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Drug suspect's arrest hailed

U.S. officials say Colombia's capture of an alleged cartel chief will disrupt trafficking, but concede it isn't likely to slow the trade.

September 13, 2007|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

U.S. officials hailed the capture this week of a man alleged to be Colombia's most powerful drug lord, saying the arrest will at least disrupt trafficking and could set off a divisive power struggle among cartel leaders.

The officials and some experts hastened to add that the arrest Monday of Diego Montoya wasn't likely to significantly reduce the flow of drugs to North America, given U.S. demand for cocaine and the willingness of lesser capos to fill the leadership vacuum. As Bogota's newspaper El Tiempo editorialized Wednesday, the lesson of past arrests and killings of capos is akin to the durability of the English monarchy: "The King is Dead. Long Live the King."

Still, top U.S. military and law enforcement officials were clearly pleased by the Colombian army's arrest of Montoya, saying it was the most powerful blow to the cartels' leadership since Medellin trafficker Pablo Escobar was killed in 1993 and the Cali-based Rodriguez Orejuela brothers were captured in 1995.

"It was like getting Al Capone at the height of Prohibition," Adm. James Stavridis, commander of the U.S. military's Southern Command based here, said in an interview Tuesday. As chief of U.S. military activities in the Southern Hemisphere, Stavridis helps direct the U.S. multibillion-dollar anti-drug and anti-terrorism aid package known as Plan Colombia.

Montoya, 49, was believed responsible for the shipment of as much as 70% of Colombia's cocaine to the United States as head of the Norte del Valle cartel, which controls Colombia's Pacific coastline. Starting out as a lowly collector of cocaine paste in Colombia's Putumayo region in the 1980s, "Don Diego" used murder and extortion to rise to the top, according to an indictment filed in U.S. federal court.

"Clearly the major flow of drugs over the past four or five years has shifted from the Caribbean to the Pacific, and [the Norte del Valle] cartel has been at the heart of that traffic," said Rear Adm. Joseph Nimmich, commanding officer of the Joint Interagency Task Force South. The Key West, Fla.-based task force coordinates U.S. Navy and Coast Guard interdiction of drug shipments from South America to the United States.

More than a symbolic victory, the capture and probable extradition of Montoya to the U.S. will lead to confusion among the major traffickers, a decentralization of the cartels' command, increased interception of communications and thus an increased number of captures, officials and experts said.

"This will cause internal fights over the redistribution of power and money. But will the flow of drugs diminish? Probably not," said Alvaro Camacho, a sociology professor at the University of the Andes in the Colombian capital, Bogota, and an expert on drug trafficking.

He and other observers say that Montoya is the latest of several "big fish" drug traffickers captured or killed by Colombian armed forces in recent weeks. Tomas Medina Caracas, who was suspected of arranging drug commerce for the leftist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, was killed in a surprise raid Sept. 1.

Last month, acting on Colombian intelligence, Brazilian authorities captured Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia, one of Montoya's top lieutenants. In June, the Department of Administrative Security, Colombia's equivalent of the FBI, caught Otto Herrera Garcia of Guatemala as he was leaving a Bogota shopping mall parking lot. He allegedly managed shipments of drugs north through Central America and the repatriation to Colombia and money laundering there of various cartels' cash proceeds.

"The Colombians have been knocking the ball out of the park," Stavridis said.

Montoya's capture is considered especially rewarding for the Colombian military because of credible reports over the summer that his cartel had infiltrated the armed forces.

In an interview last month, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said evidence of the infiltration was found when Colombian forces captured a "go fast" boat laden with cocaine. The crew had classified documents detailing where Colombian and U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships were patrolling in coastal waters, he said.

Santos also confirmed that evidence was obtained showing Montoya's cartel had paid members of the Colombian navy to turn off radar, so that shipments of drugs could leave the country's shores undetected.

Santos has since attempted to clean house, firing or retiring dozens of army and naval officers.

Montoya was indicted in 1999 by a U.S. federal court in Miami, at which time his extradition was requested. He is on the FBI's 10 most-wanted list, with a $5-million bounty for information leading to his capture.

Describing Montoya's arrest as smashing a key link in the drug trafficking chain, Bogota-based researcher Carlos Eduardo Jaramillo said the government nonetheless must provide economic alternatives to farmers and poor youths if the drug war is to be won in Colombia.

"The government has to set the example and send the message that no capo is so big he can't fall into the arms of justice," Jaramillo said. "But a capture like this doesn't do much to the [cocaine] production or trafficking apparatus."

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chris.kraul@latimes.com

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