Colombia: Rastrojos members held in Barranquilla raid

Buenaventura, Colombia, 27 March 14 Combating the activities of the criminal bands is one of the priorities of the Colombian government

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Colombian police have arrested 46 members of the Rastrojos criminal gang in northern Atlantico department.

They are accused of extortion from shop owners and selling illegal drugs in the coastal city of Barranquilla.

President Juan Manuel Santos described the operation as "the biggest blow against Colombian criminal organisations in a decade".

The US says the Rastrojos have smuggled at least 30 tonnes of cocaine into Mexico since 2008.

Some of the criminal organisation's leaders in the area were detained in the raid, which happened on Friday but was announced later by President Santos.

Among those arrested are Bonangel Madel Nunez, known as La Negra, and Oscar Junior Navarro, alias El Mello.

Election time

According to the Colombian authorities, the gang demanded $30 (£18) to $40 (£24) a month from shop owners, market stallholders and other businessmen in the city.

Those who refused to pay extortion money were threatened and often attacked.

The Rastrojos have been linked to at least 12 grenade attacks against stalls and shops in the market area of Barranquilla.

Police say they also used children and teenagers to sell cocaine and other illegal drugs in the area.

"We have given them another big blow. And we will continue fighting those thugs relentlessly," said Mr Santos.

Tackling the criminal bands, or Bacrim as they are known in Colombia, was one of the priorities Mr Santos announced when he was elected in 2010.

Mr Santos is now running for re-election, facing Oscar Ivan Zuluaga in a runoff on 15 June.

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