democraciaAbierta: Analysis

What does the arrest of Otoniel, Colombia’s most-wanted drug trafficker, mean?

The head of the violent Colombian Gulf cartel, Dairo Antonio Úsuga, better known as ‘Otoniel’, was captured last month. Here’s what you need to know

democracia Abierta
14 November 2021, 12.01am
Dairo Antonio Úsuga, better known as ‘Otoniel’, was captured last month
Fuerzas Armadas de Colombia.

The official narrative goes as follows. On 23 October, Columbia’s most-wanted drug trafficker, Dairo Antonio Úsuga, known as ‘Otoniel’, the leader of the Clan del Golfo or the Gulf cartel, was captured by the country’s military in an operation that had been planned for more than five years.

Other sources suggest that Otoniel was offered a plea bargain in exchange for extradition to the US and a reduced sentence for collaborating with the justice system. Comparisons are being drawn to Pablo Escobar, leader of the powerful Medellín drug cartel that dominated cocaine trafficking in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Who is Otoniel?

Well, he’s no Escobar. For one, he’s not as well known outside Colombia. At 50, Otoniel is relatively young to be one of the most wanted drug traffickers in the world. He suffers from health conditions such as high blood pressure, a kidney problem and diabetes, and he needs daily medical attention. Before his capture, Otoniel paid large sums of money to the doctors who visited him in the network of rural safe houses he used to evade the authorities.

There are more than 120 open criminal cases against Otoniel. Interpol issued a red notice against him for multiple homicides, kidnappings and conspiracy to commit a crime. The US Drug Enforcement Administration even offered a $5m reward for information to help with his capture.

Otoniel chose crime as a way of life at age 17. That was when stories about him — some true, others not — began to be told, building a powerful legend. A supposedly superstitious man, some say he consulted witches and relied on secret rites to protect himself while on the run. It was said that he liked armadillo meat more than any other. Other accusations are far darker: Otoniel is alleged to have abused more than 500 women and girls, some as young as 12.

Although Colombia’s president Ivan Duque compared Otoniel to Escobar, the legendary ‘king of cocaine’, the parallel is inaccurate. Escobar was richer, more ruthless and more ambitious. This led him to seek political office even as he employed the devastatingly effective plata o plomo (silver or lead) tactic, of accepting ‘bribery or death’, which terrorised Colombia. Ordinary citizens, politicians, journalists, judges and police alike got lead, which is to say they were killed with metal bullets; many others preferred the silver, or to be corrupted.

Otoniel’s Gulf cartel, fragmented and with a flatter, more horizontal structure, is also nothing like Escobar’s Medellín. Escobar had total authority over his multi-billion-dollar cartel. In Medellín, hierarchies were law and the leader's monopoly over the production chain indisputable.

So, how was Otoniel captured? He was in Antioquia province in north-western Colombia with his security detail when he was found. He usually stayed in one place for just three to five days at a time. The inner ring of security consisted of at least 20 of the cartel’s best-trained and fiercest fighters. The outer rings, according to the Colombian army, were made up of around 200 armed men, who protected him day and night.

The operation to capture Otoniel involved more than 500 soldiers and special forces.

The final piece of the puzzle that led to Otoniel's arrest was the use of satellite imagery to track the drug kingpin's movements, including the trucks that carried food to his remote hideouts.

Otoniel el día de su captura.
There are more than 120 open criminal cases against Otoniel
Fuerzas Armadas de Colombia.

Is this the end of the Gulf cartel?

For years, the US, Colombia and Mexico have pursued a strategy of decapitating drug cartels by capturing their top leaders. But that has not ended the drug trade from Colombia because the groups have simply fragmented and dispersed to other parts of the country and beyond.

As such, the implications of Otoniel's capture may have been overstated. The president said that the Gulf cartel would be dismantled now that its leader is under arrest, while Diego Molano, Colombia's defence minister, described Otoniel’s capture as a “victory for the state against its greatest threat: drug trafficking”.

The reality, however, is that the drug trafficker’s arrest comes during a boon in cocoa cultivation in Colombia. The Duque government's 2019 efforts to halve the land area of cocoa cultivation have not been particularly successful in reducing the availability of cocoa, the main ingredient of cocaine. The crop has been replanted in some areas and there is increased cultivation in others, which simply continues the Colombian state's poor record on illicit crops.

There are many reasons for this, not least the reality that the government has little control over several parts of the country, that aerial spraying of a chemical to kill the plants has failed to take off (and its use is regardless controversial), and that there is no clear policy to help peasant farmers transition to a a legal economy.

What this means, of course, is that the Gulf cartel and its drug trafficking will not end with Otoniel’s arrest. The cartel’s origins lie in the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a paramilitary group. The Gulf cartel is also accused of being involved in illegal mining. Members of the cartel are alleged to have killed leading social activists and community leaders.

What's next in the Otoniel saga?

The drug lord was supposed to be extradited to the US soon after his capture. But Colombia’s justice minister, Wilson Ruiz, has said the process could take roughly four months, as the country’s highest court needs to review the paperwork from the US.

Meanwhile, Otoniel is still being held in the cells of the DIJIN (Police Directorate of Criminal Investigation and Interpol) in Bogotá, a high-security prison in Colombia's capital.

On 27 October, President Duque tweeted a photo of the drug kingpin behind bars, along with the following: “Alias 'Otoniel': So much pain caused, so much drug trafficking, so many deaths, so many massacres, so many leaders and police murdered could not go unpunished. This is the destiny of criminals: the dungeons.”

There is no doubt that Otoniel’s arrest is seen as a coup by the Colombian government. But it is far from the end of drug trafficking, which, as the defence minister has said, is one of the greatest threats to democracy and justice in Colombia as well as the world.

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