The Last Kingpin: ‘El Loco’ Barrera to Stand Trial

PHOTO: Colombian drug trafficker Daniel Barrera (C) aka El Loco is escorted by policemen before being deported to the United States at the Antinarcotics Police Airport on July 9, 2013

LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty

One of the world's most wanted drug lords will soon stand trial in New York.

Last year, Venezuelan authorities caught Daniel "El Loco" Barrera, 44, the world's second-most-wanted drug dealer. Extradited to the U.S. this week, he stands accused of money laundering and conspiring to produce and distribute cocaine in the country, according to an unsealed indictment.

On Wednesday, he pled "not guilty" in a U.S. district court.

Barrera's pending trial could mean the end of a long, violent criminal career maintained with cover IDs and false fingerprints.

"El Loco," a nickname Barrera earned for his recklessness when facing rival gangs, forged a drug empire that exported upwards of 400 tons of cocaine to the U.S. each year for more than a decade. Unlike most kingpins, Barrera survived without an army. Instead, he formed partnerships with terrorist groups and hit men across the political and financial spectrum. Barrera also bribed policemen and politicians, and partnered with groups as diverse as FARC, the Colombian paramilitaries, the Sinaloa Cartel and Los Zetas to create a vast organization that earned him the title of the "last don."

"If you don't work for me, I'll kill you or turn you in," Barrera used to say.

The Rise of the Don

According to Colombian authorities, Barrera's criminal career began at the end of the 1980s, when he left Bogotá to follow his brother to Guaviare, a remote state in southern Colombia where coca crops have been grown for decades. In Guaviare, Barrera worked processing cocaine in a small, improvised laboratory until a group of six hit men murdered his brother. Barrera is said to have tracked them down and killed them one by one, thereby establishing his reputation in the area.

By 1990, Barrera had attracted the attention of local authorities. In February of that year, he was arrested on drug trafficking charges and sent to jail. He escaped eight months later and fled to Meta, a historically unlawful state in central Colombia made up of vast plains and unclaimed land.

In Meta, a guerrilla stronghold at the time, Barrera started working for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the leftist rebel group, selling and commercializing cocaine. According to court documents, "El Loco" bought cocaine paste from the guerrillas, processed it, and then smuggled it to the U.S., Europe, and Africa through Venezuela and Central America. By 1998, he had become one of FARC's main distributors.

At the same time, Barrera expanded his contacts inside Colombia. Using FARC's unprocessed product as his calling card, he established business relationships with Norte del Valle Cartel, and with drug dealers in the north and south of the country. Shamelessly, he also partnered with commanders of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), the country's largest paramilitary group–FARC's mortal enemies.

Barrera's association with the paramilitaries allegedly extended beyond common drug business. According to Colombian authorities, "El Loco" played a significant role in the death of Miguel Arroyave, a paramilitary leader who commanded an army of 5,000 men. Arroyave, the head of a feared paramilitary unit called the Bloque Centauros, was gunned down in 2004 by two of his underlings. According to reports, Barrera allegedly instigated the murder in order to take over Arroyave's routes and the cocaine trade in Bogotá.

In effect, Barrera controlled the country's capital soon after Arroyave's death. In Bogotá, he spent as much as $125,000 a month to bribe local law enforcement agencies, according to Semana magazine.

Authorities Catch On

For years, Barrera maintained a low profile by signing legal documents using his brothers' names and fingerprints. Barrera chopped off the right fingers of two dead brothers to sustain his scheme, according to police reports, and further took advantage of another brother who has Down syndrome, signing his name and driving him to registration offices whenever he needed a fingerprint.

But by 2010, authorities unraveled the story behind Barrera's cover IDs and issued a warrant for his arrest. As law enforcement agencies gradually closed in on his whereabouts, Barrera fled to Venezuela, where he hid for nearly two years.

In San Cristobal, "El Loco" struggled to keep his operation afloat. As time went by, he had money problems and faced challenges from within his organization, according to wiretapped conversations obtained by Semana. He even ordered a small scale war against Los Zetas after the Mexican cartel decided to pay him a fraction of the cost of a cocaine shipment seized in Mexico.

To keep his network afloat, Barrera placed regular calls from nearly a 100 public payphones in the city.

The Kingpin Falls

With the help of Venezuelan authorities, MI6, and the CIA, Colombian intelligence tracked Barrera down.

Around 6:40 p.m. on September 18, 2012, four men approached a public telephone in San Cristobal, Venezuela, fewer than 40 miles from the Colombian border. Soon after, about a dozen police officers and members of the Venezuelan National Guard surrounded them and asked for their papers. As a few bystanders looked on, the officers arrested a short, bearded man with large ears and a seemingly affable face.

Less than an hour later, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos interrupted all local television newscasts to make a special announcement.

"The last of the great kingpins has fallen," he said. "Alias 'El Loco' [the Madman] Barrera was captured in San Cristobal, Venezuela…"

Barrera had extradition requests from two U.S. federal courts, and a few months after his capture, Colombian courts approved them, sending him to the U.S. on July 9. He appeared in a New York federal court the next day and pled not guilty to all counts.

"If any one case epitomizes the nexus between terrorism and drug trafficking and the destructive impact on Colombian society, this is it," NYPD Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said.

Barrera is set to make a new court appearance on September 4.

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