HomeNewsAnalysisAs Henchmen Face Extradition, Colombian Gang Bosses Weigh Surrender to US
ANALYSIS

As Henchmen Face Extradition, Colombian Gang Bosses Weigh Surrender to US

COLOMBIA / 5 OCT 2011 BY ELYSSA PACHICO EN

The extradition of another top lieutenant from the Rastrojos drug gang, heirs to Colombia's powerful Norte del Valle Cartel, delivers more leverage to U.S. authorities to force the group's leadership to surrender.

Former hitman and drug smuggler Juan Carlos Rivera Ruiz, alias "06," was extradited from Colombia to the U.S. on September 29. Rivera worked for the Rastrojos, successors to the once-powerful Norte del Valle Cartel, which now operates across Colombia, expanding away from its base on the Pacific coast. According to El Nuevo Herald, Rivera helped the current leaders of the Rastrojos kill their ex-boss, Norte del Valle Cartel commander Wilber Varela, in Venezuela in 2008. Varela's death allowed the "Comba" brothers -- Luis Enrique and Javier Antonio Calle Serna -- to take control of Colombia's most powerful drug trafficking network.

Rivera's extradition means that the U.S. authorities now have a slew of Rastrojos commanders behind bars. Many of those currently in detention were once important contacts for the Sinaloa Cartel, as well as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Detainees like Rivera, who coordinated the Rastrojos' drug shipments from the Pacific port city Buenaventura, will be able to paint a detailed picture of how the group coordinated cocaine shipments to Central America and Europe.

·In addition to providing intelligence about the Rastrojos' drug networks, Rivera will likely serve another, more symbolic purpose. U.S. authorities are reportedly already in the middle of negotiations with the Calle Serna brothers, rumored to have been in the works since April 2011. InSight Crime has heard reports that Luis Enrique is already in the U.S., making the appropriate contacts. By putting key middlemen like Rivera in U.S. prisons, the U.S. is gaining the leverage needed to pressure the Calle Serna brothers into sharing more exclusive intelligence on gang operations. This means if and when the Calle Sernas turn themselves in, they will be forced to betray many other top-level collaborators, reducing the chance that the Rastrojos could survive the brothers' exit intact.

It is significant that the "Comba" brothers reportedly reached out to the U.S. just as their rivalry with the Urabeños has intensified into a nationwide conflict. Fighting between these two gangs was once limited mostly to Antioquia's northern Bajo Cauca region. Since then, it has spread to Antioquia's capital, Medellin, to the Rastrojos' stronghold along the Pacific, and even outside of Colombia. Some of the 45 murders registered last September in the Venezuelan border state Tachira have reportedly been traced to the Rastrojos-Urabeños conflict.

It isn't clear, however, that it is the war with the Urabeños that prompted the Calle Sernas to negotiate. Rather, the war was a result of the string of arrests of Rastrojos' middle leadership, which disrupted operations and allowed the Urabeños to boldly venture into their rival's territory. The ongoing violence, in turn, upped the pressure on Luis Enrique and Javier Antonio.

The arrest and extradition of many mid-level Rastrojos commanders has pushed the group into acting more like an extremely decentralized franchise. This is in contrast to the Urabeños, who are somewhat more disciplined and willing to apply orders on a national basis. This also raises the question of how well the Calle Sernas can control the actions of the many drug trafficking cells who have adopted the "Rastrojos" name.

Rather than taking orders from a central command, several Rastrojos cells across the country are choosing to follow their own course, especially when it comes to relations with the FARC. This is most clear in the southwestern Pacific department of Nariño. Here, InSight Crime heard reports of an outbreak of war between the left-wing guerrillas and an aggressively ideological, right-wing faction of the Rastrojos, many of them former members of the paramilitary bloc once active there. The conflict has manifested in a wave of kidnappings and killings across Nariño, as the Rastrojos and the FARC fight for control of coca crops.

Elsewhere in the country, the Rastrojos are working alongside with the FARC in the interests of drug trafficking. That the Rastrojos franchise in Nariño is pursuing their rivarly with the rebels, rather than being forced to obey a nationwide truce, is an indication of how little control the Calle Sernas wield over certain factions of the Rastrojos.

The Rastrojos' tendency to operate like a loosely connected franchise network will only accentuate if the Calle Sernas surrender to the U.S. In that case, the remaining middle leadership of the Rastrojos would have little incentive (or power) to push for alliances at the national, rather than local, level. The trends currently playing out in Colombia will likely only get worse: further fragmentation of the country's criminal gangs, and increased violence across the board as each independent cell pursues their own blood feuds.

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