Venezuela: Drug lord changed look with surgeries

Thursday, September 20, 2012

CARACAS, Venezuela -- One of Colombia's most-wanted drug lords changed his appearance through repeated plastic surgeries before he was captured in Venezuela while making a call from a public payphone, Venezuela's justice minister said Wednesday.

Daniel Barrera was handcuffed as he was led from a truck to a waiting helicopter Wednesday to be flown from the southwestern city of San Cristobal to the Venezuelan capital of Caracas.

The 50-year-old Barrera was captured Tuesday after Colombian officials, who had been working with U.S. and British authorities, notified Venezuela that Barrera was making a call from one of dozens of public phones being monitoring in the area, Venezuelan Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami said at a news conference.

The arrest of the man known as "El Loco," or "The Madman," was announced Tuesday evening by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who called Barrera "the last of the great capos."

Barrera had been in Venezuela since 2008 and owned ranches worth millions of dollars, Colombia's National Police director, Gen. Jose Roberto Leon, said at a news conference in Washington.

Leon said Barrera had been posing as a cattle rancher and when detained was carrying a fake passport with the name Jose Tomas Lucumi that also said he was a resident of the Colombian city of Cali.

The Colombian police chief thanked Venezuelan authorities for their cooperation in capturing Barrera. Officials said the man was alone and didn't resist when he was arrested at the payphone in front of a church in San Cristobal.

Leon said the British intelligence service MI-6 had provided "special training and technology" that helped make the capture possible. He said he had traveled to MI-6's headquarters last week, and that Tuesday he went to Washington, where he received "another important contribution" from the CIA that allowed authorities to launch the operation to capture Barrera.

Various informants helped the authorities find Barrera, and a reward of about $2.5 million will be paid, Leon said. He noted that U.S. authorities had also offered $5 million for information leading to his arrest.

U.S. and Colombian officials have alleged that Barrera's gang supplies cocaine to Mexico's Sinaloa cartel, which ships drugs to the United States.

El Aissami called it Venezuela's "most important blow" against drug trafficking to date and said Venezuelan authorities had been monitoring 69 public payphones since Colombia alerted them Aug. 6 that Barrera was thought to be in the area.

U.S. officials have frequently accused Venezuelan authorities of not doing enough to curb drug trafficking, and have said that most of the drug flights ferrying cocaine northward from South America leave from Venezuela.

U.S.-Venezuelan counter-drug cooperation has been sharply scaled back since 2005, when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez suspended cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and accused it of being a front for espionage.

Venezuelan government officials said Barrera's arrest shows their commitment to counter-drug efforts. El Aissami also criticized a recent report by President Barack Obama's government that accused Venezuela of failing to meet its obligations in fighting the drug trade.

"Without the interference of the United States, we've detained ... 91 bosses of important criminal organizations" in recent years, El Aissami said. He didn't refer to the U.S. assistance that Leon described in Barrera's case.

The arrest was the latest of several in Venezuela involving alleged Colombian drug kingpins. The arrests have followed improved Colombian relations with Venezuela under Santos. Colombian leaders have also welcomed Venezuela's help in facilitating peace talks in Norway next month between Colombia's government and the country's biggest rebel movement, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Venezuelan criminologist Fermin Marmol Garcia said Venezuela was showing signs it was cracking down on the drug trade by working with Colombian authorities, as well as receiving help, if indirectly, from Britain and the United States. Still, he said, it's clear Venezuela has become a key conduit for cocaine shipments in the past decade.

"It worries me to see so many international fugitives of justice in our territory," Marmol said in a telephone interview. He said they seem to "think Venezuela is a safe territory for them to keep cool, that it's a safe territory for them to protect themselves."

He said the authorities still need to do more to root out Barrera's lieutenants. "He must have had deputies. He must have had properties, places that should be raided," Marmol said.

According to a 2010 grand jury indictment in U.S. District Court in New York, Barrera was both manufacturing and trafficking drugs on a large scale, buying raw cocaine paste from FARC rebels and converting it into cocaine at his labs in eastern Colombia. The indictment said that amounted to as much as 400 tons per year, and that Barrera then arrangement shipment of the drugs through Colombia and Venezuela to the United States, Europe and Africa.

Barrera had undergone various cosmetic surgeries that helped him hide his identity, El Aissami said, without giving details of those operations.

Colombian authorities also released a photograph purportedly showing Barrera's hands with the fingertips burned and blackened by acid in order to do away with his fingerprints. It was unclear when the photograph was taken.

El Aissami said Barrera would be interrogated by investigators in Caracas.

Associated Press writers Luis Alonso Lugo and Alicia Caldwell in Washington and Vivian Sequera in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.

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