Colombia revives drugs history with “Otoniel” extradition

Drug Lord "Otoniel" is escorted at Catam airfield during his extradition to US / Policia Nacional.

The capture, arrest and extradition of Darío Antonio Úsuga, alias “Otoniel,” is the most high-value target in Colombia’s decades-old war on drugs, and will be remembered as President Iván Duque’s trophy in U.S – Colombia counter-narcotics cooperation.

While other Colombian presidents can claim high-profile arrests, such as the Cali cartel’s “chess player” Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela back in 1995, and during the embattled presidency of Ernesto Samper, it was Samper’s predecessor César Gaviria (1990-1994) who cemented his political legacy with the December 2, 1993, killing of the Medellín cartel’s Pablo Escobar.

Since the U.S-Colombia counter-narcotics offensive Plan Colombia was drawn-up during the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Andrés Pastrana, and which became a pillar of the conservative government’s security agenda to combat the illegal harvest and left-wing guerrilla, after more than two decades, the original US$1.3 billion spent in military aid, narcotics interdiction, training of Colombia’s National Police, as well as funding of rural development programs and human rights protection, has surpassed US$10 billion.

While Plan Colombia remains an integral part of U.S-Colombia relations, high-profile arrests of drug kingpins have been few and far between since the founders of the “white collar” Cali Cartel, brothers Gilberto and Miguel Rodríguez, were extradited to the U.S in 2004 and 2005 respectively, to face charges of drugs trafficking and money laundering.

In 2008, during the mid-term of his second term as President of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe authorized the extradition of 14 of the country’s most notorious paramilitary commanders, among them Rodrigo Tovar (alias Jorge 40), Salvatore Mancuso, Francisco Javier Zuloaga (alias Gordolindo), Diego Fernando Murillo (alias Don Berna), Ramiro Cuco Vanoy and Hernán Giraldo (alias Pablo Sevillano). The US plane with agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) picked them up at the same military base in Bogotá where “Otoniel” departed Wednesday.

These extraditions, however, of paramilitary leaders who committed widespread human rights abuses and massacres during the height of Colombia’s internal conflict, was justified by the country’s Supreme Court on grounds that the former AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) henchmen did not comply with the terms of their surrender and “peace agreement” with the government of Uribe by trafficking in the lucrative drugs trade.

The demobilization of the 2,200-strong AUC, like other splinter groups of the country’s Marxist guerrilla (EPL and CRS) fueled the growth of “Otoniel’s” drugs empire, and one that continues to extend along the coastal lowlands of the Urabá Gulf and northeast of Colombia, including the agriculturally fertile departments of Sucre, Córdoba, Antioquia and Chocó. Otoniel’s transnational organization goes by many names – Clan Úsuga, Gluf Clan, Los Urabeños, Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia. (AGC). The total number of members in this criminal network is estimated at 1,800 and responsible for some 73 tonnes of cocaine shipments to the U.S between 2003 and 2012.

The cartel kingpin, who was once a combatant within the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) guerrilla, faces 122 charges for drug trafficking, criminal association, murder and money laundering. Otoniel is being held at the Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center in New York City, and will appear before a judge of the East District Court on Thursday.

Last picture of alias “Otoniel” on Colombian soil / Policia Nacional

According to the U.S State Department’s Wanted list, Otoniel is one of the leaders of “a heavily armed and extremely violent Colombian drug cartel comprised of former members of terrorist organizations that did not demobilize as part of the Colombian government’s justice and peace process.”

The statement claims Gulf Clan “uses violence and intimidation to control the narcotics trafficking routes, cocaine processing laboratories, speedboat departure points, and clandestine landing strips. The organization operates in 13 of Colombia’s 32 departments.”

The State Department had offered a US$5 million reward leading to his arrest. The feared drug lord was snatched from a remote jungle outpost last October during a raid by the Colombian Army and National Police in the banana-growing region of Urabá.

President Iván Duque celebrated the extradition of Dario Antonio Úsuga as “the most dangerous drug trafficker in the world, murderer of social leaders and police officers, abuser of children and adolescents. Today, legality has triumphed, and rule of law.”

drug cartel leader Dario Úsuga during his extradition to the U.S / Policia Nacional