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Colombia arrests alleged drug lord

September 11, 2007|From the Associated Press

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — Soldiers swarmed onto a farm before dawn Monday and captured Diego Montoya, an alleged leader of a cartel accused of shipping hundreds of tons of cocaine to the United States since the 1990s.

Montoya, 49, sits on the FBI's 10 most-wanted list with a $5-million reward for his capture. The Norte del Valle cartel is deemed Colombia's most dangerous drug gang, and Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos told a news conference at Bogota's airport that Montoya was responsible for 1,500 killings.

"Drug traffickers take note: This is the future that awaits you," Santos said before Montoya limped out of an air force plane, wearing plastic handcuffs and escorted by five commandos.

The suspect put up no resistance when the army finally cornered him in the cartel's stronghold of Valle del Cauca state in western Colombia, officials said. He is to be questioned before being extradited to the U.S., a process that Santos said would take at most two months.

After months of planning, elite commandos raided the small farm and nabbed Montoya along with his mother, an uncle and three other cartel members, said the army chief, Gen. Mario Montoya, who is not related.

The government has been closing in on the cartel since last year, when soldiers killed eight members of a private militia believed to be protecting Montoya. But a wide network of cartel informants had frustrated the search for the alleged drug boss himself. Local media have recently carried stories on the cartel's alleged infiltration of Colombia's army and navy.

Santos said the operation was kept top secret to avoid leaks and was run entirely by an elite army commando unit that works with prosecutors to bring down the cartel.

Colombian officials called it their biggest drug war victory since the 1993 slaying of Medellin cartel leader Pablo Escobar.

Washington welcomed the news. "Colombia's capture of cocaine kingpin Diego Montoya shows what can be accomplished by a government that is relentless, focused and skilled in the effort to dismantle threats to its democracy," said White House drug czar John P. Walters.

Better known as "Don Diego," Montoya is said to be in a bitter turf war with his cartel's other leader, Wilber Varela, who goes by the nickname "Jabon," or "Soap," and is reported to be living in Venezuela. Hundreds have died in fighting between their rival armed bands along Colombia's Pacific coast.

A U.S. indictment unsealed in 2004 against Montoya and Varela said that over the previous 14 years, their cartel had exported more than 1.2 million pounds -- 600 tons -- of cocaine worth more than $10 billion from Colombia to Mexico and ultimately to the United States for resale.

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