Venezuela captured one of Colombia's top drug traffickers just hours before President Juan Manuel Santos was set to visit Caracas; an arrest that could have profound implications for the Colombian underworld.
Maximiliano Bonilla Orozco, alias "Valenciano," was one of Colombia's most powerful and prolific drug traffickers, running a criminal empire in the city of Medellin and along the Caribbean coast. He headed a series of criminal organizations, including factions of the Oficina de Envigado in Medellin and the Paisas·along the coast, from an operating base in the city of Barranquilla.
It was not a coincidence that he was arrested on the eve of the meeting in Venezuela between Presidents Juan Manuel Santos and Hugo Chavez.· An intelligence source told InSight Crime that the Colombian police intelligence, DIPOL, had been following members of Bonilla's family for two years, and had pinpointed his movements, feeding the information to the Venezuelan authorities to secure the arrest on Sunday night, in order to highlight the increasing cooperation between the two nations.· Despite having a security detail of 15 triggermen, all with Venezuelan IDs like himself, Bonilla was arrested without a fight in the Venezuelan city of Maracay in Aragua state on the Caribbean coast.
The Venezuelan interior minister, Tarek El Aissami, said that Bonilla, 39, would be sent to the U.S., where there is a $5 million dollar reward for him, as well as an extradition warrant on drug trafficking charges.
"This is one of the most important captures we have made in recent years in Venezuela," stated El Aissami.
Bonilla had worked to change his appearance from the heavyset, clean-shaven look on his wanted poster, to a mustached, bespectacled and slighter version, thanks to a gastric bypass. He had been constantly on the move, not just in Venezuela and Colombia, but in Panama and perhaps other Central American nations.
Bonilla's criminal career began in Medellin, and it is here that his arrest is likely to have the greatest impact. Underworld legend has it that Bonilla's father was killed when he was 13 years old, and that he was "adopted" by Diego Murillo, alias "Don Berna," Pablo Escobar's successor as boss of Medellin crime. Bonilla became a favorite of Murillo's and one of his most trusted assassins, making his first kill when he was just 15. By 16, he was running his own group of hitmen.
When Murillo was extradited to the U.S. in 2008, and his successor, Carlos Mario Aguilar, alias "Rogelio," made a deal with U.S. authorities, a war broke out for supremacy in Medellin, principally between Bonilla and his arch rival Erick Vargas Cardenas, alias "Sebastian." While Bonilla was the most powerful of the two in terms of resources, Vargas is believed to be present both in and around Medellin, personally leading his faction. Bonilla commanded the loyalty of around 1,200 gang members in Medellin with another 600 men along the Caribbean coast.
However, even with the arrest of Bonilla, the victory of Vargas in Medellin is still not assured, as another player has entered the city over the last two years: the Urabeños. Led in Medellin by Henry de Jesus Lopez, alias "Mi Sangre," the Urabeños were born from the illegal right wing paramilitary army of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) and have many ex-guerrilla and military fighters, able to carry out sophisticated operations with heavy firepower.
While the conflict in Medellin is certain to be affected by the capture of Bonilla, there may be a short-term consequence in Mexico, especially for his partners the Zetas. Bonilla is believed to have been one of the principal Colombian suppliers of cocaine to the Zetas as the latter wages its bloody war against the Sinaloa Cartel. An interruption to the supply of drugs may give the Sinaloans a temporary advantage they can exploit until the Zetas make up the shortfall. Shipments from Bonilla have been tracked by authorities not only in Mexico, but also Jamaica, Guatemala and Honduras.
Within Colombia there have been reports that Bonilla had links to rebel group the National Liberation Army (ELN), securing a steady supply of coca base for his cocaine laboratories from the guerrillas, who control much of the coca crops in parts of Antioquia, Arauca, Norte de Santander, Cauca and Nariño.