Colombia captures most-wanted drug lord, Otoniel, in bust compared to Pablo Escobar’s fall

Colombia’s most-wanted drug lord, Dairo Antonio Usuga, widely known by his alias Otoniel, has been captured by armed forces in his jungle hideout.

Usuga, 50, a former left-wing guerrilla and later a paramilitary fighter, is the alleged leader of the notorious drug trafficking group Clan del Golfo, or Gulf Clan, which dominates major cocaine smuggling routes through thick jungles in the country’s restive north.

Colombian President Ivan Duque likened Usuga’s arrest Saturday to the capture of Pablo Escobar three decades ago. “once was the top drug lord with his tentacles reaching all over the world.

“Otoniel was the most feared drug trafficker in the world, killer of police, of soldiers, of social leaders, and recruiter of children,” Duque said during a broadcast video message. “This blow is only comparable to the fall of Pablo Escobar in the 1990s.”

Usuga is accused of sending dozens of shipments of cocaine to the United States. Duque stated that he is also being accused of murdering police officers and recruiting minors to sexually abuse children. For his capture, the U.S. government offered a $5 million reward.

“Otoniel’s capture is truly important,” said Daniel Mejia, a Colombian university professor and expert on narco-trafficking. “He was the head of the most powerful narco-trafficking structure in Colombia, the Gulf Clan, which holds domain of a broad part of the territory.”

Analysts are warning of possible violent repercussions and internal power struggles as others jostle to take Usuga’s place.

Still, his arrest is unlikely to change the fundamentals of drug trafficking in Colombia, which experts say is much more fragmented now than in the days when Escobar dominated the trade. Escobar revolutionized cocaine trafficking in the 1970s and 1980s, pioneering large-scale shipments first to the United States, then to Europe.

“This is not going to move the needle in terms of the war on drugs. Sergio Guzman (director of Colombia Risk Analysis), said that the next step is the alignment of different pieces to make up the power vacuum left by Otoniel. “Soon we’ll have another kingpin and another drug lord who may be much worse.”

In its reward notice, the U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs said Usuga’s criminal network used violence and intimidation to control narcotics trafficking routes, cocaine processing laboratories, speedboat departure points and clandestine landing strips. The strategic Gulf of Uraba, in north Colombia was where he set up his operations. This region is surrounded by both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.

Usuga evaded capture for years by moving between safe locations in the remote jungle region. Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas, director of Colombia’s national police, said Saturday that Usuga slept in rough conditions, hardly ever spending time in homes, and dined on his favorite jungle animals. Vargas stated that the Colombian special forces soldiers were led to their jungle hideout by years of intelligence with help from Britain and the United States. Usuga was accompanied by eight bodyguards.

Usuga’s arrest is a win for Duque, a conservative whose law-and-order rhetoric has been no match for soaring production of cocaine. Duque said Saturday that there are extradition orders against Usuga and that authorities will work to carry out those orders while “learning all of the truth about the rest of his crimes in our country.”

Usuga was indicted in Manhattan federal court in 2009 on narcotics import charges and for allegedly providing assistance to a far-right paramilitary group designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. Later indictments in Brooklyn and Florida accused him of international cocaine distribution dating as far back as 2002, conspiracy to murder rival drug traffickers and drug-related firearms offenses.

Pannett reported from Sydney, Duran reported from Bogota, Colombia, and Schmidt reported from Meta, Colombia.

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