Authorities in Colombia have captured a crime boss who began as a gang leader on Medellin's outskirts and came to control a massive criminal enterprise in the region.
Luis Rodrigo Rodríguez, alias “El Montañero,” the head of the El Mesa crime organization, was captured by police on October 26 at a rural estate in the municipality of Aranzazu, in the Caldas department in northwest Colombia.
The Public Prosecutor’s Office against Organized Crime had issued a warrant for Rodríguez's arrest by on charges of conspiracy, extortion and drug trafficking. He is also accused of murder and forced displacement.
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President Iván Duque announced the capture via his Twitter account, stating that Rodriguez's arrest represents a blow to the criminal group.
Yet this is not the first time Colombian authorities have arrested Rodríguez.
According to the newspaper El Colombiano, he was imprisoned on three separate occasions: first in 1998 on charges of attempted murder, and then again in 2001 after having escaped prison a year earlier. He was released shortly after his rearrest.
Rodríguez was then arrested in 2003, when he and some 20 gang members took part in the armed robbery of a truck in Bogotá, which ended in a gun battle with authorities that left two dead, including a police officer. He was sentenced to nearly 27 years in prison but freed ten years later in 2013.
He also managed to acquire three legal identities, with the help of corrupt notaries in the National Registry. This kept him off a wanted poster in April after authorities said that he could not be properly identified.
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The capture of El Montañero shows the trajectory and reach of El Mesa, which has long been considered a lower-level street gang but has emerged quietly as a major player in Colombian organized crime.
El Mesa formed more than three decades ago in Bello, a municipality just north of Medellín. It originally operated in the neighborhood of Mesa. It strengthened under its links to the Oficina de Envigado, a confederation of smaller mafias that has controlled Medellin's underworld since the 1990s.
During the last decade, the group has gained a foothold in Bogotá. It can count on some 300 members and is involved in street-level drug sales, murder-for-hire operations, and extortion rackets.
It also extended into areas in north and northeast Antioquia by forming alliances alliances with other groups operating in the region, including La Oficina, El Tapón, Los Chatas, Niquía Camacol, guerrillas from the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia – FARC) dissident cells.
The group was able to spread and to gain power, in part, because authorities never conducted a targeted operation against the El Mesa, viewing it as a gang with little reach.
But the group is, in fact, a structured criminal organization, "with a boss and (other) leaders that run each of its zones," organized crime prosecutor Claudia Carrasquilla told El Colombiano in 2018.
As a boss, Rodriguez has a long history in the underworld and is "well respected among the criminals of Bello," another prosecutor said.
Meanwhile, gang violence erupted in Bello this year after a street war broke out among three major gangs: La Mesa, Los Pachelly and Niquía Camacol. During the first six months of 2019, the municipality tallied more than 100 murders, up from 38 in the previous year.
It is now believed that the groups have agreed to a truce to reduce violence.
The capture of El Montañero, however, could lead to internal conflicts in El Mesa, breaking the tense calm within Bello.
It wouldn't be the first time the group has fractured. A faction that allied itself with ex-members of Los Pachelly took on the larger EL Mesa gang in 2016, unleashing a wave of violence.