Two drug traffickers suspected of having taken over for Diego Perez Henao, a Los Rastrojos gang boss arrested in Venezuela in June, have been captured by police, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said.
Nelson Mauricio Taborda and Jose Leonardo Hortua Blandon were arrested along with 25 other members of the Los Rastrojos gang, the president said.
The suspects were detained by the National Police in La Virginia, a town in the western province of Risaralda, Santos said during his regular Saturday public meeting.
Taborda and Hortua Blandon had succeeded Perez Henao, known as "Diego Rastrojo," in the gang, which has its roots in the paramilitary movement and was recently blamed for the massacre of 10 peasants in the northwestern city of Santa Rosa de Osos, Santos said.
Perez Henao was arrested in early June in a binational operation in Venezuela and deported to Colombia, where he faces extradition to the United States on drug and money laundering charges.
Perez Henao, who was the target of an intense manhunt by U.S. and Colombian authorities, was hiding out at a ranch in Venezuela's Barinas state.
The Los Rastrojos boss was the subject of a nearly $6 million reward.
Taborda may have been the leader of what is left of the Norte del Valle drug cartel, police said.
The arrests of Taborda and Hortua Blandon are a blow to the criminal organization's leadership, the president said.
Los Rastrojos is one of a number of groups founded by veterans of the defunct United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, militia federation.
Los Rastrojos and the other AUC successor groups, such as Los Paisas and Nueva Generacion, are responsible for a good deal of the criminal activity in Colombia, officials say.
The AUC, accused of committing numerous human rights violations, demobilized more than 31,000 of its fighters between the end of 2003 and mid-2006 as part of the peace process with former President Alvaro Uribe's administration.
The group was made up of numerous rural defense cooperatives formed more than 20 years ago to battle leftist rebels.
Many of the militias, however, degenerated into death squads and carried out massacres of peasants suspected of having rebel sympathies, along with slayings of journalists and union members accused of favoring the leftist insurgents.
Under the terms of the 2005 Peace and Justice Law, pushed through Congress by the Uribe administration to regulate the militiamen's reinsertion into society, former AUC members faced a maximum of eight years in prison if convicted of any of the scores of massacres of suspected rebel sympathizers attributed to the rightists over the years.
Colombia's Constitutional Court upheld the law in 2006 but conditioned the sentence reductions on full disclosure and confession of crimes and reparations to victims.
On May 13, 2008, the Colombian government extradited 14 former AUC chiefs to the United States.
The former AUC commanders were wanted in the United States on drug, money laundering and other charges. EFE