Colombia's top cocaine lord Wilber Varela, who ran the notorious Norte Valle Cartel and had a five million dollar bounty on his head, was found shot dead in Venezuela, Caracas' narcotics chief said on Friday.
The bullet-riddled body of Varela, known by the nicknames "Jabon" (soap) and "Detergente" (detergent), was discovered Wednesday along with that of another man in a tourist cabin in northwestern Venezuela, authorities said.
"It has been conclusively proven that this is drug trafficker Wilber Varela," said Nestor Luis Reverol, head of Venezuela's National Anti-drug Agency.
"Thirty-two matching characteristics have been verified" matching the body to the suspect, Reverol told reporters.
The two bodies were discovered in the cabin in Loma de Los Angeles, Merida state -- close to Venezuela's border with Colombia -- by the owner of the establishment who entered the cabin because no one had come out, according to Reverol.
"The body was less than 48 hours old," he said. The bodies had "more than seven bullet wounds" in them, he added.
Varela, a former policeman aged in his 50s, launched his drug operations in the 1980s as a member of a group of hit men working for the Cali drug cartel.
The Norte Valle Cartel grew strong after the dismantling of the Cali and Medellin cartels in the mid-1990s left a power vacuum in the business. The new group was credited with handling some 60 percent of the cocaine flowing out of Colombia, according to estimates.
Varela was put on the US Drug Enforcement Administration's list of most wanted fugitives, with a five-million-dollar reward for his arrest.
He was indicted by the US Justice Department on May 6, 2004, which called him the head of Colombia's most powerful cocaine cartel, allegedly responsible at the time for exporting 500 tonnes of cocaine worth 10 billion dollars to the United States.
The indictment said the cartel used the paramilitary Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia forces to protect its drug routes and laboratories.
The cartel collected its drugs in the Valle del Cauca region and then shipped them to the Pacific port of Buenaventura, where they were transferred to Mexican drug transporters for shipping via boats and aircraft to the United States, according to the indictment.
Varela's death brings to an end the era of the three big Colombian cartels, with their once huge presence filled by numerous harder-to-detect small trafficking organizations, according to Colombian experts.
Since 2004 a number of top Norte Valle Cartel figures have been arrested or killed; last year Diego Montoya and Juan Carlos Ramirez were nabbed in Colombia and Brazil, respectively.
"No clear deputy exists" who could replace Varela to run the cartel now, Gustavo Alvarez, a Colombian expert on narcotics trafficking, said Friday.
"The void is very large" in running the trade.