The capture of Daniel "El Loco" Barrera in Venezuela highlights how important the country has become as a refuge for Colombian drug traffickers, and raises the question of whether Venezuelan-based groups are poised to take over Barrera’s criminal network.
Loco Barrera’s arrest could add more fuel to criticism that Venezuela is very good at capturing high-profile Colombian drug traffickers and former paramilitaries, but more lax when it comes to targeting the leadership of guerrilla groups the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN).
Venezuela has arrested a few important members of the FARC, most notably Guillermo Torres Cueter, alias “Julian Conrado,” a propagandist and songwriter for the guerrillas, in June 2011. In March, the authorities arrested a member of the FARC’s Central High Command (Estado Mayor) as he was traveling on a major highway connecting to Caracas. But despite these captures, criticism persists that Venezuela has not taken the steps needed to limit the guerrillas' ability to operate inside the country, in contrast to the actions taken against non-guerrillas involved in organized crime. Loco Barrera's capture could serve to cement such concerns.
Numerous Colombian drug traffickers and ex-paramilitaries have been detained in Venezuela in recent years (see map). They include powerful cartel leaders like Maximiliano Bonilla, alias “Valenciano,” and Diego Perez Henao, alias “Diego Rastrojo,” as well as paramilitary warlords such as Hector German Buitrago, alias “Martin Llanos.” With each new arrest comes a wave of congratulatory remarks from Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, thanking Venezuela for its help, while Venezuelan officials cite the arrests as proof of the country’s commitment to fighting organized crime.
If Colombian drug traffickers are meeting their downfall more and more often in Venezuela, it isn’t always because of good law enforcement work alone. It is no coincidence that Venezuela began pressuring Colombian criminals shortly after Colombia agreed to extradite Venezuelan drug trafficker Walid Makled to Caracas rather than the US. Makled claimed to possess detailed intelligence about ties between his drug trafficking network and high-ranking military and government officials in Venezuela. By agreeing to extradite him to Venezuela, Colombia likely used Makled as a bargaining chip to push Venezuela to take action against members of Colombia’s most wanted.
It is also possible that some of the Colombian drug traffickers based in Venezuela were caught because they could no longer afford to pay the local security forces for their protection. This is reportedly what happened to Wilber Varela, alias “Jabon,” who was assassinated in Merida in 2008 -- a murder which Loco Barrera reportedly helped plan.
The other argument is that the slew of Colombian capos arrested in Venezuela is simply testament to how much the relationship between the countries' leaders has improved, in contrast to that between Hugo Chavez and Santos' predecessor, Alvaro Uribe.
Loco Barrera's arrest is unlikely to change the fact that highly lucrative drug trafficking routes go through Venezuela -- his organization is accused of moving some 100 tons of cocaine to the US and Europe. Considering that Loco Barrera was such a wanted man, it's questionable how much he was really able to stay involved in the day-to-day business of the drug trade in recent years.
With Loco Barrera gone, there is more leeway for other Colombian groups to step in and create their own cocaine trafficking routes through Venezuela. But the most powerful of the remaining Colombian gangs, the Urabeños, barely has a foothold in the country, while rivals the Rastrojos only have a powerbase along some parts of the Venezuela-Colombia border. Corrupt factions of the Venezuelan National Guard and the military, dubbed the "Cartel of the Suns," are believed to have taken over much of the drug business formerly controlled by Walid Makled in one of Venezuela's most important port cities, Puerto Cabello. These Venezuelan-based organizations are probably the ones best positioned to take over Loco Barrera's share of the cocaine export business.