Diego Rastrojo, the last narco on horseback

Cristóbal Jiménez's obsequious ballad honoring Maisanta, the ancestor of the late President Hugo Chávez, has a title that fits the stories of Diego Pérez Henao, once one of the world's most wanted drug traffickers, who had his hideout in a small ranch in the state of Barinas. The estate emerges as one of the best kept secrets. Several sources agree that the founder of the Norte Del Valle cartel (Valley's North cartel) was untouchable within the boundaries that belonged to Israel Ramón Chávez Aro, a relative of the Bolivarian chieftain.

20 August 2017

Don José, also known as the Colombian capo Diego Pérez Henao, had sown a lot during his captivity. Settled on a ranch in the inhospitable Colonia Mijagual of the state of Barinas (central-western plains), he pretended for a year to be a prosperous landowner who made money like few others despite the downfall of Venezuela's economy. He had developed a network of contacts with policemen, peasants, and ranchers in the village, but it was not enough for him to keep hiding. In the early morning of June 3, 2012 Pérez Henao was captured after a joint operation between the Colombian DIJIN (Dirección de Investigación Criminal e Interpol) and the Venezuelan ONA (Organización Nacional Antidrogas).

With his arrest, it was revealed the true identity of the enigmatic landowner of Mijagual. Pérez, alias Diego Rastrojo, was a mobster to the root: head of the powerful criminal army Los Rastrojos, involved in 66 homicides in Colombia, several kidnappings and five forced disappearances; founder of the Norte del Valle cartel, responsible for trafficking 81,100 kilograms of cocaine into the United States between 1994 and 2008, a firearm manufacturer, guilty of the murder in January 2008 of his former chief Wilber Varela, aka Jabón, and other crimes. A long history of more than 20 years of crimes, but without a single criminal record until his arrest. It was in a U.S. federal court in South Florida that he was sentenced to 30 years in prison on August 6, 2014.

Diego Pérez Henao | Photo by: Colprensa

His outcome seems inconsequential in the Colonia Mijagual. There, the Capo's ranch is just mystery and legend. Its real name is "Potrero Redondo", but also they also call it "La Ramera" or "Cocuizal". Since the capture of alias Diego Rastrojo it's not known these ways, but because of the history that associates the land to drug trafficking. In 2006, these properties were sold by Jesús Manuel Briceño to Agroquímicos Santa Rita, a company owned by Israel Ramón Chávez Aro, son of a cousin of the late President Hugo Chávez, for 800 million bolivars (or about $180,791, calculated at the rate of that moment). One source, who was related to a security agency in Colombia, claims that these lands did not legally pass to the head of Los Rastrojos, but in practice they did.

Is an open secret that the lands belonging to Chávez Aro are related to Pérez Henao.

The testimony matches with that exposed by peasants and a landowner from Barinas. All claim to have seen empowered the boss of those domains for more than a year. "He sold a lot of onions, which was puzzling for us because cultivating onions is expensive. He'd bring beers to the cops, he'd come and say hello. He was a simple guy, who would suspect him", comment two peasants. Even in one of the Mercantile Registries of the Venezuelan plains it is an open secret that the lands belonging to Chávez Aro are related to Pérez Henao.

But the capo's arrest seems to have wiped out the details of what was his refuge for at least a year. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Justice provided the media with very limited information on this matter. According to reviews in Venezuelan and foreign newspapers, Pérez Henao had been captured in a rice farm near the Masparro River, where he was posing as a butler and was escorted by about 10 men at the time of his arrest. There was no mention of the property owner until then.     

There have been endless references to the properties of the Chávez family. Israel Ramón Chávez Aro, 37, is one of those pointed out in Barinas for possessing great assets ranging from lands to a football stadium, but few documents can confirm his economic power. In addition to the land related to Pérez Henao, there is another ranch, called La Esperanza, of 96 hectares in the municipality of Rojas in Barinas, which he bought in 2006. He is known for sponsoring diverse musical or artistic events in the Venezuelan plains.  

His father, Israel Ramón Chávez Jiménez, an electrician born in the town of Santa Rita and brother of Asdrúbal Chávez (member of the board of directors of the company Alba Nicaragua), is close to Argenis Chávez, another brother of the former president of Venezuela, now candidate for governor of Barinas by the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Father and son also have a company called Servicios y Construcciones San Ramón, which operates in this country.

Sowing the seeds of crime

Perez Henao did not operate alone in Venezuela. The dozen guards who accompanied him when he was captured were not the only ones to follow him around the country. In a wealthy and commercial neighborhood in the capital of Barinas, they claim to have detected the Los Rastrojos mafia. Several neighbors in a building recount how they lived with a family that supposedly ran some capo's business, until about February 2012. "They fled. It was a marriage with two children, a young girl and a boy. Suddenly they started to have a very ostentatious lifestyle, which surprised us. Their apartment was raided by the police, they said that the father was a front man of a narco", says a neighbor.

"We were told: 'This is an international crime case, if you go in there I must put you in jail!'.

The description of the father coincides with that of alias "Chucho", a Colombian citizen who, according to a former security official of that country, served as a front man for Pérez Henao. According to sources who were formerly linked to Colombian security, it would be a man named José Wilder Hortua Gómez. The testimonies of the people related to him in Barinas assert that many agents warned against obstructing the investigations. "We were told: 'This is an international crime case, if you go in there I must put you in jail!'. We wanted to go in and see what happened because they were our neighbors, but we couldn't", recalls a woman.

Venezuela began to be pointed out repeatedly as a cooperator with drug trafficking after Chávez's death in March 2013. Even the relatives of the Bolivarian chieftain have been spattered with accusations from North America. In January 2015, the eldest of the Chávez brothers, Adán, then governor of Barinas, rejected the accusations involving him, his family and high officials of the Venezuelan government in alleged drug trafficking businesses. According to his version, those accusations were only due to "a psychological war" organized by the United States that "used" Captain Leamsy Salázar Villafaña, a former assistant to the vice president of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), Diosdado Cabello, who turned himself in to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and other deserters against the so-called Bolivarian revolution. "That is, the empire buying the conscience of these boys (informants). (That) it would seem, because until now they have not expressed these alleged declarations directly; everything has been through third parties, international media that are part of this pro-imperialist script... Among these alleged declarations, they say that the Chávez family, his biological children and his brother - trying to get me involved directly - are part of that supposed drug cartel... All that is totally false!” he claimed through the news network Telesur

Los Soles is the alleged cartel referred to by the brother of the former president of Venezuela, an organization that would be operated by high military commanders and men of the Chavismo, according to investigations by international newspapers. For this reason, Cabello sued the U.S. newspaper The Wall Street Journal for defamation for the publication of a report in May 2015 about his alleged ties to drug trafficking, a trial he lost in Mid-August of 2017 in a New York court. But there are experts who believe that in Venezuela there are no organizations like the traditional ones which dedicate to drug trafficking in Colombia or Mexico, but extensions of the network of foreign groups or cartels. One of the mentors of this thesis is Mildred Camero, former magistrate and former president of the National Commission Against the Illicit Use of Drugs (Conacuid by its initials in Spanish, now ONA), who in a forum on this subject (2016) reported that the drug elaborated and proceeding mainly from Colombia, was transported to Venezuela to possibly be shipped, "stored or cooled", to other countries.

Despite their little resonance, the captures of drug traffickers and the cargo confiscations keep Barinas residents alert about the power of illicit businesses in the area. The most recent case occurred on February 13, 2016. On that date, it was known about the capture of Army Major Juan José Sorja, a man linked to the security ring of Chávez's parents, and other officers with 500 kilograms of cocaine. Many residents of the birthplace of the deceased president now blame the authorities for not having stopped drug trafficking in that region.

(*) The identity of the authors of this report is protected for security reasons.

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