BOGOTA: Colombia’s most-wanted drug trafficker “Otoniel” has been captured, the government said Saturday, a major victory in the world’s top cocaine exporter.
Dairo Antonio Usuga, who headed the country’s largest narco-trafficking gang known as the Gulf Clan, was captured near one of his main outposts in Necocli, near the border with Panama.
Images released by the government showed the 50-year-old Otoniel in handcuffs and surrounded by soldiers.
“This is the hardest strike to drug trafficking in our country this century,” President Ivan Duque said in a message, adding that the arrest was “only comparable to the fall of Pablo Escobar”, the famed Colombian narco-trafficking kingpin.
The US had offered a US$5 million bounty for information leading to the arrest of Otoniel, who is one of the most feared men in Colombia.
Otoniel was indicted in the US in 2009, and faces extradition proceedings to the country, where he would appear in the Southern District of New York federal court.
The Colombian government blames the group – financed mainly through drug trafficking, illegal mining and extortion – for being one of the main drivers of the worst bout of nationwide violence since the signing of a peace pact with FARC guerillas in 2016.
The Gulf Clan is present in almost 300 municipalities in the country, according to the independent think tank Indepaz.
Life of violence
Although Otoniel announced in 2017 he intended to reach an agreement to participate with the Colombian justice system, the government instead responded by deploying at least 1,000 soldiers to hunt him down.
His clan has been decimated recently by authorities with Otoniel forced to hide in the jungle and unable to use telephones, according to police.
He took over the leadership of the Gulf Clan – previously known as the Usuga Clan – from his brother Juan de Dios, who was killed by police in 2012.
Born to a poor family, Otoniel joined the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), a Marxist guerrilla group that demobilised in 1991.
After laying down his arms, he later returned to fighting, joining far-right paramilitary groups.
Many of these were demobilised in 2006 at the initiative of former right-wing president Alvaro Uribe’s administration, but Otoniel decided to remain in the fight.
Colombia is the world’s top provider of cocaine, with the US as its principal market, despite half a century of trying to clamp down on the drug trade.
In remote areas where there is little government presence, criminal groups like the Gulf Clan, dissident FARC guerrillas and leftist ELN rebels fight bloody turf battles to control drug trafficking corridors and illegal mining operations.