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Daniel Antonio Usuga, also known by the alias “Otoniel,” was Colombia‘s most wanted drug trafficker until Saturday, October 23, when a joint Colombian military and police team captured the feared drug lord, ending a years-long manhunt.
The DEA was offering a reward of up to $5 million for the whereabouts of Otoniel, who is wanted for trial for cocaine trafficking in the Southern District of New York.
At least 122 arrest warrants were hanging over Otoniel’s head on charges of murder, illegal recruitment, racketeer influenced and corrupt organizations (RICO), kidnapping for ransom, terrorism, illegal possession of weapons and drug trafficking.
The drug lord made his stronghold in Urabá, a jungle region of Colombia, which has access to the Atlantic Ocean, borders Panama and is also close to Chocó, where it is possible to access the Pacific Ocean. For years, guerrillas, paramilitary groups and drug traffickers have fought for control of the Uraba corridor, considered crucial for cocaine trafficking.
For years, the group led by Otoniel, known by various names such as the ‘Clan del Golfo’, the ‘Clan Úsuga’, or the pejorative ‘Urbaños’ —massively rejected by the population of Urabá— plagued the Pacific and the Colombian Caribbean. His group of hitmen in the areas where he dominated imposed forced curfews, even “pistol plans” that rewarded criminals for the murder of members of the police, reminiscent of the nefarious times of his predecessor Pablo Escobar.
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According to Colombian Defense Minister Diego Molano: “The largest number of tons of coca shipped out of Colombia to markets in the United States and Europe was managed and articulated by the Gulf Clan.”
Who is Otoniel?
Like most Colombian drug lords, Otoniel has humble origins. A native of the small town of Turbo —a humble coastal village in the Urabá region of Antioquia— Otoniel joined the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) as a teenager. Otoniel fought in this guerrilla group until 1991, the year of his demobilization.
With the demobilization came persecution by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who began to assassinate former EPL members in retribution for the demobilized guerrillas’ negotiations with the government. Like many other EPL members, persecution led Otoniel into the ranks of the Autodefensas de Córdoba y Urarbá, under the command of the infamous Carlos Castaño and his brothers Fidel and Vicente. Otoniel had gone from being a guerrilla to a paramilitary.
Within the self-defense groups, Otoniel fought against the guerrillas, Pablo Escobar, and the State. Responsible for the murder of hundreds of civilians, Otoniel rose through the ranks of the paramilitaries where he came to work under the command of capos such as Daniel Rendon Herrera, known as ‘Don Mario.’ By 2004, Otoniel commanded his own structure, the ‘Centauros Bloc‘ where he controlled extensive areas of territory in Meta.
In 2005, Otoniel laid down his arms for a second time when he joined the Justice and Peace process of then President Álvaro Uribe Vélez. Otoniel, who at the time was known by the alias ‘Cachama’, was officially registered as a combatant eligible for the benefits of transitional justice.
For unknown reasons, Otoniel disassociated himself from the peace process and did not attend any of the hearings to which he was summoned. Ten years later the government expelled him from the transitional justice system.
Colombian intelligence later confirmed that Otoniel had returned to crime and to working under the command of his former boss ‘Don Mario’, with whom he structured the criminal group he commanded until his fall, the Gulf Clan.
In 2009, with the capture of Don Mario, Otoniel was left in charge of the Gulf Clan along with his brother Juan de Dios, with whom he shared command until he was captured by the authorities in 2012.
Under Otoniel’s command, the Gulf Clan had a presence in 211 municipalities out of Colombia’s 1,100, and he fought both state forces and his enemies in the criminal world, which led him to wage a violent war in Medellin with the local mafia.
Such was the national security problem that Otoniel represented that it led both the administrations of Juan Manuel Santos and Ivan Duque to deploy two operations, of dimensions not seen since the hunt for the Cali Cartel, to track down the capo who controlled the Gulf of Uraba, Agamemnon I and II.
The capo was elusive and although several of his lieutenants were captured, for almost eight years Otoniel managed to evade the controls of the security forces. Being a native of the region, Otoniel managed to get lost in the dense mountains of Uraba and in turn control his organization.
Otoniel didn’t use cell phones or computers to communicate with his subordinates, but instead sent voice memos recorded on USB sticks that were distributed by human couriers.
His last years at the helm of the Gulf Clan were a life of discomfort; the capo could not afford to stay in luxurious mansions or showy places, so he spent the night in the jungle and took refuge in huts along the Uraba. According to Colombian authorities, Otoniel never stayed two nights in a row in the same place.
One of the peculiarities of Otoniel’s shelters is that despite being humble in appearance, they all had expensive, high quality mattresses so that the capo could sleep on them, as he suffers from a severe herniated disc that has been worsened by the constant movement involved in being a fugitive from his profile.
The capture of Otoniel
On Friday, October 15, the police and army launched Operation Osiris where more than 500 members of the Colombian security forces flew 22 helicopters to the Yoquí hill in the municipality of Necoclí, located on the Caribbean coast of Urabá, to capture the drug lord.
The police had tracked the capo’s whereabouts through reports from locals, as well as through the use of satellite maps. On the coast of Necoclí, the Colombian navy was completing the security siege to prevent the drug lord from attempting to flee by boat.
The operation had to be carried out quickly because the drug lord had eight security rings in the area and a system of informants with radio telephones that alerted him to the movements of the authorities in the area.
The drug trafficker had a very small group of escorts, so he always chose to hide in the jungle rather than fight when the authorities approached. He tried to do so on Saturday morning when he separated from his escort and tried to flee alone, hoping to throw the authorities off the scent, causing them to focus on chasing his security ring and not him.
In the confrontations with Otoniel’s escort, one member of the police was killed, however, the distraction of the capo’s security ring was not enough and a squad of police officers managed to capture the capo alive in the Pita trail.
The capo was first taken to Apartadó and then transferred to Bogotá, where he awaits extradition to the United States where he will have to answer for the crime of drug trafficking, and then —if he makes it out of prison alive— he will have to return to Colombia to answer for the thousands of murders and other heinous crimes he and his criminal group committed.
Meanwhile in Antioquia’s Uraba there is fear of retribution from the Gulf Clan for the capture of their boss. In Apartadó, Urabá’s main city, several public events have been cancelled for fear of a power struggle between the remnants of the criminal group.
Economist, writer and liberal. With a focus on finance, the war on drugs, history, and geopolitics // Economista, escritor y liberal. Con enfoque en finanzas, guerra contra las drogas, historia y geopolítica