Pubdate: Sat, 02 Feb 2008
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2008 Los Angeles Times
Author: Chris Kraul, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
Note: Special correspondent Mery Mogollon in Caracas contributed to 
this report.


Cartel Leader, With $5 Million Bounty on His Head, Found Shot to 
Death in Venezuela.

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- Authorities in Venezuela said Friday that Wilber 
Varela, the leader of Colombia's Norte del Valle drug cartel, had 
been found shot to death in the Venezuelan resort town of Merida.

The location of the killing underscores the evolution of drug 
trafficking in the region. Increasing amounts of Colombian cocaine 
destined for U.S. and European markets flow through Venezuela, and as 
much as one-third of all the narcotic powder is now thought to transit there.

Varela, 50, had long been rumored to be living and working in 
Venezuela under protection of corrupt officials. He was indicted in 
2004 on drug trafficking charges by a Washington federal court, a 
warrant was issued for his arrest, and a $5-million bounty placed on 
his head by the State Department.

At a news conference Friday in Caracas, Venezuela's capital, Nestor 
Reverol Torres, director of the country's national anti-drugs office, 
said authorities had used intelligence and fingerprints to conclude 
that a dead man registered at a Merida resort hotel as Jose Antonio 
Perez Chacon was Varela.

"It's been convincingly determined that we are dealing with the same 
person," Reverol said.

The bullet-riddled bodies of Varela and Weimar Perez Aramburu, 
thought to have been Varela's bodyguard, were discovered Wednesday in 
Merida in Venezuela's mountainous northwest.

Details of the killings were unclear, apart from a report that the 
two men were originally accompanied by two other men who escaped. No 
arrests have yet been reported.

The Norte del Valle cartel, named after a farming region north of 
Cali, is among Colombia's most powerful cocaine trafficking operations.

In Varela's 2004 indictment, prosecutors alleged that the Norte del 
Valle cartel had shipped about 550 tons of cocaine worth $10 billion 
from Colombia between 1990 and 2004.

Last summer, reports surfaced that the cartel also had made inroads 
into the Colombian military. A Colombian admiral gave coordinates of 
U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels to the cartel so their drug 
shipments could avoid interdiction, Colombian prosecutors said.

In 2006, Colombian army soldiers killed 10 U.S.-trained anti-drugs 
police near the town of Jamundi, allegedly on the orders of Norte del 
Valle cartel bosses.

Among the cartel leaders arrested in the recent months are Diego "Don 
Diego" Montoya and Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia, "El Chupeta," who was 
arrested in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Such arrests, as well as killings and 
a power struggle that U.S. officials estimate has left 1,000 people 
dead in recent years, decimated the cartel's leadership, leaving Varela on top.

Varela "was in recent years the major boss of Colombian drug 
trafficking organizations," said Gen. Oscar Naranjo, commander of the 
Colombian National Police. "What has happened should be a blow to 
criminal organizations . . . . He is the last of the big capos of 
Norte del Valle cartel."

The U.S. has recently stepped up criticism of Venezuela for not doing 
enough to stem the flow of drugs, or prosecute police, national guard 
and army officials who are thought to be involved.

In an interview with The Times last month, White House drug czar John 
P. Walters said the Venezuelans' inaction in the face of increased 
drug flows was "tantamount to collusion." Venezuela vigorously denied 
the charges and brought a complaint against the U.S. before the 
Organization of American States. It said its counter-narcotics 
program was effective.

Drugs and other contraband have always passed through the porous 
1,400-mile Colombia-Venezuela border. But U.S. officials say the 
volume of cocaine crossing the border has accelerated sharply since 
August 2005, when President Hugo Chavez called a halt to all 
cooperation between United States and Venezuelan anti-drugs 
officials, alleging that U.S. agents were spies.

Chavez told U.S. Ambassador Patrick Duddy last fall that he would 
like to restart counter-narcotic cooperation. So far, nothing has 
come of it, U.S. officials say.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake