdered as he emerged from a meeting with his lawyer in Bogota.133 Gonzalez was allegedly negotiating a deal with the United States government. Gallego was forced to resign from the police under a cloud and Montoya also came under investigation, although they were not prosecuted.134

Berna himself had also begun to face scrutiny. On November 25, 2003, Bloque Cacique Nutibara was the first AUC unit to demobilize as part of its negotiations with the government, with 868 combatants handing over 497 weapons. For the first time Berna showed his face in public, during a recorded address at the demobilization ceremony. He was no longer in the shadows, but a public figure. Few, however, believed the gesture was genuine. A US government cable revealed by Wikileaks showed that even the US ambassador questioned the legitimacy of Berna’s involvement in the demobilization process and rumors swirled that he and his drug trafficking cohorts might be extradited no matter what they negotiated with the government.135

Within the AUC, the demobilization of BCN was also seen as a farce.

“That of Cacique Nutibara was a fictitious demobilization, where the criminal oficinas of Medellín collected uniforms and old weapons for the spectacle that they put on in the Palace of Exhibitions, led by Diego Fernando Murillo,” said Freddy Rendón, alias “El Aleman,” the former head of the AUC’s Bloque Elmer Cardenas.136

What made the demobilization of BCN more of a charade was that even as one bloc demobilized, Berna was setting up new ones. In the countryside, Berna set up the two new blocs the “Heroes of Granada” in the area once dominated by Bloque Metro and “Heroes of Tolová” in Cordoba, where he had bought large tracts of land and established drug trafficking routes up the Caribbean Coast. Heroes of Granada was made up of “highly combative” demobilized members of BCN, ex-Bloque Metro members, and deserters from the ELN guerrillas.137 Berna demobilized these paramilitary groups almost just as fast. Heroes of Tolová demobilized 465 members in June 2005 and Heroes of Granada another 2,033 members in Rodrigo 00’s former stronghold of San Roque, in Antioquia, in August 2005. There were a large number of members of the Oficina de Envigado among those the demobilized in Berna’s paramilitary groups, who were able to “clean” their criminal records.

But these forces had no real purpose other than a way to cleanse Berna’s image and present him as a paramilitary leader. With Medellín consolidated, the Oficina de Envigado was running the city, so the paramilitary facade was no longer necessary. The AUC peace process was also used as a way of wiping clean the criminal records of some of more notorious members of the Medellín Mafia who had joined the organization in the early 2000s or had purchased paramilitary “franchises” from the AUC. Human Rights Watch estimated that up to 75 percent of those who demobilized with Cacique Nutibara and Heroes de Granada were not actually paramilitary combatants.138

But Berna was not done yet. Incredibly, even as he was demobilizing his second set of paramilitary units, he was setting up parallel criminal structures in their place, continuing to expand and consolidate his criminal empire. In Cordoba, the department with the presence of many different paramilitary factions, Berna set up “Los Traquetos,” and “Los Paisas,” which were to secure access to drug crops in the province and control smuggling corridors up to the Caribbean coast.139

Berna’s façade formally cracked in May 2005, when an arrest warrant was issued for him in connection with the murder of Orlando Benítez Palencia, a community leader and local politician in Cordoba who had apparently defied Berna. Berna initially went into hiding, but his actions threatened the entire paramilitary peace process, and under pressure from other AUC leaders, he turned himself in.

Once in prison, as Pablo Escobar found out well over a decade before, it became clear to Berna that running a criminal empire from jail was very difficult. Soon, an internal war broke out amongst various Oficina factions. In 2006, Gustavo Upegui, a former member of the Medellín Cartel and an ally of Berna’s in the aftermath of Escobar’s death, was killed. The killing of Upegui was part of a power play by Daniel Alberto Mejía, alias “Danielito,” who was one of Berna’s key leaders in the Oficina de Envigado, and had demobilized with one of his paramilitary units.

Meanwhile, Rogelio, Berna’s longtime associate who had defected from the Attorney General’s Office in the 1990s, was now positioning himself to occupy the top spot, and persuaded Berna to authorize Danielito’s assassination in November 2006. With Danielito and Upegui out of the way, Rogelio was now Berna’s most trusted lieutenant not in jail. But that too was short lived. In 2008, Rogelio turned himself into US authorities and, in return for information implicating his old criminal allies, negotiated a reduced prison sentence.140

Berna must have well understood how Pablo Escobar had felt in 1991 as he sat in prison in the Cathedral and saw his power slipping away.

“I’m starting to realize that we’re like whores; in the daytime no one greets us, but at night the whole world is looking for us,” Berna told investigator Juan Carlos Garzón.141

Legal setbacks came as well. In June 2006, the Peace and Justice Law of 2005, introduced by President Alvaro Uribe and approved by Congress as a way to facilitate demobilization of the AUC, was modified: the Constitutional Court ruled that if paramilitary leaders did not fully cooperate in telling the truth about their criminal actions, and if sufficient restitution was not made, then they would be tried under normal criminal law and could face extradition. What had been extremely generous amnesty legislation for the paramilitaries was given some teeth.

In August 2006, the AUC leaders were ordered to turn themselves in to a minimum-security facility in la Ceja, Antioquia. Then in December 2006, in a surprise move amid rumors of a mass breakout of paramilitary leaders, the AUC commanders were moved from the minimum-security facility in La Ceja, to Medellín’s notorious maximum security Itagui prison, where Berna had been resident for well over a year.

By then, Berna’s old allies in the bureaucratic elites were insisting that he keep his mouth shut about their relationships. However, if it were proven that he was not telling the truth or fully cooperating with the authorities, he faced immediate extradition to the United States. The bureaucratic elites were now no longer looking for Berna, even during the night. Without them, and without his freedom, the Oficina de Envigado was breaking up and as the bureaucratic elites deserted him, Berna’s criminal career was coming to an end.

The official end came in May 2008, when he and another 13 AUC commanders were extradited to the US, after the paramilitary leaders were accused of continuing their criminal activities while in prison. In April 2009, Berna was condemned in a New York courtroom to 31 years in a US federal prison. He pleaded guilty rather than give up his associates and collaborators. Following his sentencing, Hylton said the bureaucratic elites and Medellín’s ruling class should be “grateful indeed” for Berna’s adherence to “old school” mafioso rules.142 However, their day may yet come. Berna still has to answer to the Colombian justice system if he ever leaves his US prison cell alive. He has been charged with 34 crimes in Colombia, including homicide, forced disappearance, kidnapping, and criminal conspiracy.143

*This article was written with invaluable research by Claire McCleskey. Cover photo by Carlos VillalónMap by Jorge Mejía Galindo. Graphics by Andrew J Higgens.


[1] Diego Fernando Murillo Bejarano, Así matamos al patrón: La cacería de Pablo Escobar (Colombia, 2014), p. 126.

[2] The official version of events became that a police marksman brought down Escobar as he staggered across the roof.

[3] El Tiempo, “¿Quién es ‘Berna’ o ‘Adolfo Paz’, Inspector General de las Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia?” 27 September 2003.

[4] Álvaro Sierra, “‘No pagaré un solo día de cárcel’ afirma ‘Berna,’” El Tiempo, 30 November 2003. Available at:

[5] Natalia Morales and Santiago La Rotta, Los PEPES (Colombia, 2009), p. 33.

[6] María Teresa Renderos, Guerras Recicladas (Colombia, 2014), p. 206.

[7] Gilberto Medina Franco, “Una Historia de las Milicias de Medellín,” Instituto Popular de Capacitación (IPC), May 2006, p. 75.

[8] Natalia Morales and Santiago La Rotta, Los PEPES (Colombia, 2009), p. 32.

[9] James Mollison, “The Memory of Pablo Escobar,” (Chris Boot, 2007), p. 205.

[10] Plaza Pública, “Plata o plomo,” 29 March 2011. Available at:

[11] La Silla Vacilla, “¿El alcalde de Escobar?: la historia de Jorge Mesa,” 9 March 2012. Available at:

[12] InSight Crime interview with Jorge Giraldo, Dean of Humanities at the University of EAFIT and longtime organized crime analyst, Medellín, 27 June 2013.

[13] Vanguardia, “‘Berna,’ el fantasma de los grandes capos,” 29 May 2005. Available at:

[14] Jeremy McDermott interview with Carlos Castaño, in northern Antioquia, 1 August 2001.

[15] InSight Crime telephone interview with Chris Feistl, DEA agent, 18 September 2013.

[16] Natalia Morales and Santiago La Rotta, Los PEPES (Colombia, 2009), p. 32.

[17] Mauricio Aranguren Molina, Mi Confesión: Carlos Castaño revela sus secretos (Bogotá, 2001), p. 142.

[18] Natalia Morales and Santiago La Rotta, Los PEPES (Colombia, 2009), p. 42.

[19] Mark Bowden, Killing Pablo (New York, 2001), p. 118.

[20] Mauricio Aranguren Molina, Mi Confesión: Carlos Castaño revela sus secretos (Bogotá, 2001), p. 142.

[21] Semana, “De Cazador a Cazado,” 30 November 2003. Available at:

[22] Mauricio Aranguren Molina, Mi Confesión: Carlos Castaño revela sus secretos (Bogotá, 2001), p. 142.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Natalia Morales and Santiago La Rotta, Los PEPES (Colombia, 2009), p. 62.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Mauricio Aranguren Molina, Mi Confesión: Carlos Castaño revela sus secretos (Bogotá, 2001), pp. 147-148.

[27] Natalia Morales and Santiago La Rotta, Los PEPES (Colombia, 2009), p. 108.

[28] Gerardo Reyes, Nuestro Hombre en la DEA (Bogotá, 2007), p. 189.

[29] Mauricio Aranguren Molina, Mi Confesión: Carlos Castaño revela sus secretos (Bogotá, 2001), p. 142.

[30] El País, “Así ayudó ‘Berna’ a perseguir a Escobar,” 6 June 2005. Available at:

[31] McDermott interview with Carlos Castaño, the mountains of Antioquia, 14 January 2002.

[32] Natalia Morales and Santiago La Rotta, Los PEPES (Colombia, 2009), p. 79.

[33] Mark Bowden, Killing Pablo (New York, 2001), p. 187.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid., p. 194.

[36] El País, “Así ayudó ‘Berna’ a perseguir a Escobar,” 6 June 2005.

[37] “Bureaucratic”, “administrative” or “state” elites are those individuals or groups who derive power and influence through the posts they hold in government institutions. Through their positions in the government, security forces or the judicial hierarchy, they are able to influence civil society, shape policy and carry out operations that directly impact everyday life. There have been some isolated studies on bureaucratic elites like that of Gary Spencer, who in 1973 looked at the US military as a bureaucratic elite, focusing on the West Point Military Academy. His position was to look at the threats to democracy such an elite presented. It controlled such key resources and power that if these were used for private means rather than in pure service to the state, democracy itself could be at risk. Examples of this dynamic abound in Latin America, particularly in the Southern Cone nations — like Argentina and Chile — where military juntas took power in the 1970s and 1980s. See: Wilhelm Hofmeister, “Las élites en América Latina: un comentario desde la perspectiva de la cooperación para el desarrollo”, Análisis/política y sociedad latinoamericana, May 2008. Available at: See also: Gary Spencer, Methodological Issues in the Study of Bureaucratic Elites: a Case Study of West Point (Syracuse, 1973).

[38] David Adams, “Danilo’s War,” St Petersburg Times, 3 January 2005. Available at:

[39] Diego Fernando Murillo Bejarano, Así matamos al patrón: La cacería de Pablo Escobar (Colombia, 2014), p. 188.

[40] El Espectador, “El ‘Pepe’ mayor,” 13 September 2008. Available at:

[41] Natalia Morales and Santiago La Rotta, Los PEPES (Colombia, 2009), p. 90.

[42] Semana, “De cazador a cazado,” 30 November 2003. Available at:

[43] El País, “Así ayudó ‘Berna’ a perseguir a Escobar,” 6 June 2005. Available at:

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Mauricio Aranguren Molina, Mi Confesión: Carlos Castaño revela sus secretos (Bogotá, 2001), p. 151.

[47] InSight Crime telephone interview with Chris Feistl, DEA agent, 18 September 2013.

[48] Forrest Hylton, “The Cold War That Didn’t End: Paramilitary Modernization in Medellín, Colombia,” in Greg Grandin (editor), A Century of Revolution (North Carolina, 2010), p. 355.

[49] Mark Bowden, Killing Pablo (New York, 2001), p. 186.

[50] McDermott interview with Carlos Mauricio García, alias “Rodrigo 00” in Cristales, San Roque, Antioquia, 25 May 2003.

[51] Mauricio Aranguren Molina, Mi Confesión: Carlos Castaño revela sus secretos (Bogotá, 2001), p. 142.

[52] Alonso Espinal, Jorge Giraldo Ramirez, and Diego Jorge Sierra, “Medellín: El complejo camino de la competencia armada,” in Corporación Arco Iris, Parapolítica: La ruta de la expansión paramilitar y los acuerdos politicos (Bogota, 2007), p. 121.

[53] Ibid, p. 122.

[54] Ibid, p. 123.

[55] InSight Crime interview with investigators in the Attorney General’s Office who requested anonymity for the sensitivity of the case, Medellín, August 2013.

[56] InSight Crime interview with Jorge Giraldo, Dean of Humanities at the University of EAFIT and longtime organized crime analyst, Medellín, 27 June 2013.

[57] InSight Crime interview with Juan Carlos Garzón, Bogotá, 13 July 2013.

[58] Ibid.

[59] InSight Crime interview with investigator in the Attorney General’s Office who requested anonymity for the sensitivity of the case, Medellín, 27 June 2013.

[60] Forrest Hylton, “The Cold War That Didn’t End: Paramilitary Modernization in Medellín, Colombia,” in Greg Grandin (editor), A Century of Revolution (North Carolina, 2010), p. 356.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Ibid.

[63] W Radio, “Ex fiscal acepta que se reunió clandestinamente con alias ‘Berna,” 11 September 2007. Available at:

[64] El Espectador, “Dos ventiladores y un general,” 16 June 2012. Available at:

[65] Verdad Abierta, “Alias ‘Rogelio’, clave en parapolítica de Antioquia,” 3 February 2011. Available at:

[66] El Espectador, “La infiltración ‘para’ en la Fiscalía de Medellín,” 28 April 2007. Available at:

[67] El Espectador, “Dos ventiladores y un general,” 16 June 2012. Available at:

[68] El Tiempo, “Muerte de Santacruz fue una ejecución: familia,” 8 March 1996. Available at:

[69] InSight Crime telephone interview with Chris Feistl, DEA agent, 18 September 2013.

[70] Semana, “Sabían demasiado,” 28 March 2004. Available at:

[71] Verdad Abierta, “Las aristas del caso Santoyo,” 21 August 2012. Available at:

[72] Verdad Abierta, “Las aristas del caso Santoyo,” 21 August 2012. Available at:

[73] United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Case 1:12-cr-00217-JCC, filed 20 August 2012. Available at:

[74] El Tiempo, “General (r.) Mauricio Santoyo se declaró culpable en corte de EE. UU.,” 20 August 2012. Available:

[75] El Espectador, “General Santoyo hacía parte de la nómina de la Oficina de Envigado: ‘Gordo Lindo’,” 19 July 2013. Available at:

[76] El Tiempo, “¿Quién es ‘Berna’ o ‘Adolfo Paz’, Inspector General de las Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia?” 27 September 2003. Available at:

[77] El Tiempo, “Noche de terror en Medellín deja un muerto y 53 heridos a causa de carro bomba,” 11 January 2001.

[78] Reuters, “Gang Feud Seen Behind Deadly Colombian Car Bomb,” 19 May 2001. Available at:

[79] Carlos Alberto Giraldo, “¿Santoyo estaba en la nómina?” 6 October 2013. Available at:

[80] El Tiempo, “Ésta es la historia del primer general al que EE UU pide extraditar,” 16 June 2012. Available at:

[81] El Tiempo, “‘Tuso Sierra’ denunció supuestos nexos entre general Santoyo y narcotraficantes,” 6 July 2012. Available at:

[82] María Teresa Renderos, Guerras Recicladas (Colombia, 2014), p. 209.

[83] Vanguardia, “‘Berna,’ el fantasma de los grandes capos,” 29 May 2005. Available at:

[84] Berna letter to the Magistrates of Colombia’s Supreme Court, written from a US prison cell in New York, 17 September 2009.

[85] Verdad Abierta, “La desmovilización ficticia del Cacique Nutibara según ‘el Alemán’,” 7 March 2011. Available at:

[86] McDermott interview with Carlos Mauricio García, alias “Rodrigo 00” in Cristales, San Roque, Antioquia, 25 May 2003.

[87] Aldo Cívico, Las guerras de Doblecero (Bogotá, 2009), p. 77.

[88] El Espectador, “‘Berna’ tendrá que responder por 450 crímenes,” 30 January 2014. Available at:

[89] Peace and Justice sentence of Edison Giraldo Panaigua, 30 July 2012. Available at:

[90] Observatorio para los Derechos Humanos, “Dinámica reciente de la confrontación armada en el Urabá antioqueño,”Colombia government, p. 18.

[91] Verdad Abierta, “Bloque Cacique Nutibara,” profile. Available at:

[92] Aldo Cívico, Las guerras de Doblecero (Bogotá, 2009), p. 90.

[93] Verdad Abierta, “Bloque Cacique Nutibara” profile. Available at:

[94] Aldo Cívico, Las guerras de Doblecero (Bogotá, 2009), p. 117.

[95] Ibid.

[96] Francisco Gutiérrez Sanín and Ana Maria Jaramillo, “Crime, [counter]insurgency and the privatization of security – the case of Medellín,” Environment and Urbanization, Vol. 16 No. 2 (October 2004), p. 5.

[97] Alonso Espinal, Jorge Giraldo Ramirez, and Diego Jorge Sierra, “Medellín: El complejo camino de la competencia armada,” in Corporación Arco Iris, Parapolítica: La ruta de la expansión paramilitar y los acuerdos politicos (Bogota, 2007), p. 122.

[98] Ibid.

[99] Ibid., p. 118.

[100] Ibid.

[101] Forrest Hylton, “The Cold War that Didn’t End: Paramilitary Modernization in Medellín, Colombia,” in Greg Grandin (editor), A Century of Revolution (North Carolina, 2010), p. 353.

[102] Verdad Abierta, “La operación que tiene enredado al general (r) Montoya,” 14 December 2011. Available at:

[103] El Tiempo, “Paramilitares apoyaron a la fuerza pública en la operación Orión, dijo ‘Berna’ durante audiencia,” 23 June 2009. Available at:

[104] Semana, “General Montoya, llamado a versión libre por operación Orión,” 14 December 2011. Available at:

[105] El Espectador, “El ventilador de ‘El Tuso Sierra,’” 10 October 2008. Available at:

[106] US Embassy in Bogotá Cable R031407Z, October 2003, obtained via Wikileaks. Available at:

[107] This number was initially provided by Carlos Mauricio García, alias “Rodrigo 00” in an interview in Cristales, San Roque, Antioquia, 25 May 2003, and it was later confirmed by two underworld sources in Medellín.

[108] Verdad Abierta, “Operación Orión: 10 años de impunidad,” 12 October 2012. Available at:

[109] Richter, Paul and Greg Miller, “Colombia army chief linked to outlaw militias,” Los Angeles Times, 25 March 2007. Available at: (accessed June 14, 2013).

[110] Verdad Abierta, “La tenebrosa máquina de guerra que dirigió ‘Berna,’” 22 March 2014. Available at:

[111] El Colombiano, “Bloque Metro será disidente de las autodefensas unidas,” 10 September 2002.

[112] McDermott interview with Carlos Mauricio García, alias “Rodrigo 00” in Cristales, San Roque, Antioquia, 25 May 2003.

[113] Ibid.

[114] El Tiempo, “¿Quién es ‘Berna’ o ‘Adolfo Paz’, Inspector General de las Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia?” 27 September 2003.

[115] Peace and Justice sentence of Edison Giraldo Panaigua, 30 July 2012, p. 47. Available at:

[116] InSight Crime interview with Luis Fernando Quijano, Director of the Medellín NGO Corpades, former militia member and longtime Medellín security analyst, Medellín, 2 July 2013.

[117] Terra Colombia, “‘Oficinas de cobro’: tenebrosos ‘chepitos’ del narcotráfico,” 24 May 2011. Available at:,f9a60db6b0dbf210VgnVCM4000009bf154d0RCRD.html

[118] Malcom Beith, “Good Times in Medellín,” 5 July 2004. Available at:

[119] InSight Crime telephone interview with Chris Feistl, DEA agent, 18 September 2013.

[120] IPC, “Rentas de las “vacunas” ilegales: objeto de disputa en Medellín,” 11 June 2010. Available at:

[121] InSight Crime interview with Jorge Giraldo, Dean of Humanities at the University of EAFIT and longtime organized crime analyst, Medellín, 27 June 2013.

[122] US Department of Justice Indictment of of Diego Fernando Murillo Bejarano, a.k.a. “Berna,” filed in United States District Court, Southern District of New York in 2004.

[123] InSight Crime interview with Luis Fernando Quijano, Director of the Medellín NGO Corpades, former militia member and longtime Medellín security analyst, Medellín, 2 July 2013.

[124] Mauricio Aranguren Molina, Mi Confesión: Carlos Castaño revela sus secretos (Bogotá, 2001), p. 142.

[125] InSight Crime telephone interview with Chris Feistl, DEA agent, 18 September 2013.

[126] During the field research for this paper, dozens of officers from the Colombian National Police and the army were investigated. Those named in this study are just a few of the members of the bureaucratic elite who worked with Berna. For legal reasons, this study has only concentrated on those who played a pivotal role and against whom there is overwhelming evidence. One of the officers mentioned in the study is dead, another is in prison in the US. Generals Leonardo Gallego and Mario Montoya are still at liberty and — while under investigation — have not been charged and may never be, although the evidence against them appears overwhelming.

[127] Forrest Hylton, “The Cold War That Didn’t End: Paramilitary Modernization in Medellín, Colombia,” in Greg Grandin (editor), A Century of Revolution (North Carolina, 2010), p. 357.

[128] Verdad Abierta, “”El Gaula y Berna ceraron a Vicente Castaño”: Don Mario,” 13 May 2010. Available at:

[129] Semana, “Castaño está muerto,” 2 May 2005. Available at:

[130] Carlos Mauricio García, alias “Rodrigo 00,” made contact with McDermott again in February 2004.

[131] McDermott interview with Diego Murillo Bejarano, alias “Don Berna,” in Ralito, Córdoba, 10 November 2004.

[132] El Tiempo, “El expediente del general (r) al que vinculan con narcos y AUC,” 12 June 2012. Availiable at:

[133] El Tiempo, “Asesinado el Coronel R Danilo González,” 26 March 2004. Available at:

[134] Gallego’s police career finished with his stint in Medellín. He left under a cloud, accused of budget irregularities, which was an excuse to remove him without having to open the Pandora’s box of widespread corruption. See: El Tiempo, “Paramilitares apoyaron a la fuerza pública en la operación Orión, dijo ‘Berna’ durante audiencia,” June 23, 2009. Available at: He vehemently denied ever having worked with Berna or any of his subalterns, something echoed by General Montoya, who went on to become the head of the Colombian army until November 2008 when he was forced to resign over what became known at the “false positives” scandals, where hundreds, perhaps thousands of civilians were killed by security forces, dressed in guerrilla uniforms and presented as combat casualties. Such was the pressure from President Uribe for results that army units fabricated them. The attorney general’s office, in response to queries as the state of the investigations into General Montoya said that numerous cases were still in the stage of “preliminary investigations.” The same went for the single investigation into General Gallego. Another source in the Attorney General’s Office said off the record that the investigations were not moving forward, as nobody wanted to pursue them.

[135] US Embassy in Bogotá cable 05BOGOTA10060_a, from WikiLeaks, 26 October 2005. Available:

[136] Verdad Abierta, “La desmovilización ficticia del Cacique Nutibara según ‘el Alemán’,” 7 March 2011.

[137] Peace and Justice sentence of Edison Giraldo Panaigua, 30 July 2012, p. 49. Available at:

[138] Human Rights Watch, Paramilitaries’ Heirs, February 2010, p. 19.

[139] Verdad Abierta, “‘Berna’: de Inspector de las Auc a jefe de banda criminal,” 9 September 2014.

[140] El Tiempo, “Un capo muerto tiene en jaque al general (r.) Mauricio Santoyo,” 14 July 2012. Available at:

[141] InSight Crime interview with Juan Carlos Garzón, Bogotá, 13 July 2013. Garzón is an expert on Colombian organized crime who met with Berna on several occasions as part of the Organization of American States’ commission that accompanied to the paramilitary peace process.

[142] Forrest Hylton, “The Cold War That Didn’t End: Paramilitary Modernization in Medellín, Colombia,” in Greg Grandin (editor), A Century of Revolution (North Carolina, 2010), p. 358.

[143] El Espectador, “Otros cargos para ‘Berna’ por crímenes de ‘La Terraza,’” 4 September 2012. Available at:

The research presented in this investigation is the result of a project funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Its content is not necessarily a reflection of the positions of the IDRC. The ideas, thoughts and opinions contained in this document are those of the author or authors.

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Jeremy McDermott is co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime. McDermott has more than two decades of experience reporting from around Latin America. He is a former British Army officer, who saw active...

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