Pubdate: Thu, 13 Sep 2007
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2007 Los Angeles Times
Author: Chris Kraul, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Cocaine)


Officials say the capture of Diego Montoya this week will at least 
disrupt trafficking and could set off a power struggle.

MIAMI -- U.S. officials hailed the capture this week of a man alleged 
to be Colombia's most powerful drug lord, saying the arrest will at 
least disrupt trafficking and could set off a divisive power struggle 
among cartel leaders.

The officials and some experts hastened to add that the arrest Monday 
of Diego Montoya wasn't likely to significantly reduce the flow of 
drugs to North America, given U.S. demand for cocaine and the 
willingness of lesser capos to fill the leadership vacuum. As 
Bogota's newspaper El Tiempo editorialized Wednesday, the lesson of 
past arrests and killings of capos is akin to the durability of the 
English monarchy: "The King is Dead. Long Live the King."

Still, top U.S. military and law enforcement officials were clearly 
pleased by the Colombian army's arrest of Montoya, saying it was the 
most powerful blow to the cartels' leadership since Medellin 
trafficker Pablo Escobar was killed in 1993 and the Cali-based 
Rodriguez Orejuela brothers were captured in 1995.

"It was like getting Al Capone at the height of Prohibition," Adm. 
James Stavridis, commander of the U.S. military's Southern Command 
based here, said in an interview Tuesday. As chief of U.S. military 
activities in the Southern Hemisphere, Stavridis helps direct the 
U.S. multibillion-dollar anti-drug and anti-terrorism aid package 
known as Plan Colombia.

Montoya, 49, was believed responsible for the shipment of as much as 
70% of Colombia's cocaine to the United States as head of the Norte 
del Valle cartel, which controls Colombia's Pacific coastline. 
Starting out as a lowly collector of cocaine paste in Colombia's 
Putumayo region in the 1980s, "Don Diego" used murder and extortion 
to rise to the top, according to an indictment filed in U.S. federal court.

"Clearly the major flow of drugs over the past four or five years has 
shifted from the Caribbean to the Pacific, and [the Norte del Valle] 
cartel has been at the heart of that traffic," said Rear Adm. Joseph 
Nimmich, commanding officer of the Joint Interagency Task Force 
South. The Key West, Fla.-based task force coordinates U.S. Navy and 
Coast Guard interdiction of drug shipments from South America to the 
United States.

More than a symbolic victory, the capture and probable extradition of 
Montoya to the U.S. will lead to confusion among the major 
traffickers, a decentralization of the cartels' command, increased 
interception of communications and thus an increased number of 
captures, officials and experts said.

"This will cause internal fights over the redistribution of power and 
money. But will the flow of drugs diminish? Probably not," said 
Alvaro Camacho, a sociology professor at the University of the Andes 
in the Colombian capital, Bogota, and an expert on drug trafficking.

He and other observers say that Montoya is the latest of several "big 
fish" drug traffickers captured or killed by Colombian armed forces 
in recent weeks. Tomas Medina Caracas, who was suspected of arranging 
drug commerce for the leftist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed 
Forces of Colombia, was killed in a surprise raid Sept. 1.

Last month, acting on Colombian intelligence, Brazilian authorities 
captured Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia, one of Montoya's top 
lieutenants. In June, the Department of Administrative Security, 
Colombia's equivalent of the FBI, caught Otto Herrera Garcia of 
Guatemala as he was leaving a Bogota shopping mall parking lot. He 
allegedly managed shipments of drugs north through Central America 
and the repatriation to Colombia and money laundering there of 
various cartels' cash proceeds.

"The Colombians have been knocking the ball out of the park," Stavridis said.

Montoya's capture is considered especially rewarding for the 
Colombian military because of credible reports over the summer that 
his cartel had infiltrated the armed forces.

In an interview last month, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said 
evidence of the infiltration was found when Colombian forces captured 
a "go fast" boat laden with cocaine. The crew had classified 
documents detailing where Colombian and U.S. Navy and Coast Guard 
ships were patrolling in coastal waters, he said.

Santos also confirmed that evidence was obtained showing Montoya's 
cartel had paid members of the Colombian navy to turn off radar, so 
that shipments of drugs could leave the country's shores undetected.

Santos has since attempted to clean house, firing or retiring dozens 
of army and naval officers.

Montoya was indicted in 1999 by a U.S. federal court in Miami, at 
which time his extradition was requested. He is on the FBI's 10 
most-wanted list, with a $5-million bounty for information leading to 
his capture.

Describing Montoya's arrest as smashing a key link in the drug 
trafficking chain, Bogota-based researcher Carlos Eduardo Jaramillo 
said the government nonetheless must provide economic alternatives to 
farmers and poor youths if the drug war is to be won in Colombia.

"The government has to set the example and send the message that no 
capo is so big he can't fall into the arms of justice," Jaramillo 
said. "But a capture like this doesn't do much to the [cocaine] 
production or trafficking apparatus." 
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