Colombia said on Tuesday that Daniel “El Loco” Barrera, alleged to be the country’s last major drug lord, had been caught in neighboring Venezuela in an international sting led from Washington.
“The last of the great capos has fallen,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced on national television, adding that the CIA and Britain’s MI6 had provided support.
Barrera, whose outfit is estimated to have sent more than 900 tonnes of cocaine to the US and Europe, was caught in the Venezuelan city of San Cristobal, said Santos, adding that the drug lord had criminal ties to rebels from the hardline group FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).
“This is perhaps the most important capture of recent times,” the president said, thanking the Venezuelan government for its help.
Venezuelan Interior Minister Tareck El Aissami confirmed the arrest on Twitter, calling it a “major coup” for his country and adding that “images” and “details of the operation” were to be released yesterday.
Venezuela’s foreign ministry said Barrera was captured “after an intelligence operation carried out by Venezuelan authorities,” without mentioning any foreign involvement.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has long had rocky relations with Washington and regularly accuses the US of trying to undermine his leftist government.
Santos said the operation “was led from Washington,” adding that the head of Colombia’s national police, General Jose Leon Riano, had helped direct it from the US capital.
Speaking from Washington, Leon Riano told the Caracol television network that authorities had tracked Barrera for four months before arresting him at a phone booth in San Cristobal.
He added that the operation had been orchestrated from Washington because it required “special technical support.” US authorities could not immediately be reached for comment.
In 2010 the US Treasury had named Barrera a “special designated narcotics trafficker,” saying he faced criminal charges in New York and was allied with the FARC, Latin America’s longest-running insurgency.
In the 1980s and early 1990s Colombian cartels dominated the American drug trade, but a US-supported crackdown has left local gangs in increasing disarray.
Last year, 252 of Bogota’s 1,632 registered homicides — 15.4 percent — were linked to drugs, according to official figures.
The regional cocaine trade, however, is still alive and well: Last year Colombia was the world’s largest cocaine producer, according to a UN report, though neighboring Peru is expected to soon overtake it.
Colombian criminal gangs, as well as leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups, sell the cocaine to Mexican criminal syndicates, who then smuggle it into the US and Europe.
Colombia recently agreed to relaunch peace talks with the leftist FARC after a decade-long hiatus.