The bitter vendetta that split Colombia’s Norte Del Valle Cartel has now claimed its third generation of victims, and continues to play out as the Rastrojos battle the Urabeños.
The capture of Greylin Fernando Varon Cadena, alias “Martin Bala,” at the end of May marked the end of an alliance of “junior narcos” related to fallen Norte Del Valle Cartel (NDVC) drug traffickers, which saw Varon combine forces with Mario Urdinola, alias “Chicho,” and Andres Arroyave, alias la “Maquinita.”
For the last two years that alliance has fought alongside the neo-paramilitary group known as the Urabeños in a bloody turf dispute with rivals the Rastrojos. The fighting is centered in southwest Colombia in and around the northern part of the province of the Valle del Cauca, from which the cartel took its name. For the Urabeños, the war was simply business, part of an aggressive nationwide expansion. For Varon, Urdinola, and Arroyave, it was a way to reclaim the wealth and power they saw as their inheritance, and exact revenge.
The roots of the feud between the young traffickers and the Rastrojos date back to the decapitation of the NDVC leadership in the late nineties. The loss sparked a power struggle, which was fueled by the paranoia generated by the re-introduction of extradition for drug traffickers. On one side of that struggle was Diego Montoya, alias “Don Diego,” and his private army — the Machos. On the other, was Wilber Varela, alias “Jabon,” and his armed wing — the Rastrojos.
By 2002, the two groups were openly at war after Varela ordered the hit of one of Montoya’s allies, who, unknown to Montoya, was collaborating with the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The first phase of the war, known in Colombia’s as “the war of the snitches,” claimed well over a thousand lives, among them the friends, family, and business partners of leading figures on both sides. The conflict continued until Montoya was arrested in 2007 and his enemy Varela killed the following year by his own lieutenants.
Control of the Rastrojos fell to Varela’s murderers — the Calle Serna brothers, known as Los Comba — and their ally Diego Perez Henao, alias “Diego Rastrojo,” a former Montoya associate who defected after the pair fell out. Power in their rivals passed to the Urdinola clan, relatives of one of the NDVC founders — Ivan Urdinola, who died under mysterious circumstances in a Colombian jail in 2002. After one leader was captured and another surrendered, leadership of the Machos fell to the young Mario Urdinola — alias Chicho.
Under the direction of the Calle Serna brothers, the Rastrojos began to expand rapidly across the country, becoming arguably Colombia’s most powerful drug trafficking organization. The Machos, meanwhile, began a period of decline, struggling to assert themselves in the new world of next generation drug trafficking groups that followed the dissolution of the NDVC and the paramiltary army of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).
However, the rivals’ contrasting fortunes did little to quell the bad blood between them and despite his weakened position, Urdinola began to assemble a coalition to confront the Rastrojos.
One of the first to join that coalition was Varon, son of one of Diego Montoya’s close allies, Martin Fernando Varon. Varon’s history remains murky, as tales of his underworld exploits often merge with those of his father, who passed on his alias of Martin Bala to his son. However, it is known that Varon fled to Spain after an attempt on his life by the Rastrojos in 2005. While in Spain, the family, including Varon’s sisters, used their connections to establish a lucrative trafficking route into Europe. The trafficking ring was dismantled in 2011, but by that time Varon had already returned to Colombia to seek his revenge.
Varon later reportedly helped bring the third of the junior narcos into the fold, Andres Arroyave. Arroyave fled Colombia for Mexico after his father, NDVC associate Jose Arley Arroyave, was killed in a 2010 hit that the young Arroyave believed was carried out by the Rastrojos. The Mexican cartels took Arroyave under their wing, and together they used his family connections to establish trafficking routes from Colombia. In the process Arroyave — still in his early twenties — amassed a fortune believed to exceed $100 million. However, for Arroyave, the lure of revenge was also too strong to stay away, and in 2011 he returned to Colombia to, in his words: “Kill everyone who took down my father.”
Lurking behind the junior narcos and the renewed war with the Rastrojos was an elder statesman of the drug trafficking world, who also bore a grudge against the Rastrojos — Victor Patiño Fomeque, alias “El Quimico” (the chemist). After first working with the Cali Cartel, Patiño later became a NDVC associate and close ally of Montoya, but in 2002 was imprisoned in the United States. In exchange for a short sentence, Patiño collaborated with the DEA, becoming a treasure trove of information for the US authorities. In return, his former allies in Colombia turned on his family, associates and business interests, and his snitching cost the lives of an estimated 35 people, among them his half-brother, who was shot, dismembered and dumped in a river by the Calle Serna brothers and their associates.
On his release and return to Colombia, Patiño sought to reestablish himself in the Colombian underworld. He did this by seeking out and sponsoring the inheritors of the NDVC’s fallen empire, particularly Varon, Arroyave and Urdinola; and by building contacts with the only mafia in Colombia equipped to take on the Rastrojos on a national level — the Urabeños.
In 2011, the budding anti-Rastrojos alliance was cemented when Urdinola struck a deal that saw the Machos effectively absorbed by the Urabeños. By this time the Machos had 35 fighters, a shadow of the army they once were. However, they still controlled local criminal networks and lucrative Pacific coast drug trafficking routes, which they turned over to the Urabeños in return for money, weapons, and manpower.
The war sparked rising violence, with Cali — the epicenter of the conflict — claiming the unwanted honor of being the most dangerous city in Colombia, and the seventh most dangerous in the world. The conflict also claimed the lives and freedom of leaders on both sides.
The Rastrojos suffered the most dramatic, yet fitting fall. In May 2012, the most powerful of the Rastrojo’s leaders, Javier Antonio Calle Serna, turned himself in to the US authorities. Within months the Rastrojo’s command structure was decimated, likely as a result of Calle Serna’s snitching. The group began to fracture into local factions, its days as a major player in the Colombian underworld numbered.
Yet even as the Urabeños used the turmoil in the Rastrojos to tighten their grip on the Pacific region, the Calle Serna bothers’ bitter enemies from the NDVC days fared little better. In March 2012, Arroyave became the first of the new generation to fall when he was arrested at a farm in Cundinamarca. Urdinola was next, captured in January 2013 after police reportedly tracked him by placing a chip in the collar of his favorite dog. Finally came Varon, who was nabbed while buying a Harley Davidson in Bogota.
Nevertheless the violence continues. The atomized Rastrojos factions are believed to be controlled by former lieutenants of the Calle Serna brothers and remain a force on a local level. The Machos now fight under the name of the Urabeños, but reportedly remain under the influence of family and associates of Diego Montoya and the Urdinola family.
Meanwhile, the figure of El Quimico — Victor Patiño Fomeque — looms large in the background. As a drug trafficker and mafia capo, Patiño Fomeque has outlived the Cali Cartel and the NDVC, and has now positioned himself with the Urabeños to survive the demise of the Machos and the Rastrojos as well. Whether he can also survive the cycle of betrayal and vengeance that has consumed these once powerful criminal armies remains to be seen.