– Even before one of the world's most sought-after drug lords was officially behind bars following his surprise capture this week in Colombia, officials say they were hot on the trail of his potential successors.
In the biggest blow to Colombia's drug cartels in more than a decade, a special Army commando unit seized Diego León Montoya Sánchez Monday on a ranch in southwestern Colombia. He was found hiding under a pile of leaves by a stream. After unsuccessfully trying to bribe the soldiers with $5 million each, he resigned himself to his capture. "I lost," he said to his captors.
Mr. Montoya was the violent and powerful figurehead of the Norte del Valle cartel, which officials say is responsible for more than two-thirds of the cocaine exported from Colombia annually and for at least 1,500 murders.
A beaming Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos announced the achievement, vowing that the police and Army would not rest on their laurels. "Drug traffickers take note: This is the future that awaits you," he said.
The arrest of Montoya was a much needed boost for the beleaguered Army which had been hit hard by revelations last month that the Norte del Valle cartel had infiltrated its top ranks. By bribing high-ranking officers, Montoya was able to know ahead of time of any operations against his organizations and any obstacles to the regular trafficking routes.
Last year, for example, a US-trained elite Colombian police unit was ambushed in Jamundí when they raided a house where they'd been told Montoya was hiding. Fifteen Colombian soldiers, including a colonel, are being tried for the murder of 10 policemen in what is known as the "Jamundí Massacre."
In recent months, the bribery scandal has grown, costing two Colombian generals their jobs, and led to the arrest of 26 officers and noncommissioned officers. Mr. Santos said the purge of the corrupted Army units was decisive in the success of the operation against Montoya.
"Captures of this significance re-infuse the public forces with credibility," says an official with the US Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) office in Bogotá.
Montoya's arrest comes on the heels of other recent successes against drug traffickers. On Aug. 7, Juan Carlos Ramírez Abadía, nicknamed "Chupeta" of the Norte del Valle Cartel was arrested in a raid on his home in São Paulo, Brazil. He had undergone several rounds of plastic surgery on his face to conceal his identity. On Sept. 1, Tomás "El Negro Acacio" Caracas, a FARC commander believed to have controlled the rebels' drug operations, was killed in an air raid on a FARC camp.
"There has been a crescendo of events; there has been momentum building," says the DEA agent, who asked to remain anonymous in accordance with US Embassy policy.
But none of these successes have been as important as the arrest of Montoya, known as the "Boss of bosses." Montoya was on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list, alongside Osama bin Laden, on charges of drug trafficking, money laundering, and murder.
Still, Colombia and US officials agree, the arrest of Montoya is unlikely to significantly affect the flow of cocaine to the US and Europe. The Norte del Valle cartel is estimated to control 70 percent of the 500 tons of cocaine exported from Colombia each year.
More important, says Aldo Lale-Demoz, country representative for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, is the morale boost for those on the front lines of Colombia's battle against drug mafias. "People no longer think of organized drug cartels as a pest that is impossible to kill," says Mr. Lale-Demoz. "Impunity no longer exists."
Colombian and US law enforcement officials place Montoya's capture on the same level of significance as the 1993 shooting death of Medellín cartel leader Pablo Escobar, and the arrest of the Cali cartel bosses Miguel and Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela in 1995.
Montoya's rise reflected the hydra-like qualities of drug cartels – as soon as one leader goes down, two or three pop up in his place. Montoya, say law enforcement officials, started his underworld career in the 1990s overseeing the Cali cartel's cocaine labs and took advantage of the demise of his former bosses to take control of everything from coca fields and cocaine labs to export routes.
While Montoya's fall may trigger a bloody war over who gets control over his routes, few will likely seek to become the visible leader.
Whereas Pablo Escobar in the 1980s flaunted his power and wealth, today big-time drug traffickers often try to keep a lower profile. "Nobody wants to be a figurehead anymore," the DEA agent says, because they know they are in the cross hairs of law enforcement in Colombia and the United States.
US and Colombian officials have identified Montoya's heirs and have begun intelligence operations against them. "We don't know who will take his place but our intelligence has given us clues as to who it could be, and we will continue hitting those organizations until we finish them off," Santos said.
That's a shift. "Previously a single success would take place and they [the Colombians] didn't have the institutional and intelligence infrastructure to capitalize on it," the DEA agent agrees. But that's changed now. "There are things in place today that allow ... for a real sustained exploitation of events," he says.
Speculation as to who might succeed Montoya centers around Wilber Varela, known as "Jabón" or "Soap" for his ability to slip through the grasp of authorities and enemies, a longtime rival of Montoya within the Norte del Valle cartel. Other heirs, cited in local media, include Oscar Varela Garcia, known as "Capachivo;" Jorge Iivan Perea, known as "Iguana;" and Gilardo Rodriguez Herrera, whose nickname is "Shirt Man." All are relatively unknown to the general Colombian public.