Diego Perez Henao, alias “Diego Rastrojo,” was the military head of the Rastrojos, a criminal syndicate whose reach stretches across Colombia, and into Ecuador and Venezuela. He was captured in Venezuela in June 2012, extradited to the US in August 2013, and handed a 30 year sentence by a US federal court one year later.
A longtime hit man who rose through the ranks of the Norte del Valle Cartel (NDVC), Perez specialized in collecting coca in rural areas and setting up laboratories to turn it into cocaine. He soon caught the attention of Wilber Varela, one of the leaders of the NDVC. When Varela began a war with a rival member of the NDVC, Diego Montoya, alias “Don Diego,” he turned to Perez to set up a private army and named it after his underworld alias, “Rastrojo.” In 2002 the Rastrojos were born and Perez led the war against Montoya’s private army, called the “Machos,” a war which he ended up winning.
The other rising star in Varela’s organization was Javier Calle Serna, alias “Comba.” Perez supported Comba when he killed Varela in 2008 and took command of the whole organization, which then became known to all as the Rastrojos.
Diego Rastrojo Factbox
DOB: April 7, 1971
Criminal Activities: Drug trafficking, homicide
Status: Sentenced by US court
Area of Operation: Primarily Colombia’s Pacific coastal region
Perez was instrumental in the expansion of the Rastrojos from 2008 onwards, sending out heavily armed cells to different parts of the country, in order to secure access to drug crops, protect cocaine laboratories and control internal movement corridors within Colombia. Until recently, the Rastrojos were one of Colombia’s most powerful drug trafficking organizations.
Rumors surfaced of Perez’ arrest in January 2011 in Venezuela, but they quickly proved false. He always maintained a very low profile, and very little was known about him. He was believed to be continuously on the move, both inside and outside of Colombia. He maintained direct command over many of the different Rastrojos units across the country, and took a direct hand in fighting, and eliminating, rivals.
With the surrender of Comba to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) on May 8, 2012, Perez was the favorite to assume overall command of the Rastrojos until his capture that June in Venezuela and subsequent extradition to the United States on drug trafficking charges.
In August 2014, Perez pleaded guilty in a US court to trafficking over 80,000 kilos of cocaine between 1994 and 2008. Colombian authorities have also charged Perez of committing 66 homicides in the southwest department of Valle del Cauca. The US Treasury Deparment designated Perez to its drug “kingpin” list in January 2013.
The Rastrojos’ initial zone of influence was along the Pacific Coast in the provinces of Cauca and Valle del Cauca. In 2006 they began to expand into Colombia’s coffee-growing region as well as the northern department of La Guajira, located along to the Venezuelan border. At one point, the Rastrojos were believed to have a presence in more than 10 of Colombia’s 32 departments.
Allies and Enemies
Perez personally negotiated an alliance with rebels of the National Liberation Army (ELN) in the provinces of Cauca and Nariño on the Pacific coast. This later developed into a nationwide alliance in the interests of drug trafficking, with the ELN selling coca base to the Rastrojos in not only Cauca and Nariño, but also Antioquia, Choco, Bolivar and Norte de Santander.
The Rastrojos’ main rival is the Urabeños. The two criminal groups agreed to a truce in late 2011, but this was short-lived, as the Rastrojos began to fall apart soon after. Violent confrontations between these criminal organizations in the Venezuela-Colombia border region were reported as recently as November 2014.
Perez was sentenced to 30 years in prison on August 6, 2014. Perez’s capture and sentencing, coupled with the captures and surrenders of the rest of the top leadership in 2012, has likely spelled the end for the Rastrojos as a national criminal organization.