For years, Colombia’s most-wanted drug lord has eluded capture, despite a $5 million bounty on his head by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and an $800,000 reward by the Colombian government. His good fortune seemed to end on Saturday.
In a photo released by Colombia’s presidential press office, Dairo Antonio Úsuga, better known as “Otoniel,” was presented to the media in handcuffs with armed soldiers flanking him on each side.
Colombian authorities said intelligence provided by the U.S. and U.K. led some 500 members of the country’s special forces to Úsuga's hideout in the jungle, where he was protected by eight rings of security, the Associated Press reported.
Colombia’s conservative President Iván Duque compared Úsuga’s capture to that of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar nearly thirty years ago, and the country’s defense minister said the arrest is a definitive blow against drug-fueled violence.
“In operation Osiris ‘Otoniel’ fell! A symbol of evil. One of the biggest drug traffickers and child recruiters. Thanks to our soldiers and policemen! The promise to end narco-crime is fulfilled,” Defense Minister Diego Molano Aponte wrote on Twitter.
Molano said the plan is to extradite Úsuga to the U.S., adding that both the U.S. and Colombian rewards for information about the drug lord would be paid, according to Reuters.
But civilians were dubious about the circumstances leading to Úsuga’s arrest. Photos showing Úsuga smiling, flanked by smiling soldiers in what appeared to be a helicopter, led some on social media to speculate that the drug lord had voluntarily turned himself in as part of a deal with the government.
“This is a party between old friends riding in a military helicopter at our expense. Does anyone believe the story that this is a capture?” wrote investigative journalist Gonzalo Guillén on Twitter.
There have also been reports that Úsuga’s power had been waning in recent years, and that new commanders were taking more control of regional areas.
“It's a mystery how Otoniel was capable of managing such complex networks amidst the jungle,” said Federico Varese, a professor of criminology at the University of Oxford. “The guy moved on a donkey with a few bodyguards. He used dogs to detect any move in the jungle. So one suspects that he was not the only player.”
Still, Úsuga’s capture was a political win for Duque, who is Colombia’s least popular president in recent history, according to Gallup polling. His popularity plummeted after massive protests broke out around the country in April and May following his now-abandoned plan to overhaul the tax system.
“The government isn’t doing well in the polls. The ruling party is plagued by scandals,” said Sergio Guzmán, director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consultancy firm based in Bogota. Úsuga’s capture “offers a lot of respite for the government because it's a big win so they are going to try and make as much as they can out of it.”
“Bar none this is a success,” Guzman added. “But there is nothing that suggests this is a game-changer. One fallen drug lord means an opportunity for the next.”
Born in the middle of Colombia’s decades-long civil war, Úsuga reportedly got his start with the Popular Liberation Army, a Marxist guerilla organization known in Colombia as the EPL. He later switched sides and aligned with right-wing paramilitaries. He became a mid-rank commander of the Gulf Clan, or Urabeños, and took on the lead role in 2009 after the arrest of its then-leader.
The Gulf Clan is a powerful player in the transnational drug trade, moving cocaine from the Gulf of Urubá near the Panamanian border north through the Caribbean as part of its journey to Mexico and the United States.
“He was the guy who controlled the principal corridor of drugs and cocoa crops. Most of the drug traffickers paid him to support their merchandise,” said Gustavo Duncan Cruz, a political science professor at EAFIT University in Colombia.
But Duncan Cruz said Úsuga wasn’t nearly as powerful as Pablo Escobar, despite comparisons by government officials. Escobar operated from a major city — Medellín — and gained international infamy by allegedly ordering the bombing of a jetliner because he believed drug-trade informants were on board, according to authorities. The explosion killed all 107 people aboard.
Úsuga, by contrast, ran his organization from the jungle, eschewing both technology and the flashy life-style embraced by many in the drug-trade business. Over the years, he managed to evade sophisticated efforts to try and capture him, including a 2015 military operation that involved 1,000 soldiers and police officers.
In 2017, Úsuga published a video during Pope Francis’ visit to Colombia and stated his desire to come to justice and allow his organization to demobilize. Nothing came of that request, as far as is publicly known.