On Thursday, Argentine authorities sent one of Colombia’s most powerful and connected drug traffickers to the US to face trial.
Henry Jesus Lopez Londoño, aka “Mi Sangre,” or “My Blood,” was arrested in late 2012 at his favourite restaurant in Pilar, a suburb of Argentine capital Buenos Aires.
Early on Thursday, in an operation assisted by Interpol agents, Londoño was handed over to US Marshals.
Londoño was something of a legacy member of Colombia’s narco underworld.
Londoño got his start with Medellin-based criminal group Oficina de Envigado, which emerged in Colombia’s second-largest city in the mid-1990s, after the killing of Pablo Escobar and the subsequent breakup of the Cali cartel (which provided much of the money spent to take down Escobar).
During that time, Londoño worked with powerful Colombian crime boss Diego Fernando Murillo, aka “Don Berna,” running drug-trafficking operations and expanding into other illicit activities. Murillo, after helping bring down Escobar, consolidated control of criminal networks in and around Medellin, according to Insight Crime.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Don Berna and Londoño developed ties to several units of one of Colombia’s main right-wing paramilitary groups, the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC).
The AUC arose in part to protect the interests of bureaucratic elites, criminal groups, and landowning Colombians. Both the AUC and rival left-wing paramilitary groups, namely the FARC rebels, developed extensive ties to drug trafficking.
The AUC and other related paramilitary groups started demobilized in 2006 and Don Berna was extradited to the US in 2008. (The FARC rebels fought on and are currently trying to secure a peace deal with the Colombian government.)
After that Londoño and other former paramilitaries branched out into criminal activities, principally the drug trade, in order to support themselves.
They eventually formed Los Urabeños, a criminal band (Bacrim, in its Spanish initials) also known as Cartel del Golfo or Clan Usaga and that eventually made a bloody challenge to the Oficina de Enviagado’s control of Medellin.
Los Urabeños grew their dominance of Colombia’s underworld, eventually assuming control of Medellin and of trafficking on the country’s Caribbean coast. Currently, Los Urabeños is considered to be Colombia’s most powerful criminal group, the only one with a truly national reach and partnering with Mexican cartels to smuggle cocaine.
Londoño was able to avoid arrest or death at the hands of Colombian authorities and his criminal rivals for some time, but Urabeños leadership sent him to Argentina in 2010 for his own protection, according to Insight Crime. According to Reuters, he slipped into the country in 2011 using a forged Venezuelan passport.
He was one of several high-level Colombian criminals hiding out there, and it’s suspected his relocation there was part of an effort by his criminal group to expand into Argentina, which has both a large domestic drug market and is the fifth-largest transit point for drugs bound to Europe and Asia, according to the UN.
At the time of his capture, Londoño was reportedly living in an upscale section of Buenos Aires with his wife and three young children.
At the time of his arrest in October 2012, it was reported that he was travelling between Uruguay, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Colombia and was posing as a Venezuelan businessman in order apply for a visa to live in Ecuador.
Londoño’s extradition comes as the center-right administration of Argentina President Mauricio Macri works to improve ties with the US after an at-time frosty relationship between Washington and Macri’s predecessor, leftist President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.
Macri based his presidential candidacy on improving the country’s economy, to be brought about in part by attracting US investment, according to Reuters.
Since Macri’s election at the end of last year, both US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have visited Argentina. Macri was also one of the few leaders from the region to contact Donald Trump after he won the presidency.
Macri has also stepped up his country’s fight against the drug trade. In January, he declared a state of emergency and reinstated a shoot-down policy targeted at suspected drug planes. An average of 40 such planes are thought to cross into northern Argentina each month.
Argentina has also increased security operations at the northern port of Rosario, the country’s third-largest port that is believed to be a major hub for drug trafficking and has seen high levels of drug-related violence in recent years.
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