Colombian President Iván Duque likened Úsuga’s arrest Saturday to the capture of Pablo Escobar three decades ago. Escobar, known as “the Godfather,” once sat on top of the drug world with tentacles reaching around the globe.
“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.”
A police officer died during the operation, Duque said, according to Reuters.
Úsuga is accused of sending dozens of shipments of cocaine to the United States. He is also accused of killing police officers, recruiting minors and sexually abusing children, among other crimes, Duque said. The U.S. government had put up a reward of $5 million for help locating him.
“Otoniel’s capture is truly important,” said Daniel Mejía, 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 Úsuga’s place. After flying over the remote area where Úsuga was captured, the country’s defense minister, Diego Molano, vowed Sunday to continue to dismantle his criminal network — and hunt down possible successors as leader of the Gulf Clan.
“There is no place where crime has to hide,” Molano wrote on Twitter.
Duque, in a video message posted Sunday, identified Jobanis de Jesús Ávila, referring to him by his alias, “Chiquito Malo,” as one of the suspects now in the government’s sights as they seek to take down the Gulf Clan: “We are coming for you,” Duque said. He was the clan’s weapons coordinator and Úsuga’s right-hand man, according to local media reports.
Úsuga’s 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. … What happens next is different pieces of the puzzle aligning to fill the vacuum of power left by Otoniel,” said Sergio Guzmán, director of the consulting firm Colombia Risk Analysis. “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 Úsuga’s criminal network used violence and intimidation to control narcotics trafficking routes, cocaine processing laboratories, speedboat departure points and clandestine landing strips. He set up operations in the strategic Gulf of Uraba region in northern Colombia, a major drug corridor surrounded by the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other.
Úsuga 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 Úsuga slept in rough conditions, hardly ever spending time in homes, and dined on his favorite jungle animals. Years of intelligence work, with assistance from the United States and Britain, eventually led Colombian special forces soldiers to his jungle hideout, Vargas said. Úsuga moved around with eight rings of bodyguards.
Úsuga’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 Úsuga 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.” The defense minister told the El Tiempo newspaper he will ultimately be extradited to the United States.
Úsuga 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, Durán reported from Bogotá, Colombia, and Schmidt reported from Meta, Colombia.