Sun, Feb 03, 2008 - Page 7 News List

Colombian cocaine cartel chief found dead in Venezuela

DRUG KINGPIN Caracas confirmed that the bullet-riddled body discovered on Wednesday belonged to Wilber Varela, head of the Norte Valle Cartel

AFP , CARACAS

Colombia's top cocaine lord Wilber Varela, who ran the notorious Norte Valle Cartel and had a US$5 million bounty on his head, was found shot dead in Venezuela, Caracas' narcotics chief said on Friday.

The bullet-riddled body of Varela, known by the nicknames "Jabon" (soap) and "Detergente" (detergent), was discovered on Wednesday, along with that of another man in a tourist cabin in northwestern Venezuela, authorities said.

"It has been conclusively proven that this is drug trafficker Wilber Varela," said Nestor Luis Reverol, head of Venezuela's National Anti-drug Agency.

"Thirty-two matching characteristics have been verified" identifying the suspect, Reverol told reporters.

US Ambassador to Colombia William Brownfield said that while he could not rejoice in the death of the drug lord, he did welcome it as "good news" that the world was rid of somebody who brought misery to millions of people.

The two bodies were discovered in the cabin in Loma de Los Angeles, Merida state -- close to Venezuela's border with Colombia -- - by the owner of the establishment who entered the cabin because no one had come out, Reverol said.

Varela's body had been dead less than 48 hours, he said.

The two bodies had "more than seven bullet wounds" in them, he said.

Varela, a former policeman aged in his 50s, launched his cocaine operations in the 1980s as a member of a group of hit men working for the Cali drug cartel.

The Norte Valle Cartel grew strong after the dismantling of the Cali and Medellin cartels in the mid-1990s left a power vacuum. The new group was credited with handling some 60 percent of the cocaine flowing out of Colombia.

Varela was put on the US Drug Enforcement Administration's list of most wanted fugitives, with a US$5 million reward for his arrest.

He was indicted by the US Department of Justice on May 6, 2004, which called him the head of Colombia's most powerful cocaine cartel, allegedly responsible at the time for exporting 500 tonnes of cocaine worth US$10 billion to the US.

The indictment said the cartel used the paramilitary forces Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia to protect its drug routes and laboratories.

The cartel collected its drugs in the Valle del Cauca region and then shipped them to the Pacific port of Buenaventura, where they were transferred to Mexican drug transporters for shipping via boats and aircraft to the US, the indictment said.

Varela's death brings to an end the era of the three big Colombian cartels, with their once huge presence filled by numerous harder-to-detect small trafficking organizations, Colombian experts said.

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