BOGOTA -- One of Colombia’s most notorious criminal gangs, Los Rastrojos, was put on a U.S. Treasury watch-list Wednesday, making it illegal for U.S. citizens to do business with the organization and allowing authorities to seize the gang’s assets in the United States.
The Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) named Los Rastrojos and its imprisoned founder Diego Pérez Henao as Specially Designated Narcotics Traffickers under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act.
“By targeting this violent criminal organization currently operating in Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, we are taking steps to expose their activities and undermine their operations,” OFAC Director Adam Szubin said in a statement. “OFAC will use these sanctions against key leaders and facilitators of this criminal organization so long as they continue their criminal behavior.”
Penalties for corporations that violate the act can include fines of up to $10 million and jail time.
Over the last decade, Los Rastrojos emerged as one of the most powerful new criminal gangs in Colombia, expanding into neighboring Ecuador and Venezuela as it battled for control of lucrative drug routes. But the gang has been hit hard in recent months.
In June, Pérez, who is better known as “Diego Rastrojo,” was arrested in Venezuela. He’s currently in custody in Colombia facing multiple criminal charges. In addition, a Federal Grand Jury in the Southern District of Florida indicted Pérez on charges of conspiring to manufacture and distribute cocaine into the United States.
Five moths later, Pérez’s successor, Jose Leonardo Hortua Blandon, alias “Mascota,” was also picked up. Even so, authorities have accused Pérez of trying to keep running his empire from jail.
Los Rastrojos is just one of several criminal gangs, known here as bandas criminals, or bacrim, that have emerged as a new threat to a government that is already fighting against guerrilla groups.
On Tuesday, Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón said that in 2012 every bacrim organization had seen its leadership decimated by police action and that this week alone almost eight tons of cocaine belonging to Los Rastrojos and another gang called Los Urabeños had been seized. Pinzón also said the bacrim have been hemmed into a smaller area and are currently only present in about 10 percent of all provinces.
The role of the bacrim in Colombia’s criminal ecosystem has been in the spotlight as the government is in the midst of peace talks in Cuba with the nation’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. In the run-up to the talks, the FARC released hostages and said it would quit kidnapping for economic gain. Last week, however, the guerrillas captured two policemen working in Valle de Cauca province.
In a statement Wednesday, the guerrillas called the kidnapping a legitimate act of war.
“We reserve the right to hold members of the security forces who are captured in combat,” the group said. “They’re called prisoners of war and it’s a phenomenon that happen wherever there is conflict in the world.”
The government has demanded their safe return but not suggested that the action will derail negotiations.