Colombian gang leader caught in Venezuela

By Christopher Toothaker and Frank Bajak, AP

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan soldiers captured an alleged Colombian drug trafficker Sunday who authorities say ruthlessly ran the neighboring country’s biggest right-wing criminal gang and conspired to export tons of cocaine to the United States through Mexico and Central America.

Diego Perez Henao, 41, is one of Colombia’s “most sinister drug traffickers and murderers,” Colombia’s national police director-designate, Gen. Jose Roberto Leon, told reporters in Bogota.

Colombian officials called him the leader of the “Rastrojos,” or Leftovers, a violent offshoot of the Norte del Valle cartel that engages in drug trafficking, extortion and murder as it competes with other criminal bands that grew out of the far-right militias known as paramilitaries.

The gang, which is thought to have hundreds of members, operates on Colombia’s Pacific coast and along the border with Venezuela, Colombian police say. Better known by his alias “Diego Rastrojo,” Perez was indicted in 2011 in Florida on charges of conspiracy to traffic cocaine. The U.S. State Department had a US$5 million reward out for his capture. Henao was pretending to be foreman of a rice farm in Venezuela’s border state of Barinas, living with 10 bodyguards who posed as his workers, and was arrested just before dawn Sunday, Leon said. Venezuela’s justice minister, Tareck El Aissami, said at a news conference that Perez was “one of the most wanted criminals in Latin America” and that the government of President Hugo Chavez planned to turn him over the Colombian authorities.

Colombian and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents led Venezuelan authorities to Perez, said a U.S. government official, who spoke on condition he not be further identified because of the political sensitivity.