(c) 2009, Los Angeles Times
BOGOTA, Colombia -- A notorious ex-paramilitary leader accused by authorities of drug trafficking and gun running was arrested early Wednesday in the northern Colombian jungle, capping a months-long pursuit.
The detention of Daniel Rendon Herrera, 43, described by police as Colombia's "most wanted criminal," could well set off a violent power struggle within the illicit drug world. The extradition to the United States of alleged trafficker Diego Murillo last May set off a battle in Medellin that has left dozens dead.
Known as Don Mario, Rendon was arrested near the Caribbean port city of Turbo. The operation involved 250 members of the elite "Yunglas" undercover anti-narcotics police, some of whom posed as Holy Week tourists. Police had been tracking Rendon for nine months and found him "living like a dog, eating rice with his hands," Police Col. Cesar Augusto Pinzon said.
Rendon had a $2 million bounty on his head in Colombia and has been indicted for drug trafficking in a U.S. federal court for allegedly smuggling 100 tons of cocaine, defense minister Juan Manuel Santos said at a military airport in Bogota where Rendon was flown earlier under guard.
"Don Mario" is the brother of Freddie Rendon, alias "The German," the now imprisoned paramilitary ally of the late Carlos Castano, founder of the Colombian Auto-Defense Corps in the 1980s. The militias were set up initially by farmers and cattlemen to defend against leftist guerrillas, but many morphed into drug trafficking and land grabbing mafias.
Unlike most paramilitary commanders and the 31,000 fighters who accepted the Colombian government's 2003 demobilization program, Rendon maintained a militia numbering in the hundreds. He built a drug trafficking empire that focused on controlling the Gulf of Uraba area on Colombia's northern Caribbean coast, a prime launch area for cocaine bound for North American consumers.
He also managed a thriving arms trade, according to police who last year seized more than 350 assault rifles that Rendon allegedly had purchased. In a raid last August of a Rendon arsenal, authorities seized 140,000 rounds of ammunition, the largest illegal munitions cache ever found in Colombia.
Daniel Rendon had hundreds of assassins under his control, paid his minions a bonus of $1,200 for each policeman killed and ruthlessly forced poor farmers and peasants from their lands in areas where he wanted untrammeled control of drug trafficking routes, police said.
Colombian National Police Commander Oscar Naranjo said Wednesday that Rendon's henchmen were responsible for more than 3,000 killings in recent years.
The capture comes as President Barack Obama and the U.S. Congress are considering whether to continue current funding levels of Plan Colombia, the U.S. program to combat terrorism and illegal drugs. Critics say the plan, which has funneled more than $5 billion in mostly military aid to this nation since 2000, has failed to staunch the production and flow of drugs to the U.S.
Plan Colombia defenders say President Alvaro Uribe has leveraged it to dramatically improve security and reduce violent crime.
U.S. counternarcotics officials said the Rendon arrest, the latest of several captures in the last 18 months, is more evidence the Colombian National Police is aggressively investigating and apprehending major drug traffickers.
"This guy had dominated drug trafficking and gun running along the north coast of Colombia and brazenly challenged the authority of the Colombian state, which made him public enemy number one," said Jay Bergman, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration regional director based in Bogota.
However, police caution that any arrested trafficker will soon be replaced by someone lower down the hierarchy who is willing to shoot his way to leadership.
"These organizations depend on people who command, but they also have the capacity to replace them," Santos said. "We hope to take advantage of the disorder these sorts of captures cause."