When Colombia's most notorious drug lord, Diego Montoya, was cornered by a special army commando unit on a remote coastal ranch last week, he did what came naturally: he offered the soldiers $5m each if they would let him go free.
The move wasn't quite as desperate as it sounds. As an ever-growing scandal in Colombia has revealed in recent weeks, Montoya has successfully bribed a large number of military and police personnel for years, to facilitate his cocaine shipments to the United States. To date, 26 officers, both commissioned and non-commissioned, have been arrested, two generals have resigned and the spotlight has now turned on an admiral in the Colombian navy.
On this occasion, though, the bribes did Montoya no good. The boss of the Norte del Valle Cartel, widely regarded as Colombia's most powerful, and also its most deadly, was found in his underwear hiding under a pile of leaves on a ranch in the south west of the country, near the Pacific coast. When the soldiers indicated they weren't interested in his money, he said: "I've lost." And the man known variously as Don Diego, El Senor de la Guerra (The Druglord), or El Ciclista (The Cyclist) came quietly.
The Colombian government quickly hailed the arrest as the most significant moment in its never-ending war against the drug barons since it cornered and killed the flamboyant Pablo Escobar, head of the Cali cartel, in 1993. "Drug traffickers take note: this is the future that awaits you," the country's defence minister, Juan Manuel Santos, told reporters at Bogota airport as Montoya was escorted off an Air Force plane in plastic handcuffs.
Montoya's cartel was believed to be responsible for more than two-thirds of the cocaine trade out of Colombia, as well as about 1,500 mob killings. In the US, he was on the FBI's top 10 most wanted list, alongside Osama bin Laden, and is now widely expected to be extradited to Miami.
Defence Minister Santos said a recent purge of the corrupted army and police ranks played a major role in hunting down Montoya – whose tracks are made easier to trace because of a pronounced limp.
He is one of several high-profile catches over the past month – others include his fellow cartel leader Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia, arrested in Brazil last month, and Tomas Caracas, a left-wing guerrilla leader and drug kingpin almost completely transformed by several rounds of plastic surgery, who was killed in an air raid two weeks ago.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the latest successes mark a real turning point, or if the arrests and killings will simply prompt the emergence of a new generation of cartel leaders.Reuse content