STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
This week brought news of the arrest of Colombia's last great drug kingpin. That's how the president of Colombia described Daniel Barrera, commonly known as El Loco. He was captured in neighboring Venezuela with the help of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, the CIA, and Britain's MI6. To get the story of the infamous Loco, we turn to Myles Frechette, who was the U.S. ambassador to Colombia during the Clinton administration.
MYLES FRECHETTE: You know, in Colombia, if you're a really big criminal, you begin to acquire a cult status, you know. Pablo Escobar had one. It's a little bit like what happened with Clyde Barrow and Bonnie and Clyde here in this country. You know, you just become a criminal, but you do nice things occasionally for poor people and the poor people remember you that way.
MONTAGNE: And he got the moniker El Loco because?
FRECHETTE: Well, it could be for several reasons. El Loco is used in Latin America in many different ways. There's a spectrum. You could be just kind of a goofy guy or you could be a guy who has a lot of guts and takes crazy chances, or you could be some sort of a pathological killer who has no problem about walking into a room full of people and shooting everybody dead. Hard to say. But it's, you know, you've got take it seriously when somebody's called El Loco.
MONTAGNE: There wasn't one moment - one moment when he did in fact walk into a room and shoot everybody dead?
FRECHETTE: Not that I know of. But he might've, because he is responsible for a lot of deaths in the areas that he operated in.
MONTAGNE: How much power did he have? How important to the drug trade was he? And also, you know, how important to the drugs, cocaine in particular, getting to the U.S.?
FRECHETTE: Well, he was a very important guy in the sense that he had connections everywhere - Mexico he worked with the Sinaloa cartel and others, the Zetas. And he knew how to get cocaine from Colombia to Mexico. And then the Mexicans brought it up to the United States.
You know, if you talk to the drug czar's office, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, they'll tell you that cocaine use is down in the United States. And that's true. But it's still a considerable amount and the street value of it is very high.
But it's a big blow to the narcos. A big blow in the sense that here was a guy you could trust. If you were a Mexican drug dealer, this guy would tell you, I'll get the shipment to you by so many hundreds of kilos and on such and such a day he'd do it.
MONTAGNE: Now, I've read that one reason that it was so hard to catch Barrera was that he'd had plastic surgeries to change his appearance.
FRECHETTE: Well, you know, in the last few weeks, apparently, he had the sense that people were watching him. He stuck his fingers in acid to burn off his fingerprints. And even though he may have had a lot of plastic surgery, I've looked at pictures of El Loco over the last two days and he doesn't look too different from pictures taken five years ago. Sure, there are minor differences.
But one of the things he used to do, for example, was to get liposuction, because he was a fat guy. He liked to eat a lot. He'd have liposuction and bypass surgery. And he'd lose weight. But then, you know, he was so stressed out that he quickly gained the weight back by eating. So, you know, I'm not sure it did him a lot of good.
MONTAGNE: So he was caught in Venezuela, which is itself interesting, because it is surprising to hear of close cooperation like this between the CIA, the DEA - the U.S., basically - and Venezuela, with Hugo Chavez so much not, you know, friendly particularly to the U.S.
FRECHETTE: Here's the way it works. You know, Hugo Chavez permits drug smuggling through his country. I'm not sure he makes money off it, but a lot of people in the police and the army make money out of allowing small planes to land on Venezuelan soil and then heading north.
And just the other day the U.S. government released a list of countries that are not cooperating in the fight against drugs, and Venezuela was on the list; so was Bolivia, Myanmar.
And you know, Chavez is facing elections on the 7th of October. And he's not doing so well in the polls. I mean people still think he'll win, but it's a lot closer than anybody thought.
So this is very important to Chavez. I mean this is something he's going to be able to trumpet about. He can say, you know, just last week the United States said that I was not cooperating on drugs. Well, I'm here to tell you I just turned one over, a big one.
INSKEEP: Thank you very much for joining us.
FRECHETTE: Thank you, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Talking to us about the arrest of the drug lord known as El Loco, Myles Frechette, a former U.S. ambassador to Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.