America's Most Wanted Drug Smuggler Diego Montoya Caught in Colombia
BOGOTA, Colombia – America's most-wanted drug trafficker has been captured in Colombia, dealing a major blow to the country's largest remaining cocaine cartel, the government said Monday.
Diego Montoya, who sits alongside Osama Bin Ladin on the FBI's 10 most-wanted fugitives list, allegedly leads the Norte del Valle cartel, Colombia's most powerful and dangerous drug organization. The FBI says the cartel has exported many tons of cocaine to the United States from the world's No. 1 cocaine-producing nation.
The FBI had offered $5 million for information leading to the arrest of Montoya, who put up no resistance as he was captured by the army on a small farm in the cartel stronghold of Valle del Cauca state, said Mario Iguaran, Colombia's chief federal prosecutor.
Colombians see Montoya's capture as the biggest victory in the drug war since Medellin Cartel leader Pablo Escobar was killed in a 1993 shootout.
Authorities have been closing in on his cartel since last year, when the army killed eight members of a private army believed to be protecting Montoya, but a wide network of cartel informants frustrated the search by police and soldiers.
Better known as "Don Diego," Montoya has been in a bitter turf war with the Norte de Valle cartel's other leader, Wilber Varela, who goes by the nom de guerre "Jabon," or "Soap," and is reported to be living in Venezuela.
Hundreds have been killed in battles between their rival armed militias along Colombia's Pacific coast.
A U.S. indictment filed in 2004 against Montoya and Varela said that in the previous 14 years, their cartel had exported more than 1.2 million pounds -- or 500 metric tons -- of cocaine worth more than $10 billion from Colombia to Mexico and ultimately to the United States for resale.
Montoya's brother, Eugenio Montoya, was captured in Colombia in January. Another top Montoya associate, Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia, was captured in Brazil last month. It was unclear however, whether that arrest led to Montoya's capture.
The Norte del Valle cartel rose in the mid-1990s from the ashes of the Medellin and Cali cocaine cartels, paying for drugs and protection from both far-right paramilitaries and leftist rebels.
Montoya has been in the headlines recently as another scandal grows over his cartel's alleged infiltration of Colombia's army and navy.
Since taking office in 2002, President Alvaro Uribe, a key U.S. ally in Latin America, has approved the extradition of more than 540 Colombians to the United States, the majority on drug-trafficking charges.
For his aggressive stance, the United States has awarded Colombia with more than $700 million in annual anti-narcotics and military aid.
Most of those extradited are suspected of being low or midlevel drug traffickers, however.
High-profile extraditions have included Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, brothers who helped found the Cali cartel.
Colombia is the source of 90 percent of the cocaine entering the United States. Supply has remained robust despite record extraditions and eradication of coca crops.
The Norte del Valle cartel appeared to learn from the successes and failures of earlier cartels. Escobar and the Rodriguez Orjuela brothers seemed comfortable in the limelight that eventually brought them down. This newer generation of traffickers sought a lower profile, and learned to use unrestrained violence at the slightest provocation.
One high-ranking Norte del Valle cartel member, Victor Patino, who decided to testify in the U.S. saw at least 35 family members and friends slaughtered in retaliation for his betrayal.