BOGOTA -- Just hours after Venezuelan police caught Colombia’s top drug lord, Daniel Barrera, at a border town payphone and with his fingerprints burned off, they also gunned down a Colombian guerrilla in northern Venezuela.
In the past two years, Colombian and Venezuelan security cooperation has gone from being virtually nonexistent to producing dramatic busts, including the capture of four high-level Colombian drug dons since November.
The biggest payoff of these renewed ties may be yet to come: Last month, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos thanked his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chávez for helping promote peace talks that could put an end to this nation’s 50-year conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrillas.
The new neighborliness comes at critical juncture for both men. Chávez is heading into a tight presidential race Oct. 7 and needs to prove that his administration is tough on crime — one of the electorate’s top concerns. And Santos needs to assuage fears that next month’s peace talks with the FARC — labeled a terrorist organization by Colombia and the United States — doesn’t mean he’s gone soft.
Santos and Chávez have been sworn enemies in the past, but have reaped the rewards of burying their differences, said Arlene Tickner, a political science professor at Colombia’s Universidad de los Andes. “I think both Santos and Chávez have approached the bilateral relation with a much more pragmatic attitude,” she said.
Barrera’s arrest Tuesday was a prime example of that pragmatism. Better known as “El Loco Barrera,” the kingpin built a cocaine empire and a motley network of contacts. Even while he was allegedly buying drugs from the FARC to export to the United States and Europe, he was deepening ties with paramilitary groups and criminal gangs. In 2010, the U.S. Treasury Department named him one of the largest drug traffickers in Colombia.
“We’ve caught the last of the big capos,” Santos said late Tuesday, shortly after his arrest. “Loco Barrera, as the country knows him, has been the most sought-after kingpin in recent times. He has spent 20 years doing evil in Colombia and the world.”
While Santos thanked Chávez and Venezuela’s counter narcotics officers for making the bust, he said the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, and Britain’s MI6 military intelligence had been crucial to the operation. Colombian Police Chief Gen José Roberto León coordinated the raid from Washington, D.C., Santos said.
Working on Colombian intelligence, Venezuelan security forces had been tailing Barrera for 45 days, tracking him down to the border town of San Cristóbal in Tachira state, Venezuelan Interior Minister Tarek El Aissami said Wednesday.
Among the keys to his capture was monitoring 69 public telephones in three states that Barrera was known to use to stay in contact with his trafficking network.
When he was nabbed Tuesday night, Barrera was carrying fake identification and had burned his fingers with acid to eliminate fingerprints, but confessed to being the fugitive.
Wearing a blue shirt and with his hands cuffed in front of him, Barrera was paraded in front of the media before being flown to Caracas Wednesday, where he was expected to be questioned and, most likely, extradited to Colombia.