Bogotá, Colombia (AP) – A years-long manhunt for a ruthless cocaine warlord who ruled a remote rural fiefdom with an armed band and generous bribes has ended with a military raid that killed the man considered Colombia's second most-wanted criminal.
Victor Navarro, a 39-year-old better known as alias "Megateo," long dominated the historically lawless Catatumbo region that hugs Venezuela. It is where he was killed Thursday night in a ground and air attack, authorities said.
Law officials had been fixated on him because of what he represented: the possible future of organized crime in Colombia if nearly three-year-old peace talks between the government and the country's largest rebel group succeed. In another sense, he was a throwback to an earlier age of brazen, high-profile narcos who reveled in public notoriety.
Six previous attempts to capture Navarro had failed when he slipped away at the last minute.
With a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head and a 2011 drug-trafficking indictment pending in Florida, Navarro had faced 45 arrest warrants and Colombian prosecutors said he was suspected in dozens of killings.
He was especially hunted for a 2006 ambush in which his men killed 17 soldiers and intelligence agents who had set out from Bogota to capture him but were betrayed by a double agent, a secret police detective who abandoned the operation at the last minute and is now serving a 40-year sentence for murder.
Navarro claimed to lead the last remaining faction of the Popular Liberation Army, a rebel movement that disbanded in 1991. But to authorities, he was nothing more than a major cocaine trafficker, a criminal heavyweight whose muscle and ability to evade capture derived from the fear he instilled and alliances he made with gangs of former far-right militiamen and with the country's two largest rebel groups.
Colombia's most-wanted criminal, Dario Antonio Usuga, is a veteran of far-right militias who heads a much larger but low-profile organization known as the Urabenos, with an estimated 2,000 gunmen.
A thickly built man of medium height, Navarro was notorious for his garish jewelry. He wore a big gold ring on each hand — one encrusted with diamonds, the other emeralds. In one photo police obtained in a raid, a golden pistol hangs from a necklace.
His brazenness drew comparisons, although in miniature, to Pablo Escobar, the cocaine kingpin who terrorized Colombia for two decades until he was tracked down and killed by police in 1993.
Jay Bergman, then-Andean region chief for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, told The Associated Press in 2013 that Navarro was believed to have only about 60 men under arms but that many more from his allies would come to his aid if he were under siege.
"He's king of the hill in a very prolific and remote drug trafficking area and corridor," Bergman said.
It was not immediately clear how Navarro and the four others who died with him were killed, though police said Thursday's raid included an air attack and ground infiltration.
Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas did not provide details of what he called "one of the most ingenious undercover operations in Colombia in recent years."
Born into a peasant family, Navarro took to crime in the late 1990s after paramilitaries killed his mother and a sister, according to Colombian investigators. He projected a Robin Hood image, sharing some wealth with local people while putting numerous police, soldiers and local politicians on his payroll, U.S. and Colombian officials say. Those officials said Navarro also gained a reputation for personally torturing and killing infiltrators.
The 1,300-square-mile Catatumbo region that he controlled includes about one-tenth of Colombia's coca crop and is a key corridor into Venezuela, a major transit country for U.S.- and Europe-bound cocaine.
If the government succeeds in making peace with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the rebels have promised to help it dismantle the cocaine trade and Catatumbo could end up being a key laboratory for that effort. Negotiators hope to produce a final deal to end that armed conflict within six months.
One of authorities' biggest fears in a post-conflict Colombia is that ideology-free gangsters like Navarro would fill the vacuum left by the leftist rebels, taking control of remote regions that the government has always had trouble penetrating and employ ex-combatants as enforcers.