Colombian drug lord "Don Mario" might have been on his way to becoming the next Pablo Escobar, heading a vast trafficking empire that controlled cocaine shipments along the Caribbean coast. But he was still trying to consolidate his power when police caught him this week cowering under planks of wood beneath a palm tree.
The capture Wednesday of the drug lord, whose real name is Daniel Rendón, was hailed as a "major blow."
Colombia's successes against drug lords, a former senior US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) official explains, are the result of decades of experience by top law-enforcement officials, of Colombia's policy of extraditing wanted traffickers to the US, and of US funding, intelligence, and technology.
These lessons from Colombia could well be applied in Mexico, where drug cartels are facing off with the government in bloody battles, and where President Obama arrived Thursday to talk about increasing violence.
"Two things that really turned things around in Colombia were extradition and the use of wiretaps," says the DEA official, who worked Colombia and Mexico and asked not to be named. "There are lessons to be learned for Mexico" from Colombia's experience.
Working with the US
The operation to capture Mr. Rendón was commanded by Colombians, but his location was pinpointed with the help of US satellite-imaging technology, according to local officials.
Rendón is wanted in Colombia on charges of drug trafficking, murder, and conspiracy. But in keeping with Colombian judicial policy, he will probably be extradited to the US, where he is wanted for exporting 100 tons of cocaine.
However, the former DEA official says, while Colombia "was desperate for our help, Mexico does not want the US telling them what to do."
"Only recently has Mexico started to extradite these drug lords," he says, underscoring the fact that it is harder for capos to buy their way out of jail in the US than in either Colombia or Mexico.
More kingpins to come
Meanwhile, officials in Colombia recognize that capturing one drug lord is not enough – that where one is cut down, two or three will crop up in his place.
"From the head that [police] courageously cut, thousands of others will emerge," the El Tiempo newspaper warned in its editorial Thursday.
Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos acknowledges the dilemma. "As long as the demand [for drugs] continues, there will always be others who will try to take over the business," he said, adding that already police were on the trail of three other top traffickers.
While frustrated by the apparently Sisyphean task of cutting down the drug organizations, law-enforcement officers say they are encouraged by what they see as a diminished ability of top drug lords to hold on to their empires for long.
"The shelf life of Colombian drug lords has gone from 10-15 years to about 18 months," says Jay Bergman, regional director of the DEA, based in Bogotá. Legendary drug lord Pablo Escobar headed the feared Medellin Cartel for more than a decade before being gunned down on a rooftop in 1993. Don Mario lasted a little over a year-and-a-half.
"They don't have the time to consolidate power or to develop the ability to penetrate and corrupt government institutions," Mr. Bergman says.
Despite his short-lived career, Don Mario had apparently managed to infiltrate some government agencies. The former head of the Medellin attorney general's office is on trial for allegedly colluding with Don Mario's organization, while a police general was sacked following revelations of a phone conversation with one of the drug lord's men.
'Take advantage of the disorder'
In the wake of Rendón's capture, officials say they will try to take advantage of the brief chaos in his organization before he is replaced to try to catch others. "When you cut off the head of these structures, they become vulnerable," the defense minister said. "We hope to take advantage of the disorder these sorts of captures cause."
Already in the government's sights are Daniel "el Loco" Barrera, Pedro "Cuchillo" Guerrero, and Luis Enrique Calle, alias "Comba."
"The next guys on the list are going to be gone before they know it," Bergman says.