By Cesar Garcia
BOGOTA — Colombia's most wanted drug lord was cowering like a dog under a palm tree when he was captured Wednesday in a jungle raid involving hundreds of police officers, the defense minister said.
Daniel Rendon Herrera, a far-right warlord known as "Don Mario," was taken in shackles to the capital to await possible extradition to the United States.
Operating in a banana-growing region bordering Panama, he commanded a private army of hundreds and shipped some 100 tons of cocaine to the United States, authorities said.
President Alvaro Uribe described Rendon, 43, as "one of the most feared drug traffickers in the world." National police director Gen. Oscar Naranjo said his organization is believed to have committed 3,000 murders in the last 18 months.
The bulk of those killings occurred in turf battles with other drug lords, police said, including former lieutenants of 14 paramilitary leaders Colombia extradited to the United States last year to stand trial on drug trafficking charges.
As has always occurred in Colombia's drug underworld, Rendon ascended in power as other kingpins were captured or extradited.
Naranjo said that when a police dragnet tightened on Rendon earlier this year, he offered his assassins $1,000 for each police officer they killed, in hopes of evading arrest.
Colombian officials had offered a reward of up to $2 million for information leading to the capture of the man whose organization, controlling key smuggling routes to Central America, is believed to have been working closely with Mexican traffickers.
"This guy put bounties on the heads of government officials, so he was Public Enemy No. 1 in Colombia," said Thomas Harrigan, operations chief for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The U.S. wants to put him on trial in New York on charges of conspiring to distribute cocaine in the United States, outlined in a bare-bones, four-page federal indictment filed last July and unsealed Wednesday. Such extraditions can take months.
Some 300 police officers joined the raid in the northern Colombian jungle town of San Jose de Apartado.
Uribe said nine months of patient planning and intelligence work went into the operation, which he called the latest proof of Colombia's skill in combatting organized crime.
At the time of his capture, Rendon had been cowering "like a dog" under a palm tree for two days, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said with evident satisfaction.
Various people helped police locate the hideout of "Don Mario" and may share parts of the reward, Santos added.
Just two weeks ago, a senior police official told The Associated Press that Rendon had slipped through a police dragnet after a Colombian newspaper report pinpointed his location.
"Many people in the area are working as his eyes and ears, he's bought off so many," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to divulge the information.
Colombia's far-right militias, known as the United Self-Defense forces of Colombia, or AUC, initially formed in the 1980s to counter kidnapping and extortion by leftist rebels but evolved into regional mafias that committed more than 10,000 murders, built lucrative cocaine trafficking operations and stole millions of acres of land, often in collusion with local political, business and military leaders, prosecutors say.
Daniel Rendon and his brother, Freddy, otherwise known as "The German" for the discipline he demanded from his troops, controlled an area of river-laced jungle near the Panama border that has long been a major corridor for drug and arms traffickers.
The brothers were among the last paramilitary leaders to demobilize under a 2003 peace deal that promised fighters reduced sentences and protection from extradition to the United States if they confessed to all their crimes.
But while his brother and other paramilitaries agreed to await justice in jail, "Don Mario" fled back to the jungle and rearmed, police say.
Santos said he was particularly pleased that with Wednesday's arrest, all four paramilitary chiefs who rejected the peace deal have been recaptured or killed.
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Santos said the government has captured 5,600 members of paramilitary groups to date and that this latest arrest "is a message for all others: It doesn't matter what they do or where they are, eventually they will fall."