Colombia announces capture of leader of major drug cartel
By Michael Levenson and Sofia Villamil
Colombian military forces captured the leader of a major drug cartel, considered by the government to be the most wanted man in the country, President Iván Duque announced Saturday.
The arrest of the man, Dairo Antonio Úsuga, widely known as Otoniel, was a victory for Duque, who has been struggling to contain persistent violence by militants.
Úsuga, 50, had been sought by military and police officials as the leader of the Clan del Golfo, a violent Colombian drug cartel that has also been targeted by the United States for trafficking cocaine.
Duque described Úsuga as the most feared drug trafficker in the world, responsible for carrying out assassinations of police officers, soldiers and civic leaders.
“This is the heaviest blow that has been dealt to drug trafficking in this century in our country,” Duque said in a national address. “This blow is comparable only to the fall of Pablo Escobar in the 1990s.”
According to the National Police, a 34-year-old officer died in the operation that led to Úsuga’s capture in Colombia’s remote mountains.
The U.S. State Department has offered up to $5 million for information leading to the capture or conviction of Úsuga, who has been indicted on charges of international cocaine distribution and other crimes.
The department has described him as the leader of a “heavily armed and extremely violent” cartel consisting of members of terrorist groups that did not demobilize as part of Colombia’s peace and justice process.
The Clan del Golfo uses violence and intimidation to control drug trafficking routes, cocaine-processing laboratories and clandestine airstrips, according to the State Department.
The group has also been known to treat migrants in Colombia’s countryside as goods that its members can tax and control.
Colombia’s defense minister, Diego Molano, said the group had become a threat in recent years because of the tons of cocaine it distributes within the country and ships to the United States and Europe.
If Úsuga opens up to investigators, he could be a critical tool in helping the Colombian government unravel the inner workings of his complex criminal organization.
Paul Angelo, a fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Úsuga had been the most wanted man in Colombia for a decade “and his capture is welcome news to the Colombians who have suffered violence at his hands.”
“His arrest also represents a major victory for Colombia’s security forces, which are confronting growing public mistrust over allegations of human rights abuses, soaring coca cultivation, and rising crime and violence,” Angelo said in an email.
He cautioned, however, that merely removing the kingpin of an organized crime group could spawn more fragmented gangs seeking to control lucrative drug routes.
“Keeping the pressure on the remaining factions of the Clan del Golfo in the months to come, while expanding the state’s footprint into the territories where illegal armed groups operate, will be essential to preventing an uptick in predatory crime,” he said.
Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a specialist in drug trafficking groups, called the arrest significant, but said it was not clear what effect it would have on violence and drug trafficking in Colombia.
“Is it going to end the drug trade from Colombia? Definitely not,” Felbab-Brown said in an interview. She also warned that the capture could set off infighting between rival factions within the Clan del Golfo, leading to more violence.