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Daniel Barrera Barrera, alias ‘El Loco’

Daniel Barrera Barrera, alias “El Loco,” is the closest thing Colombia has to a present-day Pablo Escobar. He uses a vast network of collaborators, from former paramilitaries to leftist guerrillas, to move cocaine from the country’s Eastern Plains to the United States.

Barrera has been trafficking drugs since he and his brother Omar began moving chemical substances for the processing of cocaine in his home state of Guaviare in the 1980s. Since emerging as a middleman in his own right, Barrera has skillfully played the role of mediator, coordinating the purchase of coca base from areas controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de ColombiaFARC) and the sale of processed cocaine to groups ranging from paramilitary organizations to the now defunct Norte del Valle Cartel.

These days, he is allied with remnants of former paramilitary and drug trafficking groups, most notably the Rastrojos and the Popular Revolutionary Anti-Terrorist Army of Colombia (Ejercito Revolucionario Popular Antiterrorista Colombiano – ERPAC).

His principal areas of operation are the Eastern Plains departments and Venezuela, where he plays the role as go-between for the FARC and international drug trafficking groups, and sells much of his product to the European market. However, he and his allies operate throughout Colombia and abroad. In March 2011, the U.S. Treasury Department named him one of the two biggest drug traffickers in Colombia. A U.S. court indicted him in September 2011.

Origins

Barrera’s career began in the 1980s when he and his brother Omar Barrera provided chemical precursors to laboratories processing coca base into cocaine, or HCl, in his home state of Guaviare. After Omar was assassinated, Barrera sought and obtained revenge, and in the process earned the nickname of “El Loco.” He was captured and jailed by Colombian authorities in 1990, but escaped prison soon afterwards. By the mid-1990s he had established himself as a prominent middleman and trafficker, buying semi-processed cocaine from various sources, including commanders of the FARC’s 14th, 17th, 10th and 16th Fronts, and selling it to clients who operated under the umbrella of the powerful Norte del Valle Cartel. Later, he purchased from the FARC’s 43rd Front, controlled by Gener Garcia Molina, alias “Jhon 40,” and started selling to Jose Miguel Arroyave, commander of the paramilitaries’ Bloque Centauros.

However, Barrera was not satisfied with his role as facilitator, and made a series of bold alliances that have established him one of Colombia’s biggest drug traffickers. Sometime around 2004, he joined forces with Manuel de Jesus Piraban, alias “Jorge Pirata,” a Bloque Centauros commander, and Pedro Oliveiro Guerrero, alias “Cuchillo,” a former hitman turned paramilitary commander for the Bloque Centauros. In September 2004, Barrera, Piraban and Oliveiro organized the ambush and assassination of Bloque Centauros’ maximum commander, Arroyave. Piraban turned himself in as part of the peace process between the government and the United Self-defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de ColombiaAUC), a paramilitary umbrella organization. Meanwhile Barrera and Oliveiro attacked rivals in the Eastern Plains, driving them from the region.

Barrera’s expansion continued in 2008 when, working closely with Luis Enrique Calle Serna, alias “Comba,” and Diego Perez Henao, alias “Diego Rastrojo,” he helped engineer the assassination of Wilber Alirio Varela, alias “Jabon,” then a major leader of the Norte del Valle Cartel living in Venezuela. Later, he “bought” routes in the northern department of Atlantico from Miguel Villarreal, alias “Salomon.” These moves, and Barrera’s ability to co-opt local security officials, have left the drug lord with access to and control of trafficking routes from the Pacific ocean and the Venezuelan plains to the Brazilian jungles and the Caribbean coastline.

Modus Operandi

According to Colombian and foreign counternarcotics officials, Barrera operates in the Eastern Plains, principally the departments of Meta, Vichada, Casanare and Guaviare. He also controls strategic parts of Colombia’s capital, Bogota, and has consolidated staging areas in the Apure state of Venezuela from which he can dispatch aircraft full of drugs to the Caribbean and Central America. Barrera himself is alleged to operate in the Vichada department of Colombia and in parts of Venezuela, where he allegedly has the protection of local officials. Barrera also uses Venezuela as a storage and staging point to send drugs to Europe. He has often made West Africa a transit point, and has greatly destabilized the region in the process.

Barrera has sought and succeeded in bringing seemingly disparate political forces together for business purposes. By the end of the late 1990s, he’d established strong contacts with the FARC’s 10th, 16th, 14th, 17th and 43rd Fronts, often selling coca base to the rebels’ paramilitary rivals in the AUC or processing the coca himself for sale on the international market. His alliances with Cuchillo in the early part of the 2000s and with Comba in the latter part of the same decade made Barrera the most formidable of Colombian traffickers. He also has contacts with numerous other criminal groups. These alliances have also given him a measure of protection from his rivals, which include some of Colombia’s most storied drug traffickers.

While Barrera’s ambitious approach has proved successful in the past, he has also begun battling other Eastern Plains’ organizations such as that of Victor Carranza, a powerful emerald dealer and alleged drug trafficker and paramilitary leader, and Hector German Buitrago, alias “Martin Llanos.” Barrera and his allies have ambushed Carranza’s personal caravan on at least two occasions, which have failed to eliminate him.

Barrera is currently one of the largest drug traffickers in Colombia. But he has several strikes against him. He is well-known. He has many tenuous alliances. He has started a feud with one of the oldest and most venerable underworld figures in Colombia, Victor Carranza. The Carranza battle may make life very difficult for him and his allies, especially the ERPAC. Following the death of ERPAC commander Pedro Oliveiro Guerrero, alias “Cuchillo,” the military has upped the pressure in the Eastern Plains, where both Barrera and ERPAC do much of their business. In order to survive long term, Barrera may need to develop a plan that includes rather than excludes Carranza, and that could mean turning on his longtime partners in the ERPAC.

After the U.S. Southern District Court of Florida announced a new team of prosecutors dedicated primarily to targeting Colombia’s new generation of drug gangs, it became clear that Barrera’s high profile would continue to create problems for his business. Shortly afterwards, the court issued a U.S. indictment for Barrera. In addition, Colombian security forces carried out a series of successful operations targeting Barrera’s drug rings. One of these, Operation Deep Water, saw 19 people arrested; another, Operation Final Flight, saw 30 arrests and 21 aircrafts seized.

Barrera has also suffered the loss of some of his key contacts. In 2010, emerald trader Julio Alberto Lozano, alias “Lucho,” turned himself in to Colombian police and agreed to share intelligence on a network of traffickers which some authorities have called the “El Dorado” cartel. Working more like a loosely connected group of drug businessmen rather than a traditional group with security and financial detail, Barrera supposedly is a member of this drug trafficking “board of directors.” Another one of Barrera’s alleged El Dorado associates was arrested in Bueno Aires in April 2011.

Still, Barrera’s long trajectory gives him the experience and wherewithal to survive when others have been captured or killed. He has strong contacts in Colombia’s security forces, which allow him to operate his business and mobilize his forces against enemies. These include contacts in intelligence agency the DAS, which disbanded in November 2011. Barrera also allegedly played significant roles in the murders of two top traffickers, which led directly to him taking over some of their drug trafficking trade and routes. And intelligence sources tell InSight Crime that he spends most of his time in Venezuela, where he has more security and insurance against prosecution and extradition.

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