U.S. extradition threats put heat on feared drug cartel.

Miguel Solano was a major player in one of the biggest drug cartels in the world when he began feeding information to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Like so many others before him, Solano was tempted by the Americans' offer of a deal: By secretly helping them build cases against the much-feared Norte del Valle Cartel, he could later get a lenient sentence in a U.S. courtroom.

His dangerous dance with the law landed him in a tomb: In November of last year, Solano was gunned down as he left a nightclub in the coastal city of Cartagena.

Yet his murder touched off a war within the cartel that has left an estimated 1,000 dead -- from drug capos to taxi drivers whose bodies were meticulously piled on roadsides -- and sent one cartel faction rushing into an alliance with left-wing guerrillas and its rivals to side with right-wing paramilitaries.

While the increasing threat of U.S. extraditions and heavy sentences for Colombian drug lords didn't cause the turmoil, it certainly played a role. Once a suspect is up for extradition, the question becomes not if he will start cooperating with U.S. law enforcement but when. And that, authorities here say, can dramatically affect the trafficker's business.

''Anyone who is alleged to be cooperating with law enforcement is automatically seen on the other side: You are the enemy,'' said a U.S. counter-drug official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The origins of the internal dispute in the Norte del Valle Cartel predate Solano's collaboration and subsequent murder. But they always come back to the question of extradition.

Named after the fertile valley in the northern part of the province of Valle del Cauca from where many of its members hail, the cartel was itself born of war.

After authorities jailed Cali Cartel leaders Miguel and Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela in the mid-1990s, several of their associated clan leaders filled the void, including the Henaos, Urdinolas, Montoyas and Patiños.

Business immediately boomed. A U.S. indictment of nine cartel members unsealed in May in Miami and New York alleges the organization exported over $10 billion in cocaine to the United States since 1990, much of it through Mexico and South Florida. That makes the cartel at least as efficient as the far more famous Cali and Medellín cartels that preceded it.

Links with the law.

The Norte del Valle group was also known for its connections in the police. Leaders Danilo González, Orlando Henao, Wilber Varela, Victor Patiño and Patiño's half-brother, Luís Ocampo, were all former policemen -- a connection that gave them unparalleled refuge from the law.

Of these, González, a former colonel, kept strong contacts with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and Colombian police officers long after he left the agency and joined the drug trade. Those in the force who didn't work with the cartel were eliminated or forced to retire, a former police official said.

González ''maneuvers in the police as if he were a commander,'' a Norte del Valle informant told Colombian authorities in 2001; the informant was killed shortly after supplying this information.

Still, as good as business was, the issue of extraditions to face U.S. charges began clouding the cartel's future.

By 2001, several top cartel members -- including Hernando Gómez, Victor Patiño and Diego Montoya -- had U.S. indictments hanging over them. Montoya hit the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list, and his photo still appears next to Osama bin Laden's on the bureau website.

Some of those indicted began thinking about turning themselves in, to secure shorter U.S sentences. Gómez met with DEA agents in Panama to discuss the matter, one person who attended two such meetings told The Herald, while others sought more creative ways to end their drug trafficking careers.

In January 2002, top cartel leaders met with right-wing paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño at a farm owned by Gómez. The traffickers had given money to Castaño in the past to help his gunmen fight leftist guerrillas. And Castaño had previously helped some lesser-ranking traffickers surrender to U.S. authorities through his Miami lawyer Joaquín Pérez.

A senior Castaño aide who took part in the meeting described it as ''tense'' and said it failed.

The situation began to come apart quickly after that, the Castaño aide said.

In April 2002, Patiño met with DEA agents in Bogotá, thinking he was going to negotiate his surrender. When he was instead arrested, the rest of the cartel suspected Castaño had set him up. Patiño was extradited in December that year.

''The part where things began to unravel came with the capture and extradition of Patiño,'' said the head of Colombia's investigative police, Gen. Oscar Naranjo.

Not long after Patiño's arrival in Miami, fear pervaded the cartel. Patiño had the power to betray all of them, and he did, according to Naranjo. The U.S. indictment issued in May is believed to have been partly based on his cooperation.

Some cartel members, like Miguel Solano, began filtering information to the DEA, sources close to the cartel said. When cartel leader Wilber Varela found out, he had Solano killed and created a group that began searching for informants: He called it COPERGRIN -- Colombians Persecuted by the Gringos.

Diego Montoya, who had also toyed with the idea of surrendering to U.S. authorities, didn't know Solano had been ratting on him and launched a war of retaliation against Varela, cartel sources told The Herald.

Since then, mistrust and paranoia have spun into full-fledged warfare.

Varela, Montoya and their estimated 1,000 gunmen have laid waste a half dozen towns in the region. In one particularly brutal case, Montoya's men ambushed Varela's, then piled the corpses in a pyramid on a road.

In January, Patiño's half-brother, Ocampo, was killed. In March, gunmen killed González. Both men were rumored to be collaborating with the DEA.

Gómez was arrested in Cuba for using a false passport and Arcángel de Jesús Henao was captured in Panama in January and extradited to the United States. Castaño himself disappeared in April and is presumed dead.

Victims all around.

At the lower levels, a host of alleged cartel collaborators have also fallen, including nine drivers from a single taxi company in Roldanillo, Varela's hometown.

The Varela-Montoya fight has also spilled into this corner of Colombia's civil war, authorities say. Montoya has sought out alliance with Castaño's right-wing paramilitaries, known as the AUC, while Varela has welcomed the leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, to his home turf.

In an effort to regain control of the situation, the Colombian government has sent in a 500-man police search unit that makes its home in the Roldanillo police station.

The bloc has successfully quelled some of the violence in the cities, but control over the countryside remains elusive and there's a sense their work will never be done.

In the past two years Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has extradited close to 200 suspected traffickers to the United States to face trial, including several leaders of the Norte del Valle Cartel and key Cali Cartel leader Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela.

Yet the price of cocaine on U.S. streets continues to drop -- a sign of increasing availability.

''The only question is: How long will it take for a new [cartel] to emerge?'' said Wilson Reyes, a consultant for a Valle del Cauca provincial peace initiative.

Indeed, after a recent police search-bloc raid on a farm in the neighboring municipality, bloc commander Gen. asked about a captured photograph of a suspected drug lord.

It's a picture of one of Urdinola's cousins, a policeman told Páez. ''Is he dead?'' the general asked.

The policeman shook his head. He's still at large.

[Source: By Steven Dudley, The Miami Herald, Miami , Us, 20dec04]

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