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US Opens New Front In Colombian Drug Battle

MIAMI (AP) - The U.S. is opening a new front in the battle against Colombian cocaine producers focused on about 30 emerging groups seeking to replace once-powerful drug cartels that have largely been dismantled, Miami U.S. Attorney Willy Ferrer said Wednesday.

The new investigation of so-called Bandas Criminales, or BACRIM for short, will be run by a first-in-the-nation unit of three prosecutors in Ferrer's office along with agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Colombian authorities.

Ferrer announced a key indictment on drug trafficking charges of the leader of one of the organizations, 39-year-old Diego Perez Henao, who is also known as Diego Rastrojo and whose Rastrojos group is among Colombia's most powerful and violent. Nine other BACRIM members and associates have also been charged in South Florida in recent months.

"I think the message will be sent loud and clear to the other BACRIM that we are going to be unrelenting in our pursuit of these groups," said Ferrer, who recently visited Colombia along with senior DEA officials.

Perez is currently at large in Colombia, but if arrested, extradited to the U.S. and convicted, he could face life in prison. Extradition of Colombian drug lords to face justice has been a powerful tool against them, with many leaders of the past Medellin, Cali and North Valley cartels sentenced to lengthy terms in U.S. prisons.

U.S. officials say the demise of the cartels has left a power vacuum in Colombia. The goal of the new effort, they say, is to prevent the BACRIM from consolidating into another major cocaine cartel that would control drug production and threaten Colombia's political order.

"These are the up-and-comers," said Matthew Barnes, deputy special agent in charge of the Miami DEA office. "We're cutting the weeds before they become trees."

Authorities say the groups produce tons of cocaine every month, transporting it by land, sea and air to Central America, then to Mexico and on into the U.S. Some have submarine-like vessels to move the drugs. Many have agreements with the Mexican cartels that smuggle most of the cocaine into the U.S., such as the Sinaloa and Juarez organizations.

Colombia's government has recently declared the BACRIM to be a grave security and drug threat, and human rights groups have warned about their danger to the Colombian people, according to U.S. officials.

The groups had their beginnings in 2002, when they were a heavily armed wing of the North Valley Cartel. The alleged leader indicted in Miami, Perez, became chief of the BACRIM after the death of North Valley drug baron Wilber Varela in 2008. The Rastrojos group led by Perez is believed to have about 1,200 members.