Page last updated at 16:05 GMT, Thursday, 16 April 2009 17:05 UK

Colombia's unending drugs battle

The arrest of one of Colombia's top drugs lords has been a major blow to the cartels - but why haven't different strategies been able to finish them off, asks BBC Mundo's Hernando Salazar.

Don Mario
Don Mario: a major security challenge to Colombian authorities

The announcement on Wednesday of the arrest of Daniel Rendon Herrera, alias "Don Mario", Colombia's most wanted drugs lord, is a high-profile success for the authorities.

But Francisco Thoumi, a Colombian analyst, says criminals have in the past shown "a great ability to adapt" to whatever the government throws at them.

The drugs organisations are much different from those in the era of the "Grandes Capos" - such as Pablo Escobar and the brothers Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela in the 1980s.

Nowadays they are purely "in the hands of gangsters", says Mr Thuomi, adding: "The narcos of today do not have political goals, as in the times of Escobar."

The traffickers have also learned how to deal with the US authorities, Mr Thoumi adds.

"Now they even ask to be extradited to the US, which was unthinkable 20 years ago," he says.

Paramilitary groups

Colombian officials believe that Don Mario's strength was in his ability to mobilise the armed bands that appeared after right-wing paramilitary groups (the so-called paras) were demobilised three years ago.

Don Mario refused to surrender under the peace deal and instead used his network of contacts to build up an army of up to 1,000 heavily-armed fighters.

Those groups are blamed for at least 3,000 crimes in roughly 18 months.

Don Mario is also accused of using this power to gain absolute control of the main export corridor for Colombian drugs through the Gulf of Uraba, on the border with Panama.

He also controlled large trafficking zones in Central and Eastern Colombia, according to Gustavo Duncan, a researcher on paramilitary groups.

Coco leaves (file image)
The cultivation of coca leaves has been a major industry in Colombia

That would explain why Don Mario had become one of the main security challenges for the authorities, who were already concerned with a recent wave of murders in Medellin, the second largest city in Colombia and the base of a much feared gang known as La Oficina de Envigado.

The Colombian Minister of Defence, Juan Manuel Santos, also accuses Don Mario of being behind threatening pamphlets circulated recently in Colombia.

Sowing terror

The 43-year-old drug lord started his career at least 20 years ago, when he teamed up with the brothers Carlos, Fidel and Vicente Castano.

They came from Amalfi a small town in north-eastern Colombia, and they founded the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), a paramilitary group which sowed terror in many regions of the country.

Don Mario did not go to university and is described by some in Colombia as having the looks of a "ganadero" or cattle rancher.

He confessed to being part of the AUC for eight years before it was demobilised in 2006 in exchange for what he hoped would be a milder sentence.

But he escaped custody while being taken to a high security prison.

Nobody can deny that this is a powerful blow against the drug traffickers - Don Mario was a heavy-weight
Francisco Thoumi, Colombian analyst

Later he was shown on a video attacking what he called an "extermination campaign" waged by the Colombian government that had caused - according to him - many demobilised paras to re-arm.

Back in action, Don Mario took over areas abandoned by other paras and narcos who were now in prison.

After his arrest, Don Mario will join one his brothers, Fredy Rendon, alias El Aleman, a well known paramilitary leader in the Gulf of Uraba who is also in jail.

Powerful blow

So what now? No-one can tell for sure.

"Nobody can deny that this is a powerful blow against the drug traffickers - Don Mario was a heavy-weight," says Francisco Thoumi.

However, as in the past, he believes the drugs industry will go through a process of "adjustment".

"The drug business will go on, because it has been around for the past 35 years. Many legal instruments that once deterred the criminals, such as extradition, have now been weakened," he says.

Other analysts point out that, considering the efforts invested in searching for Don Mario, his capture took a long time.

They suspect that not only did he have a powerful army at his disposal, he only enjoyed protection from some officials.

Don Mario will now face charges for 11 crimes including homicide, trafficking drugs and forming a gang with delinquent purposes.

Colombian officials say they are searching for at least another three drugs lords who gained prominence in recent years - "El Loco Barrera", "Cuchillo" and "Comba".

Rewards of up to $2m (£1.3m) are being offered for their capture.

Translated by Pablo Uchoa.

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