Venezuelan authorities deported a prominent drug-trafficking suspect to Colombia on Wednesday, nearly two months after his capture at a payphone in an operation aided by Colombian and U.S. authorities.
Officials called Daniel Barrera one of Colombia's most-wanted drug lords. The bearded Barrera was handcuffed and said nothing as he stepped down from a police plane that brought him and five other drug suspects from Venezuela.
Barrera is to be extradited to the United States, a process that could take months, said Colombia's National Police director, Gen. Jose Roberto Leon, who spoke at the airport where the suspects arrived. He said Barrera would be jailed in Bogota while awaiting extradition.
The Colombian had a false passport when he was captured Sept. 18 in the southwestern Venezuelan city of San Cristobal, Venezuelan Justice Minister Nestor Reverol said at Caracas' airport as the suspects were led to a plane.
Barrera is known as "El Loco," or "The Madman," and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has called him "the last of the great capos."
Barrera was arrested after Colombian officials, who were working with U.S. and British authorities, notified Venezuela that Barrera was making a call from one of dozens of public phones that were being monitored, officials said. He was arrested at the payphone in front of a church.
Colombia police say Barrera had been in Venezuela since 2008 and had badly burned his fingers to erase his fingerprints and hide his identity.
Colombian police had offered a reward of about $2.5 million for information leading to his arrest.
Investigators have determined that Barrera owned about 127 properties and vehicles in Venezuela, including seven ranches, 16 apartments, 17 houses, 48 vehicles, a plane, a boat, 19 offices and four inns, Reverol told reporters. He said that all together they are valued at an estimated 143 million bolivars, or $33 million.
Eleven other people also have been detained for their links to Barrera, and five others are wanted, Reverol said.
U.S. and Colombian officials have alleged that Barrera's gang supplies cocaine to Mexico's Sinaloa cartel, which ships drugs to the United States.
The authorities have said Barrera operated in a swath of eastern Colombia including areas along the border in Venezuela, and had a drug smuggling alliance with rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC.
Last year, U.S. authorities in Miami charged Barrera with illegal association to smuggle cocaine into the United States.
According to a 2010 grand jury indictment in U.S. District Court in New York, Barrera was both manufacturing and trafficking drugs on a large scale, buying raw cocaine paste from FARC rebels and converting it into cocaine at his labs in eastern Colombia. The indictment said that amounted to as much as 400 tons a year and that Barrera then arranged shipment of the drugs through Colombia and Venezuela to the United States, Europe and Africa.
Six other drug suspects were handed over to Colombian authorities Wednesday, included Jorge Cifuentes Villa and Eduardo Acosta Mejia.
Cifuentes was wanted by Colombian and U.S. authorities and was captured in Venezuela last week. His brother, Francisco Cifuentes Villa, was slain in 2007 on a ranch he owned in Colombia's Antioquia state and had once been a pilot of drug lord Pablo Escobar, who was killed by police in 1993.
Reverol said Cifuentes and others of his brothers had smuggled more than 30 tons of cocaine to the United States in the past three years. The Colombian is accused of having links to Mexico's Sinaloa cartel.
The 30-year-old Acosta is a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in the Dominican Republic and is wanted by Colombian authorities on drug trafficking charges, Reverol said.
Acosta, who was arrested in Venezuela's western Tachira state in August, formerly was a member of the U.S. military and served in special forces for the Navy, Reverol said. He said that Acosta has worked as a "bodyguard for criminal organizations" in Colombia and that Venezuelan authorities determined he had the "profile of a mercenary."
Venezuela has become a key route for smuggling of Colombian cocaine. U.S. officials have often accused Venezuelan authorities of not doing enough to curb drug trafficking, and say that most of the drug flights ferrying cocaine northward from South America leave from Venezuela.
Barrera's is one of several alleged Colombian drug kingpins arrested in Venezuela recently.
Another arrest came in Argentina last month, when reputed Colombian drug trafficker Henry de Jesus Lopez was captured outside a Buenos Aires restaurant. Lopez ran the "Urabenos" gang based in northern Colombia, and Leon said Colombian authorities are now after another leader of that group, Dairo Antonio Usuga, known as "Otoniel."
"I want to tell Otoniel to turn himself over to Colombian justice," Leon said, adding that if he doesn't, "we'll go get him wherever he is."
Associated Press writer Jorge Rueda in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.