- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2004

CALI, Colombia — As many as 50 people have been killed and dozens wounded in the past six months in what authorities say is a merciless war for control of one of this country’s last big cocaine cartels.

Mayor Apolinar Salcedo has asked for Washington’s help in halting the violence.

The latest battle between rival leaders of the Norte de Valle cartel occurred in a humble neighborhood of Yumbo, a normally peaceful industrial suburb, according to police.

Police say bandits associated with Diego Montoya Sanchez, alias “Don Diego,” a leader of the Norte de Valle cartel, opened fire on spectators of a cockfight on Jan. 25.

The men were targeting Wilmer Uribe, or “Chorizo,” nicknamed for a tasty sausage, a known bodyguard of Wilmer Alirio Varela, another cartel leader known as “Jabon,” or soap.

Five persons were killed, including Sergio Esteban Munoz, a 7-year-old boy who, according to his aunt, had stopped with his father to have a soda. Chorizo escaped unharmed.

“There were bullets flying everywhere,” recalled a shaken Arnuvio Antonio Cardona, 60, who owns the cockfight ring. Mr. Cardona said he grabbed one of his hens and ran for his house when he saw an armed, hooded man approach; some of the spectators followed him into the house and even crawled under his beds.

U.S. and Colombian authorities increasingly have begun to target the Norte de Valle cartel, a loose collection of bandits who moved in to fill the vacuum in cocaine trafficking created by the surrender of Cali cartel leaders Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela in 1995.

The authorities’ first big catch was Arcangel Henao Montoya, arrested Jan. 10 in Panama and extradited to the United States four days later.

Police and U.S. officials describe the cartel, named for the southern province where it is based, as a far less conspicuous group of traffickers than its predecessors — including showy Medellin cartel head Pablo Escobar, who owned islands and a ranch with hippos before his death in 1993. But that doesn’t mean that the new gangsters are any less dangerous.

“I think they are a number of criminals that exploited an opportunity in years past to build their enterprise,” said one U.S. official, conceding that they had gone unnoticed for some time. “But time’s up. Now the attention’s on them. They’re the ones we’re going for.”

The official wouldn’t speculate on how much cocaine the cartel is trafficking, nor on its street value, but did say the group had graduated to moving “major loads.”

This criminal enterprise differs from previous cartels in that it relies heavily for protection on illegal armed groups, taking help from right-wing paramilitaries as well as leftist rebels.

“Show me a doper who’s not reliant on an armed subversive group and I’ll show you a doper who’s not in the game,” said the U.S. official.

Authorities have benefited from the fact that the struggle between Varela and Don Diego has reached such heights that they are snitching on each other. Information from Varela reportedly helped U.S., Colombian and Panamanian police capture Henao.

Up to 500 bandits known as Los Machos, a gang of assassins working for Don Diego, prowl Cali and its environs in search of Varela’s men. Varela has his own army of thugs known as La Bossi.

Threatening pamphlets terrorize residents of small towns outside Cali. “The good boys should go to sleep early; the others, we will put to sleep ourselves,” warned one pamphlet that reportedly circulated in Rodanillo, north of Cali.

The bloodshed stands in stark contrast to decreasing homicide and kidnapping rates in the rest of Colombia, where President Alvaro Uribe is waging an aggressive war against the leftist rebels and attempting to demobilize the paramilitaries.

Mr. Salcedo, the mayor of Cali, acknowledged the crisis and urged the international community, especially the United States, to step in with more resources for social investment.

“This is not a subject exclusive to Cali, the Norte de Valle or Colombia,” Mr. Salcedo said. “It is not easy to reverse this.”

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