Venezuela nabs Colombian cartel leader Maximiliano Bonilla, a.k.a. 'Valenciano'

On the eve of a meeting of the Venezuelan and Colombian presidents, police seized Maximiliano Bonilla and plan to extradite him to the US, where there is a $5 million reward for his capture.

By , Guest blogger

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    Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, left, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez smile as they hold up documents after signing agreements in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday. Colombian authorities say one of the country's most-wanted drug traffickers has been captured in Venezuela. The US government had offered a $5 million reward for information leading to the arrest of Maximiliano Bonilla, best known as 'Valenciano.'
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Venezuela has captured one of Colombia's top drug traffickers, just as President Juan Manuel Santos visited his Venezuelan counterpart in Caracas, an arrest that may have profound implications for the Colombian underworld.

Maximiliano Bonilla, alias 'Valenciano,' was one of Colombia's most powerful and prolific drug traffickers, running a criminal empire in the city of Medellin and along the Caribbean Coast. He headed a series of criminal organizations, including factions of the 'Oficina de Envigado' in Medellin and the 'Paisas' along the coast, from their operating base in the city of Barranquilla.

It was not a coincidence that he was arrested on the eve of the meeting in Venezuela between Presidents Juan Manuel Santos and Hugo Chavez.  An intelligence source told InSight Crime that the Colombian police intelligence, DIPOL, had been following members of Mr. Bonilla's family for two years, and had pinpointed his movements, feeding the information to the Venezuelan authorities to secure the arrest on Sunday night to highlight the increasing cooperation between the two nations.  Despite having a security detail of 15 triggermen, all with Venezuelan IDs like himself, Bonilla came without a fight in the Venezuelan city of Maracay in Aragua state on the Caribbean Coast.

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The Venezuelan Interior Minister, Tarek El Aissami, said that Bonilla, aged 39, would be sent to the US, where there is a five-million dollar reward for him, as well as an extradition warrant on drug trafficking charges. "This is one of the most important captures we have made in recent years in Venezuela," stated Mr. El Aissami.

Bonilla had tried to change his appearance from the heavyset, clean shaven look on his wanted poster, to a mustached, bespectacled and slighter version, thanks to a gastric bypass. He has also been constantly on the move, not just in Venezuela and Colombia, but passing through Panama and perhaps other Central American nations.

Bonilla's criminal career began in Medellin, and it is here that his arrest is likely to have the greatest effect. Underworld legend has it that Bonilla's father was killed when he was 13 years old and he was 'adopted' by Diego Murillo, alias 'Don Berna,' the successor of Pablo Escobar in Medellin. Bonilla became a favorite of Murillo's and one of his most trusted assassins, consummating his first kill when he was just 15 and by 16 was running his own group of hit men.

When Murillo was extradited to the US in 2008, and his successor, Carlos Mario Aguilar, alias 'Rogelio,' did a deal with US authorities, a war broke out for supremacy in Medellin, principally between Bonilla and his arch rival Erick Vargas Cardenas, alias 'Sebastian.' While Bonilla was the more powerful of the two, in terms of resources, Mr. Vargas is believed to be in and around Medellin, leading his faction personally. Bonilla commanded the loyalty of around 1,200 gang members in Medellin and has another 600 men along the Caribbean Coast. However with the arrest of Bonilla, the victory of Vargas in Medellin is still not assured, as another player has entered the city over the last two years: the Urabeños.  Led in Medellin by Henry de Jesus Lopez, alias 'Mi Sangre,' the Urabeños were born from the illegal right-wing paramilitary army of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) and have many ex-guerrilla and military fighters, able to carry out sophisticated operations with heavy firepower.

While the conflict in Medellin is certain to be affected by the capture of Bonilla, there may be a short-term consequence in Mexico, especially for his partners the Zetas.  Bonilla is believed to have been one of the principal Colombian suppliers of cocaine to the Zetas as the latter wages its bloody war against the Sinaloa Cartel. An interruption to the supply of drugs may give the rival Sinaloans a temporary advantage they can exploit until the Zetas make up the shortfall. Shipments from Bonilla have been tracked by authorities not only in Mexico, but also Jamaica, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Within Colombia there have been reports that Bonilla had links to the rebel group of the National Liberation Army (ELN), securing a steady supply of coca base for his cocaine laboratories from the guerrillas, who control much of the coca crops in parts of Antioquia, Arauca, Norte de Santander, Cauca, and Nariño.

--- Jeremy McDermott is a director at Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region.

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