The ‘new’ Drug War and how the U.S. aided the capture of Colombia’s most wanted man

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“You beat me,” Dario Antonio Úsuga, Colombia’s most dangerous drug lord better known as Otoniel, reportedly said when Colombian authorities descended on his hideout in a rural part of Antioquia province last month. Colombia’s Defense Minister Diego Molano told me in a recent interview that his country’s forces alone didn’t beat him.

The United States and Britain, Molano said, provided key assistance through satellite imagery and signal tracking. Colombian authorities scored a breakthrough in the multiyear manhunt by tracing shipments of Úsuga’s prescription medicines and specialized, sugar-free food — harboring echoes of the tracking of a courier used to uncover the whereabouts of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Molano described Úsuga’s capture as part of the broader assault on the Clan del Golfo, the cartel he headed and which has helped fuel record cocaine production in the South American nation of 50 million. Over the course of an hour-long discussion in Miami, he shed light on the Biden administration’s new approach to the drug war, the links between combating drug trafficking and fighting climate change, and offered fresh insights into the investigation into the assassination of Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, in which nearly two dozen Colombian nationals, mostly ex-military personnel, have been charged or detained.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

President Iván Duque has compared the Úsuga arrest to the death of the drug baron Pablo Escobar. I understand prescription medicine for his kidneys led to his capture. How exactly did the pills lead you to him?

Our operation was planned in three phases at the beginning of this year. We had to move him from el Nudo de Paramillo (a mountainous region) where he had been for the last five years. It was impossible to get him there because of the geography. Then we had a coverup operation to make him think we were after him in another part of the country, and finally he felt more comfortable to move to his own city, San Pedro de Urabá. Through technical and human intelligence we discovered [that he was taking these] medicines, and it helped us to localize him and to deploy an operation with 500 special forces and the police. He was also asking for food without sugar, and this also helped. It was a special kind of food. Everything he was ordering was without sugar.

What help did the Colombians get from the United States?

The beauty is that this was a unified and integrated operation. We had the intelligence and the work of the police over the last five or six years, the participation of special forces from our army, our air force, but also the support of intelligence from the United States and also the United Kingdom. In the last two or three years, there has been really strong participation and cooperation with these agencies because of the threat he posed, not only for Colombia but for narco-trafficking.

Did the United States provide satellite images?

Yes, but also signal [location]. How to locate the calls that he was making.

How do you plan to prevent the rise of a replacement leader and dismantle the Clan del Golfo?

We are attacking and destroying his business in narco-trafficking, not only the cultivation, but also the finance and the laboratories that were under the protection of the Clan del Golfo. We have captured 28 members of the Clan del Golfo in two regions, and operations continue. We have launched a demobilization program for people at the base of the Clan del Golfo, telling them, ‘Look, if you decide to demobilize, enter into this program where you provide information, you cooperate with the justice system, and if you do it, of course you are going to have some economic benefits.’ We did this previously with FARC [guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia that disbanded following the 2016 peace accords]. All these make me certain that the capture of Otoniel is the going to be the end of the Clan del Golfo.

Why is the Colombian government prioritizing extraditing Otoniel to the U.S. rather than holding him accountable for his crimes in Colombia?

He has to be in jail here [in the United States]. But in Colombia, we won’t stop the judicial process against him. He has to [make reparations to] his victims and also, after everything is finished here, he also has to come back and to go to jail and to be in the justice system in Colombia.

We are going to have three major priorities with this new comprehensive approach: Supply reduction. Control consumption here. But also, the environment. On the protection of the environment, we already have results. Last [month] we announced a reduction in around 20 percent of the deforested area in Colombia last year. What we want is not only to eradicate [coca leaf growing], but to reduce the effects of narco-trafficking on the environment, on deforestation of the jungle and particularly the Amazonian region.

Turning to Haiti: Family members of the Colombian ex-military personnel arrested in the Moïse assassination have said some of the men thought the plan was to arrest, not kill, the Haitian president. Can you clarify what these men knew and when they knew it?

Based on the information that they have provided … they were hired for a mission and this mission was evolving and changing during the weeks they stayed [in Haiti]. But at the end, presumably, all of them, they knew what was going to happen with the president. And what was the end. But of course, this is something that has to be demonstrated and verified. But the mission was changing along the weeks. But at the end, most of them, they knew, even though the mission changed.

Climate change must be part of our national security policy. For the first time in our security policy, we have defined water, biodiversity and the forest as an asset to be protected.

Yet, in the fight against deforestation in Colombia, there have been allegations that members of the military have forcibly removed farmers and burned their homes.

Before, nothing happened to those people who [moved to] nature preserves or areas that have environmental protection. Of course, after this campaign, we decided to go after them. And this is something where we had to find a way because they were present in areas that had to be protected.

Who are you talking about?

The peasants who were informally located in those areas. And as part of the operations, we have to destroy [the homes] of those who are in illegal activities, in those areas that have to be environmentally protected. And of course, at the same time, the government is developing new ways and tools to provide them with new opportunities to transition to legal activities. We have to have law enforcement in those areas if we really want to be serious about controlling deforestation.

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