Cartels come and go. Capos are caught and killed. Coke pits, meth labs, and pot fields are destroyed across the Americas. But the drug trade remains intact.
Take the trial of Ramon Quintero Sanclemente. Once a top lieutenant in Colombia's infamous North Valley Cartel, "La Máquina" was sentenced to 17 years in prison by a South Florida judge on Monday. But his 2010 arrest and recent conviction were drops in the drug trade bucket, says University of Miami professor and Latin American drug trade expert Bruce Bagley.
"Ramon Quintero was an important guy in one of the most violent cartels," Bagley says. "But that doesn't mean his arrest stopped the flow of drugs out of the Cauca River Valley."
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The North Valley Cartel grew out of the Cali Cartel. Based out of southern Colombian city of the same name, the Cali Cartel controlled up to 90 percent of the global cocaine trade in the early '90s.
When arrests and seizures shut it down in the mid '90s, however, surviving members established the Norte del Valle Cartel in the same region. Under "Don Diego" Montoya, the North Valley Cartel flourished for more than a decade -- gaining a reputation for brutality along the way.
"It was one of the most violent cartels," Bagley says. "They used to tie people up and chain saw them into pieces, then throw them into the Cauca River."
President Alvaro Uribe targeted the cartel during his tenure from 2002-10, successfully decimating the gang like the Cali cartel before it. Don Diego was put on the FBI's "Most Wanted" List behind Osama Bin Laden, and was captured in 2007.
"Ramon Quintero was one of the last guys from the Norte del Valle cartel who was out and about," says Bagley. But even Sanclemente, who bears an eery resemblance to Javier Bardem, couldn't evade capture forever. He was arrested in Ecuador in 2010 and extradited to Miami last December.
On Monday, Judge William P. Dimitrouleas slapped Sanclemente to 210 months in federal prison on charges of conspiring to import cocaine to the United States.
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"The Norte del Valle cartel was neutralized by the killing, capturing, or extradition of their principal leaders," says Bagley. But he says that bacrim -- short for bandas criminales (criminal gangs) -- have taken over the drug trade from the NVC, just like it took over from the Cali Cartel.
"Getting Ramon Quintero is a good unto itself
but it's not going to end drug trafficking in the North Valley," Bagley says.