Colombian authorities on Monday captured notorious drug lord Diego Leon Montoya Sanchez, named alongside Osama bin Laden on the FBI's list of 10 most wanted fugitives.
Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos hailed the arrest as the biggest blow to drug trafficking in Colombia since the 1993 death of notorious kingpin Pablo Escobar and the 1996 capture of the Rodriguez brothers.
Montoya was behind 70 percent of the cocaine sent to the US and Europe, "and is considered responsible for more than 1,500 murders," Santos said at a news conference in Bogota, after the drug baron was flown to the Colombian capital.
Montoya, 49, one of the leaders of the North Valley cartel, was captured in the southeastern mountainous region of the Valle del Cauca department, where he had holed up with bodyguards and two relatives, officials said.
He had initially managed to flee as security forces closed in on him, but an elite army group backed by members of the secret police (DAS) tracked him down as he hid in the bushes.
Montoya, who is also known as Don Diego, is wanted by the US for conspiracy to import and possess cocaine, money laundering and racketeering. US authorities offered a US$5 million reward for information leading to his conviction.
Authorities believe the North Valley cartel, with the help of Mexican traffickers, had shipped 500 tonnes of cocaine to the US between 1990 and 2004.
Montoya's arrest came just over a month after authorities admitted his organization had managed to infiltrate the army's high command. The scandal cost two generals their jobs and led to the arrest of 26 members of the armed forces.
Investigators said Montoya also paid millions of dollars in bribes to officials so they would temporarily disable Colombian Navy radars to allow drugs to leave the country undetected.
The US Federal Bureau of Investigation said on its web listing of the 10 most wanted fugitives that Montoya was protected by the right-wing paramilitary Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). It warned that Montoya, also nicknamed "the Lord of War" and "the Cyclist," was considered "extremely dangerous."
Several hundred people died when Montoya engaged in a turf war with another drug baron, Wilber Varela, also known as "Soap."
US authorities say Colombia supplies over 90 percent of the cocaine and almost 50 percent of the heroin that makes its way into the US.
More than 500 Colombians have been extradited to the US, mainly on drug charges, since conservative President Alvaro Uribe took office in 2002.
The US has spent more than US$4 billion to finance anti-drug operations in Colombia since 2000. Part of the funds are used to combat the AUC, the FARC and the ELN, which are all involved in the illegal drug trade. Washington considers all three groups terrorist organizations.
On Aug. 7, another leading member of the North Valley drug cartel, Juan Carlos Abadia was arrested in Sao Paulo, Brazil.