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Last Updated: Friday, 1 February 2008, 20:50 GMT
Colombian drugs lord found dead
Jeremy McDermott
BBC News, Medellin

Wilber Varela
Sources say evidence points to Varela's associates as his killers
Colombia's most-wanted drugs baron has been found dead in a holiday cabin in the Venezuelan city of Merida.

Officials confirmed the body is that of Wilber Varela, alias "Soap", a man with a long and bloody history as leader of the Norte del Valle drug cartel.

While Varela had a $5m (2.5m) bounty from the US on his head, the evidence suggests he was killed by his own men.

His cocaine smuggling cartel was the successor to the infamous Medellin cartel of Pablo Escobar.

It is believed that Varela's cartel moved thousands of tonnes of cocaine into the US and Europe.

New recruits

US and Colombian intelligence agencies said that Varela had been hiding in Venezuela for at least a year, running his operations out of their reach.

Venezuela is now the main transit nation for Colombian cocaine.

US and Colombian officials say Venezuela does not co-operate with international anti-drugs efforts, although they do have contact with their Venezuelan counterparts.

For their part, Venezuelan officials told the BBC they were willing to co-operate but that a lack of resources often hampers their efforts.

Colombian intelligence sources said that communications intercepts suggested that Varela was killed by some of his own men, a not unexpected end for a man who started in the drug business as an a assassin.

Last year, the other three leaders of the Norte del Valle cartel were captured, in effect bringing an end to the organisation.

However, a new generation of traffickers is already stepping up to take their place.

The security forces have the aliases of two men believed to be picking up the pieces within the cartel and keeping the business moving.

They are known only as '06' and 'Red Shirt' and the hunt is on for them and their real identities as a new chapter in the war on drugs begins.

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