Has Colombia’s Biggest Mafia Boss Surrendered?

April 19, 2012

In Sight on April 18, 2012 released the following:

“Written by Jeremy McDermott

Reports that the head of Colombia’s most powerful drug cartel, the Rastrojos, has surrendered to US authorities are false, according to sources contacted by InSight Crime, and may be aimed at sowing chaos within the organization and Colombia’s underworld.

Spain’s El Mundo reported that Javier Calle Serna [], alias “Comba,” had turned himself into the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and that his brother Luis Enrique [] would soon do the same. The newspaper said it had confirmed the story with both DEA and Colombian intelligence services, and the news was reported on the front page of every major news organization in Colombia.

However, two high-level law enforcement sources, as well as a third source very close to the case, told InSight Crime that Calle Serna was not in US custody. And although there appear to be negotiations between the Calle Serna brothers and US authorities, there is no confirmation of any surrenders.

Whatever the truth, the news is sure to throw the Colombian underworld into a state of panic. The Comba brothers have a criminal career going back two decades and have had contact with many of the biggest players in the cocaine business, both Colombian and Mexican. The Rastrojos are believed to be the biggest suppliers of cocaine to the Sinaloa Cartel, led by Joaquin Guzman Loera, alias “El Chapo,” one of the world’s most wanted men.

The Rastrojos are also known to have networks in Ecuador, Venezuela and Spain, as well as a fleet of drug submarines to move product, with air and land routes that shuttle shipments through Central America. Another of the Calle Serna brothers was arrested in Ecuador in March, an added factor that could be feeding the rumors of surrender. If Javier Calle Serna were to deliver information to US authorities, it could have huge implications for the cocaine business throughout Latin America.

The surrender of Calle Serna brothers would not mean the end of the Rastrojos. It has always had two wings: the Combas, run by the Calle Serna brothers, and the military wing led by Diego Perez Henao, alias “Diego Rastrojo,” after whom the group is named. The latter is the most important in terms of cocaine production. It dominates certain parts of Colombia (see map), collects coca base to process into cocaine and controls internal smuggling routes and departure points. This part of the Rastrojos is also believed to have an agreement with the rebels of the National Liberation Army (ELN), which protects drug crops, laboratories and escorts shipments within Colombia.

The Combas have concentrated more on handling international smuggling routes, laundering money and running a network of assassins. Indeed, it is believed that Javier Calle Serna started out in the drug business by providing an efficient assassination and enforcement service in Cali, attracting the attention of members of the Norte del Valle Cartel, before taking over much of the organization after killing his boss, Wilber Varela, in Venezuela in January 2008.

However, Calle Serna could certainly deliver vast amounts of intelligence on the workings of the Rastrojos and help the DEA prepare a new raft of extradition orders for key members of the group, further weakening an organization that has seen a series of arrests of key members over the last 18 months.

The Rastrojos is not a vertically integrated and hierarchical organization. It is an association of drug traffickers, most with roots in the now defunct Norte del Valle Cartel (and its predecessor the Cali Cartel). Due to the group’s expansion since 2008, it also includes former members of the demobilized United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). There will no doubt be a panic in the ranks of Rastrojos associates and moves to change habits and residence just in case the rumors are true of a surrender of the top leadership.

There are other players who could take advantage of chaos in the Rastrojos’ ranks. First and foremost are Victor Patiño-Fomeque and Martin Fernando Varon, alias “Martin Bala.” These men have been fighting the Comba brothers on their home turf along the Pacific coast, based out of Cali and the province of Valle del Cauca.

Patiño-Fomeque was a member of the Cali Cartel who surrendered in 1995 after the heads of that organization, Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, were captured. He was later released, then recaptured and extradited in 2002. He is believed to have cooperated with US authorities, and members of the Cali mafia tried to silence him by killing of many of his relatives. He was released from prison in the US in 2010 and returned to Colombia, where he is believed to have sought revenge on the Rastrojos for the killing of his family, and to have restarted his cocaine smuggling business. He is also alleged to be working with Martin Fernando Varon, another former member of the Cali Cartel.

The Rastrojos’ principal rivals for national domination are the Urabeños. A truce was apparently negotiated between the Rastrojos and Urabeños at the end of 2011, whereby the Rastrojos promised to withdraw from the region of Bajo Cauca (in the provinces of Cordoba and Antioquia), while the Urabeños pledged to pull support from Patiño-Fomeque and Varon. This arrangement would be unlikely to survive if the head of the Rastrojos surrendered to the US.

Rumors of Calle Serna’s imminent surrender have been circulating for months. In February, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos stated that both Javier and Luis Enrique Calle Serna were finalizing their surrender to US authorities. The prospect of Calle Serna’s surrender means there is likely to be another round of bloodshed in the Colombian underworld, particularly in the Rastrojos’ strongholds of Cali and the Valle del Cauca department, as well as along several key drug trafficking routes, particularly on the Pacific coast and the Eastern Plains that lead into Venezuela.”


Douglas McNabb – McNabb Associates, P.C.’s
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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 C. McNabb. Please feel free to contact him directly at mcnabb@mcnabbassociates.com or at one of the offices listed above.

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 mcnabb@mcnabbassociates.com or at one of the offices listed above.

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