Abandoned in the jungle – the deadliest drug lord

Daniel Rendon Herrera once had his own army. This week, police found him cowering under a palm tree. Guy Adams reports

They called him "Don Mario," and he was one of the most wanted men in the world: the head of a ruthless crime empire that carried out 3,000 murders in the past 18 months and smuggled hundreds of tonnes of cocaine, with a street value of tens of millions of dollars, from his native Colombia each year.

Yet when police finally caught up with Daniel Rendon Herrera, a former right-wing paramilitary who rose to become Colombia's most feared drug lord, all his trappings of wealth and private armies had melted away. He was found cowering under a palm tree. Police said he "looked like a dog."

On Wednesday, the podgy 43-year-old, who paid followers $1,200 (£800) for every policeman killed, was paraded for the cameras in an airfield at Necocli, near Colombia's north-western border with Panama. His hands were tied, he wore a filthy T-shirt, and he bore the demeanour of a man dragged through several hedges backwards.

More than 300 heavily armed members of the elite "Yunglas" anti-narcotics unit had swooped on Rendon's jungle hideaway about 2am. They posed as Holy Week tourists to keep their arrival in town secret and were apparently tipped-off about his whereabouts by a former associate.

President Alvaro Uribe, whose administration had offered $2m for information leading to the kingpin's arrest, described him as the country's public enemy No 1, and said his dramatic capture was "good news for the security of all Colombians and bolsters democracy".

It also represents the end of an era. Rendon, who came from a humble farming family and was occasionally known as "El Paisano" (The Peasant), was one of the last survivors of Colombia's "old school" of drug barons, who once controlled almost every aspect of the billion-dollar global cocaine trade.

He rose to prominence during the 1980s, as a leader in the far-right United Self Defence Forces of Columbia, an alliance of militias formed to counter kidnapping and extortion by left-wing rebels. The groups evolved into local mafias, who became wealthy from cocaine trafficking, and used political bribery and extortion to steal millions of acres of land.

Originally, Rendon was the right-hand-man of his brother Freddy, a rebel leader known as "The German" on account of his disciplinarian tendencies. Together, they controlled an area of jungle near the Panamanian border that represented a key staging post for drug exports into the US and Europe. Daniel Rendon was famed for displays of conspicuous consumption and had a passion for vintage brandy and designer suits. He was rumoured to use $100 bills to light cigars, and liked to wear a different, new Rolex every day.

In 2003, Freddy became one of Colombia's last paramilitary leaders to demobilise under a peace deal which promised reduced sentences and protection from extradition to the US for rebel leaders – both left and right wing – who confessed to previous crimes. But Daniel Rendon decided to flee back into the jungle. He swiftly re-armed, using an alliance with a rebel group called the Black Eagles to fill a vacuum left by the disappearance of several rival cartels, and resumed his day-to-day business of kidnapping and murder.

His style followed in the tradition of Pablo Escobar, the famous drug baron shot dead by Colombian soldiers in 1993.

Farmers who refused to hand over their banana plantations to him for coca cultivation were swiftly executed. Severed heads of policemen would be exchanged by his representatives for hard cash.

But in recent months, the net had begun to close, thanks partly to massive US financial subsidies to Colombia's drug enforcement authorities, to the tune of $5bn since 2000.

In August, police seized 350 assault rifles and 140,000 rounds of ammunition from one of Rendon's arms caches. Two weeks ago, the Associated Press reported that he had come within a whisker of arrest near the Carribean coastal city of Turbo. The crackdown saw Rendon largely abandoned by his private army, which only months ago had an estimated strength of 1,000 men. He was discovered deep in the jungle, where even his vast wealth could not afford a comfortable lifestyle.

"He was living like a dog, eating rice with his hands," said the police colonel Cezar Pinzon after the arrest. Colonel Pinzon's officers had been tracking Rendon for nine months.

Rendon was flown to Bogota on Wednesday night, where his fate remains unclear. Though the government intends to charge him with almost 3,000 homicides, the US will also apply for extradition to put him on trial for distributing at least a hundred tonnes of cocaine in the US.

His arrest represents a coup for the Colombian government but experts are unsure how it will affect drug-related violence. In the past, the arrest of major drug barons has lead to a surge in killings as rivals fight for dominance of their former territory.

"Don Mario's arrest is a significant accomplishment, and demonstrates the enhanced capacities of the Colombian security forces under President Uribe's Democratic Security program and the U.S.-backed Plan Colombia," said Bruce Bagley, an expert on the drug trade at the University of Miami's School of International Studies.

"Nonetheless, it will not permanently disrupt Don Mario s organisation or the flow of cocaine from Colombia to the United States and Europe. At best, it will cause a temporary disruption of deliveries while lieutenants sort out, very possibly in violent fashion, who will take over the organisation."

Cocaine: Colombian connection

535 Tonnes of pure cocaine Colombia was able to produce in 2007.

60% Share of global cocaine production that takes place in Colombia.

$934m Total value of the cocaine trade in Colombia in 2007, an increase on 2006 of 37 per cent.

$943kg Average cost of coca from suppliers in Colombia.

$2,198/kg Average wholesale price of cocaine worldwide.

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