As Cartel Members Face Extradition, Rastrojos Consider Surrender to the US

October 6, 2011

The extradition of another top lieutenant from the Rastrojos drug gang, heirs to the powerful Norte del Valle Cartel, delivers more leverage to U.S. authorities to force the group’s leadership to surrender.

Former hitman and drug smuggler Juan Carlos Rivera Ruiz, alias “06,” was extradited from Colombia to the U.S. on September 29. Rivera worked for the Rastrojos, successors to the once-powerful Norte del Valle Cartel, which now operates across Colombia, expanding away from its base on the Pacific coast. According to El Nuevo Herald, Rivera helped the current leaders of the Rastrojos kill their ex-boss, Norte del Valle Cartel commander Wilber Varela, in Venezuela in 2008. Varela’s death allowed the “Comba” brothers — Luis Enrique and Javier Antonio Calle Serna — to take control of Colombia’s most powerful drug trafficking network.

Rivera’s extradition means that the U.S. authorities now have a slew of Rastrojos commanders behind bars. Many of those currently in detention were once important contacts for the Sinaloa Cartel, as well as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Detainees like Rivera, who coordinated the Rastrojos’ drug shipments from the Pacific port city Buenaventura, will be able to paint a detailed picture of how the group coordinated cocaine shipments to Central America and Europe.

In addition to providing intelligence about the Rastrojos’ drug networks, Rivera will likely serve another, more symbolic purpose. U.S. authorities are reportedly already in the middle of negotiations with the Calle Serna brothers, rumored to have been in the works since April 2011.•InSight Crime has heard reports that Luis Enrique is already in the U.S., making the appropriate contacts. By putting key middlemen like Rivera in U.S. prisons, the U.S. is gaining the leverage needed to pressure the Calle Serna brothers into sharing more exclusive intelligence on gang operations. This means if and when the Calle Sernas turn themselves in, they will be forced to betray many other top-level collaborators, reducing the chance that the Rastrojos could survive the brothers’ exit intact.

It is significant that the “Comba” brothers reportedly reached out to the U.S. just as their rivalry with the Urabeños has intensified into a nationwide conflict. Fighting between these two gangs was once limited mostly to Antioquia’s northern Bajo Cauca region. Since then, it has spread to Antioquia’s capital, Medellin, to the Rastrojos’ stronghold along the Pacific, and even outside of Colombia. Some of the 45 murders registered last September in the Venezuelan border state Tachira have reportedly been traced to the Rastrojos-Urabeños conflict.

It isn’t clear, however, that it is the war with the Urabeños that prompted the Calle Sernas to negotiate. Rather, the war was a result of the string of arrests of Rastrojos’ middle leadership, which disrupted operations and allowed the Urabeños to boldly venture into their rival’s territory. The ongoing violence, in turn, upped the pressure on Luis Enrique and Javier Antonio.

The arrest and extradition of many mid-level Rastrojos commanders has pushed the group into acting more like an extremely decentralized franchise. This is in contrast to the Urabeños, who are somewhat more disciplined and willing to apply orders on a national basis. This also raises the question of how well the Calle Sernas can control the actions of the many drug trafficking cells who have adopted the “Rastrojos” name.

Rather than taking orders from a central command, several Rastrojos cells across the country are choosing to follow their own course, especially when it comes to relations with the FARC. This is most clear in the southwestern Pacific department of Nariño. Here, InSight Crime heard reports of an outbreak of war between the left-wing guerrillas and an aggressively ideological, right-wing faction of the Rastrojos, many of them former members of the paramilitary bloc once active there. The conflict has manifested in a wave of kidnappings and killings across Nariño, as the Rastrojos and the FARC fight for control of coca crops.

Elsewhere in the country, the Rastrojos are working alongside with the FARC in the interests of drug trafficking. That the Rastrojos franchise in Nariño is pursuing their rivarly with the rebels, rather than being forced to obey a nationwide truce, is an indication of how little control the Calle Sernas wield over certain factions of the Rastrojos.

The Rastrojos’ tendency to operate like a loosely connected franchise network will only accentuate if the Calle Sernas surrender to the U.S. In that case, the remaining middle leadership of the Rastrojos would have little incentive (or power) to push for alliances at the national, rather than local, level. The trends currently playing out in Colombia will likely only get worse: further fragmentation of the country’s criminal gangs, and increased violence across the board as each independent cell pursues their own blood feuds.

This article was written by Elyssa Pachico and published by Insight Crime on October 5, 2011.

To find additional global criminal news, please read The Global Criminal Defense Daily.

Douglas McNabb and other members of the U.S. law firm practice and write and/or report extensively on matters involving Federal Criminal Defense, INTERPOL Red Notice Removal, International Extradition and OFAC SDN Sanctions Removal.

The author of this blog is Douglas McNabb. Please feel free to contact him directly at or at one of the offices listed above.

Bookmark and Share

Why Extraditing Mexico Drug Traffickers Could Strengthen US Gangs

August 19, 2011

Mexico’s current unprecedented level of cooperation in extraditing organized crime suspects to the U.S. is good news in the short term, but could build stronger ties between U.S. prison gangs and Mexican drug cartels.

Extradition of its citizens to the U.S. is a touchy subject in Mexico, whose history is filled with incidents of U.S. invasion and perceived and real economic encroachment. But in its modern fight against organized crime and the resulting desire for U.S. military aid, Mexico has proven more willing to extradite citizens wanted for drug trafficking to its northern neighbor. The country has sent more than 150 suspects to stand trial in the U.S. since 2005, according to the U.S. Embassy. The Mexican government has even said that extradition is key to “institutionalizing the rule of law,” part of its four-pillar strategy against organized crime.

Extradition provides an advantage for Mexico in its war on drugs: cartel leaders extradited to the U.S. cannot continue to run operations in their home country. One example is Osiel Cardenas-Guillen, former leader of the Gulf Cartel. He was arrested in Mexico 2003, but was not extradited until January 2007. This prevented him from mediating conflicts between his group and its armed branch, the Zetas. Cracks soon began to show, and it was only a matter of time before the two factions split and went to war. We are now seeing the effects of that fracture in the once peaceful industrial city of Monterrey. Other major traffickers have continued to run their business from behind bars in Mexico, including Joaquin Guzman, alias “El Chapo,” the head of the Sinaloa Cartel. He ran trafficking operations from his well appointed federal prison cell and was even able to escape in 2001.

One drug cartel recently hit hard by the new willingness to extradite Mexicans is the Arellano Felix Organization, also known as the Tijuana Cartel. Recently extradited members serving time in the U.S. include the cartel’s former financial chief Jesus Labra Aviles, alias “El Chuy;” former strategic head Javier Arellano Felix, alias “El Tigrillo;” former Tijuana operational commander Tijuana Ismael Higuera-Guerrero, alias “El Mayel;” and Manuel Ivanovich Zambrano Flores, alias “El Jimmy,” who headed a key money laundering cell, among many others named in the “Luz Verde” indictment of 43 members and employees of the group. These are just some of the many AFO members serving time in U.S. prisons.

Former California law enforcement officer and gang expert Felix Aguirre told InSight Crime that Arellano-Felix members incarcerated in California jails will likely form alliances with Mexican prison gang La Eme, exchanging contacts and information for protection in the foreign prison. “Regardless of how powerful these cartel members were on the outside, they are absolutely nothing in California’s prisons without [La Eme],” explained Aguirre.

Some predict that Mexican inmates could even form their own gangs in U.S. jails. Gang expert Al Valdez, a former Orange County prosecutor, told InSight Crime, “These are transnational criminals who will attempt to and probably succeed in maintaining contact with their counterparts in Mexico and may establish a new prison gang with U.S. connections.”

The significance of this increased contact between Mexican cartels and prison gangs like La Eme and Nuestra Familia is that, through these new supply connections, California and the rest of the United States could see a long term increase in the supply of drugs coming from Mexico and Central America. The connections will likely overlap so that even if the “choke-point strategies” of U.S. law enforcement are successful in arresting those individuals who serve as the links between Mexican cartels and U.S. gangs, the criminal networks will simply shift to other points of contact.

This article was published by InSight Crime on August 18, 2011.

To find additional global criminal news, please read The Global Criminal Defense Daily.

Douglas McNabb and other members of the U.S. law firm practice and write extensively on matters involving Federal Criminal Defense, INTERPOL Red Notice Removal, International Extradition and OFAC SDN List Removal.

The author of this blog is Douglas McNabb. Please feel free to contact him directly at or at one of the offices listed above.

Bookmark and Share

Extradition from Colombia Still a Tool for Justice and Abuse

August 11, 2011

Extradition to stand trial in the U.S., long the biggest fear of Colombian drug traffickers, could now be a softer option, offering shorter jail terms and even impunity to criminals.

The first treaty governing extradition of Colombians to the U.S., most on drug trafficking and money laundering charges, came into force in 1982. It was the subject of fierce opposition from criminal interests, most notably Pablo Escobar, who tried to force the government to block the measure through targeted assassinations and bombing attacks. In 1991, due in part to this pressure, a new constitution banned the extradition of nationals, but this measure was overturned in 1997. Fewer than 400 Colombians were extradited in the first few years after extradition was reintroduced, but more than 1,100 were during President Alvaro Uribe’s time in power, between 2002 and 2010.

The prospect of extradition was hated and feared by Colombia’s criminals. In foreign jails, as well as being far from their families, they would be unable to exercise the kind of influence that they might in Colombia’s weak and corrupt justice system. But according to a report in Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, Colombian criminals are increasingly chosing not to fight extradition. One reason for this, according to the paper, is that the time spent opposing the process, often two years, does not count towards their sentence in the U.S., so the legal battle could simply lengthen the time they spend in prison. Another reason given by lawyers who spoke to El Tiempo is that, if prisoners choose not to fight extradition, they have a better chance of gaining concessions by cooperating with U.S. justice, as they can offer up-to-date knowledge of drug trafficking activities.

This kind of bargaining — providing intelligence about their associates and trafficking business — can allow high-level drug traffickers to gain major shortening of their sentences. This has garnered a fair amount of criticism in Colombia. In addition, paramilitary leaders who have committed serious human rights violations, responsible for ordering massacres and torture, face only drug trafficking charges in the U.S. It may be easier for paramilitaries to make beneficial deals with the U.S., as the authorities in that country would not face public pressure to punish these men in the same way that Colombian authorities would.

Most notorious was the surprise extradition of fourteen of the biggest paramilitary leaders, who had surrendered to Colombian justice via the peace accords made between the government and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC) in the mid 2000s. The stated reason was the commanders’ failure to cooperate fully with the peace process and end their drug trafficking activities.

Some have suggested that part of the reason for the mass extradition of the paramilitary leaders in 2008 was a desire on the part of authorities to stem the flood of details regarding AUC collaboration with politicians. Information about these ties, present on a much greater scale than had previously been realized, began spilling into the public domain when the paramilitary bosses began testifying about the politicians they had had dealings with, in what became known as the “parapolitics” scandal.

Indeed, the extradition did hinder the delivery of paramilitary testimony. There are reports in Colombian media that, two years on from the mass extradition, in May 2010, only six of the paramilitary bosses sent to the U.S. had testified before Colombia courts, as had been promised. There are various explanations for this: many of the jailed warlords feared for their families in Colombia, saying that their relatives had not been given the protection they were promised, and could suffer revenge attacks if the boss revealed information about his criminal dealings.

A report by Berkeley University in 2010 argued that extradition had granted impunity to many paramilitary leaders. In at least seven cases the records of these men have been sealed, so that there is no way of knowing where they are or even if they are still in prison. This means that Colombian justice does not have access to these men, who will not then testify about the horrendous crimes they committed in their home country. For many who lost relatives to the paramilitary atrocities, this means they may never know what exactly happened to their relatives, or where their bodies were dumped afterwards.

In a recent interview with El Tiempo, police chief General Oscar Naranjo defended the process of extradition, denying that it offered impunity to criminals. He said that Colombian authorities expected the U.S. to begin sharing more information on the whereabouts of extradited criminals, and on any information that they handed over. According to Naranjo, extradition is a vital weapon against crime, as it breaks the ties between imprisoned criminal bosses and their organizations, and stops them running their operations from jail. His argument is backed by many incidences of criminal bosses continuing to exert power after being imprisoned in Colombia. One clear example is that of Diego Murillo, alias “Don Berna,” who was Medellin’s biggest criminal leader for many years. He continued to run the city’s underworld after his arrest in 2005, and it was only when he was sent to the U.S. in 2008 that a succession crisis kicked off in his group, the Oficina de Envigado.

The question now is how useful extradition remains as a judicial tool in Colombia, with some signs that it is increasingly employed for political ends. A clear example is the case of Walid Makled, a confessed drug trafficker who was captured in Colombia in 2010. Both Venezuela and the U.S. requested his extradition, but after some months of delay Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos plumped for Venezuela. Santos’ government has given various explanations for this decision, including that Venezuela handed their request in first. But it seems likely that Bogota judged it more politically expedient to build ties with their neighbor, in the hopes of gaining further cooperation in rebuilding trade ties and security cooperation fractured under the watch of former President Alvaro Uribe. Given the growing presence of Mexican drug trafficking organizations on Colombian soil, Colombia’s recently-negotiated extradition treaty with that country raises the possibility of more cases like Makled’s in the future, where the government’s loyalties may be divided.

Extradition has proven helpful in Colombia when employed to cut off criminal warlords from their organizations. But as indicated by the sealing of paramilitary testimony in the U.S., extradition has also served to undermine Colombia’s long and difficult reconciliation process. In many ways, especially when it comes to the victims of the AUC’s human rights crimes, extradition has obstructed justice rather than ensured it.

This article was written by Hannah Stone and published by InSightCrime on August 10, 2011.

To find additional global criminal news, please read The Global Criminal Defense Daily.

Douglas McNabb and other members of the U.S. law firm practice and write extensively on matters involving Federal Criminal Defense, INTERPOL Red Notice Removal, International Extradition and OFAC SDN List Removal.

The author of this blog is Douglas McNabb. Please feel free to contact him directly at or at one of the offices listed above.

Bookmark and Share