December 5, 2021

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Otoniel: Dramatic capture of South America’s biggest drug lord little more than a photo op, say experts

Showing no sign of regret that the game was finally up, Dairo Antonio Úsuga gave a wry smile to cameras as he was escorted into a helicopter by Colombian soldiers at his jungle hideout.

But Úsuga — South America’s biggest drug lord, better known as Otoniel — looked grim-faced as he stood handcuffed and flanked by armed troops in images used by Colombia’s government as a rare show of victory against the gangs who dominate the countryside.

“This is the biggest blow against drug trafficking in our country this century,” said President Ivan Duque, whose public support has collapsed during the pandemic. “This blow is only comparable to the fall of Pablo Escobar in the 1990s.”

Like cartel boss Escobar, who was killed in 1993 after waging war on the Colombian state via kidnappings and roadside bombs, Otoniel proved elusive for security forces. His capture is the culmination of a decade-long manhunt with a $5m US State Department bounty on his head.

A soldier remains in position in a helicopter overflying the area where military forces -on the eve- captured drug lord Dairo Antonio Usuga, alias Otoniel, near Carepa, Antioquia department, Colombia on October 24, 2021. (Photo by DANIEL MUNOZ / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL MUNOZ/AFP via Getty Images)
Colombia’s president Ivan Duque said the capture of South America’s biggest drug lord was the ‘biggest blow against drug trafficking in our country this century’ (Photo: Daniel Munoz/ AFP via Getty Images)

He was finally tracked down by 50 communications analysts working with US and UK intelligence to follow his every move, said Colombia’s police chief, and 800 heavily armed soldiers who were sent to break through the eight lines of security watching over his jungle camp.

“It was about time that he fell, because the Colombian state had been after him for eight years without dealing a serious blow,” said Pedro Piedrahita Bustamante, an expert in Colombia’s drug trade at the University of Medellín.

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Otoniel’s Clan del Golfo cartel was formed from ex-paramilitaries who refused to partake in a 2006 peace process. It now has around 4,000 members spread across 12 of Colombia’s 32 regions. Its history of drug trafficking, murders of human rights activists and allegations of sexual abuse of minors has brought Otoniel 26 arrest warrants, two Interpol red notices and a US extradition request. 

Pilots from the Police who participated, on the eve, in the operation to capture drug lord Dairo Antonio Usuga, alias Otoniel, wait for a military ceremony at the Carepa Military base, Antioquia department, Colombia on October 24, 2021. (Photo by DANIEL MUNOZ / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL MUNOZ/AFP via Getty Images)
Otoniel’s capture is the culmination of a decade-long manhunt with a $5m US State Department bounty on his head (Photo: AFP/Daniel Munoz)

But the capo — who was reportedly found by soldiers hiding half-naked in foliage and relied on an orthopaedic mattress to soothe his achy back — is just another replaceable face in Colombia’s failed and seemingly perpetual war on drugs, experts say.

“It won’t reduce drug trafficking at all,” said Mr Bustamante, who says legalisation and regulation is the only way to control Colombia’s drug trade. “We call them criminal networks for a reason: criminal organisations don’t depend on people, the people are just nodes in a network.”

Colombia has faced growing pressure in recent years from the US to stem the flood of cocaine across its borders, with 1,228 metric tons of the white powder produced in 2020, according to the United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime, up 8 per cent on 2019.

ANTIOQUIA, COLOMBIA - OCTOBER 23: (----EDITORIAL USE ONLY ?? MANDATORY CREDIT - "COLOMBIAN ARMED FORCES / HANDOUT" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS----) Dairo Antonio Usuga, known as Otoniel, was seized after a joint operation by the army, air force and police on a rural hideout in Antioquia province in north-western Colombia, close to the border with Panama on October 23, 2021. The government had offered an $800,000 (????582,000) reward for information about his whereabouts, while the US placed a $5m bounties on his head. The operation involved 500 soldiers supported by 22 helicopters. One police officer was killed. (Photo by Colombian Armed Forces / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
The cartel boss was reportedly found by soldiers hiding half naked in foliage and relied on an orthopaedic mattress to soothe his achy back (Photo: Colombian Armed Forces / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Even as the pandemic forced international travel to a grinding halt, South American cartels continued to ship tonnes of the illicit substance across the seas hidden onboard narco submarines and concealed in masks and fruit heading to Europe.

The Colombian government’s answer to the boom in cocaine production has been an escalation of military operations against armed gangs and the eradication of coca fields.

But coca eradication produces short-term gains at best as coca farmers ditch their damaged crops and replant elsewhere, say experts. And coca farmers will rely on the prickly green leaf until an economic alternative emerges.

“This capture is part of the war that the state is waging and not a solution. The solution is investment in health, education and our economy,” said Henry Donaldo, a former coca producer who represents farmers who rely on the crop to subsist in the remote jungles of southern Colombia.

Otoniel’s departure could also cause a spike in violence as others vie to fill his lucrative position as Clan del Golfo’s leader, or one of Colombia’s myriad armed groups smells blood and takes it on, say experts. 

Farmers fear that Otoniel’s successor could be more violent as they try to cement their place as strongman leader through terror and intimidation. “Who knows who the next guy is going to be and what action he is going to take?” said Mr Donaldo.

The capture of yet another lynchpin should prompt “a rethink of Colombia’s approach to drug trafficking”, says Toby Muse, who interviewed members of the Clan del Golfo for his book Kilo: Life and Death Inside the Secret World of the Cocaine Cartels

“The US and Colombia have been waging this war for 40 years,” Muse says. “First against the Medellín Cartel, then the Cali Cartel, and then the Office of Envigado. And what has it led to? More cocaine than ever before.”