Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Police launch crackdown against cocaine cartel

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) -- Colombian police launched an unprecedented operation
Wednesday to confiscate more than 200 properties worth an estimated $100 million
from the powerful Norte del Valle cocaine cartel, the chief of Colombia's judicial police

"It is the largest property seizure operation ever carried out in the country
against a narco-trafficking organization," Col. Oscar Naranjo, the head of the
judicial police known as the DIJIN, told The Associated Press in a telephone

Naranjo said more than 450 police officers and prosecutors were taking part in
the operation centered in the Valle del Cauca region in southwest Colombia.
He said some 5,000 hectares (12,350 acres) of land, farms, apartments and
businesses will be seized in the operation that ends Friday.

"We estimate that the properties are worth at least $100 million," he said.

He said the operation was being carried out under a 1996 law that allows the
state to take over property acquired with funds obtained through illegal
activities such as drug trafficking.

Colombia is the world's largest exporter of cocaine and a major supplier of
heroine to the United States.

It was unclear how many people would be affected by the operation. The main
goal is to keep these properties from being used in drug-related activities.

Naranjo said the newly re-established elite police unit known as the Search
Bloc, which was instrumental in dismantling the Medellin and Cali cartels in the
1990s, was playing a central role in this week's operation.

The drug-busting Search Bloc was responsible for killing legendary drug
kingpin Pablo Escobar in a rooftop shootout in Medellin in 1993, but has not
been active for many years. Escobar's drug empire collapsed shortly afterward.

The Norte del Valle cartel maneuvered to take over much of the cocaine
business after Escobar's fall, but is now locked in a brutal war against rival drug
lords that has left more than 1,000 dead in the streets of Cali in the past six

Naranjo said police on Tuesday arrested 12 suspected members of "Los
Yiyos," the cartel's armed wing, blamed for hundreds of Cali killings.

Investigators believe the current war pits Norte del Valle boss Diego Montoya
Sanchez, alias "Don Diego," against rival gang leader Wilmer Alirio Varela. The
latest fighting apparently erupted after members of Varela's gang supplied
information to authorities that led to the capture of two senior Norte del Valle
cartel leaders.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press.