NECOCLI, Colombia — As the Colombian government nears a deal to end its 50-year conflict with FARC guerrillas, it is intensifying another war in the jungles here along the Caribbean coast, the stronghold of a shadowy drug organization known as Clan Úsuga.
For more than a year, U.S.-trained Colombian commandos in Black Hawk helicopters have been hunting the group’s leader, Dario Antonio Úsuga, a.k.a. Otoniel, in an urgent campaign to capture or kill him before a truce with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is signed.
Both the government and the traffickers know that a big share of Colombia’s billion-dollar cocaine trade will be up for grabs if FARC — whose rebellion runs on drug profits — goes out of business. Some of its 7,000 battle-hardened fighters may be looking for new jobs. Clan Úsuga will be hiring.
“We can’t be naive and think that drug trafficking will end with FARC,” said Gen. Jorge Rodriguez Peralta, the commander of a police special forces division targeting the group. “There’s too much money to be made.”
The campaign against Clan Úsuga, called Operation Agamemnon, is a sign of Colombian and U.S. fears that criminal mafias will take advantage of the peace deal to reestablish Pablo Escobar-style cartels that would undermine the rule of law as much as an insurgency.
Securing additional U.S. support for the fight will be on the agenda of President Juan Manuel Santos, who is scheduled to visit the White House on Thursday for an official visit to commemorate the 15-year anniversary of Plan Colombia.
That $10 billion program, funded by Congress, is considered by many Republicans and Democrats to be one of the most successful U.S. foreign policy achievements of the past generation, forcing FARC to the negotiating table after a half-century of violence that has left more than 220,000 dead. U.S. lawmakers have approved $296 million in aid to Colombia in 2016, a slight decrease from last year.
The Santos government is so determined to debilitate Clan Úsuga that it is throwing Colombia’s considerable military might at the traffickers. The military carried out airstrikes on two jungle camps near the border with Panama late last year, killing 17 suspects with satellite-guided bombs.
At the time, Colombian officials justified the unusual use of force by saying they believed that guerrillas were present at the camps. But authorities confirm that they are seeking new legal authority to expand the use of lethal air power against Úsuga and other underworld bosses.
“We’re reviewing our use-of-force doctrines to make sure civilian populations will be protected and that the tactic can be used only when we have precise information,” Luis Carlos Villegas, Colombia’s defense minister, said in an interview.
The Úsuga organization is by far the country’s most powerful criminal syndicate, with 1,500 to 2,000 members, a presence in more than half of Colombian territory, and an arsenal that includes mortars, rockets and land mines .
If it can survive long enough to see FARC stand down, the potential rewards are lucrative.
Authorities say FARC is on a coca-growing binge to stockpile cash before it quits the business under the terms of the peace accord. Although cocaine use in the United States has been falling, the nation remains the world’s biggest consumer, and a flood of cheap product could trigger a new wave of abuse. The coca boom sets up a bloody contest for FARC’s market share — at least 60 percent of Colombia’s cocaine trade, according to government estimates. Santos is trying to force the country’s second-largest leftist rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), to enter peace talks as well and keep it from making the same play.
Cocaine, said Rodriguez, the general, is “the gasoline” that fuels all of the country’s illegal armed groups.
Some FARC units or “fronts” subsist by taxing coca growers and smugglers, but other commanders are deeply involved in the drug trade, officials say. These are the units Colombian authorities worry about most, because they have personal contacts with Clan Úsuga leaders and other traffickers who will be looking to recruit them.
“Whoever takes over the drug trade will be a lot more effective than FARC,” said Jeremy McDermott, a security consultant based in Medellin and a founder of the InSight Crime project, which studies organized crime in the Americas. The Marxist rebels are fearsome on the battlefield but not especially skilled as businessmen, he said.
In contrast, Clan Úsuga is a highly sophisticated network whose middle managers derive profits from extortion, illegal mining and contraband smuggling, using encrypted communications and front companies to launder millions in drug money. “The FARC are amateurs compared to these guys,” McDermott said. “Now the professionals are going to take over.”
With Colombia’s fast-growing economy slowed by the crash in oil prices, U.S. Ambassador Kevin Whitaker said, the United States should step in to help the Santos administration ensure that a peace deal wins support for state-building in FARC-controlled areas where the government has long been absent.
U.S. assistance can shore up programs such as land restitution for victims of the conflict and substitution of legal crops for coca, while ensuring continued security cooperation between Colombian forces and the Drug Enforcement Administration, the CIA and other U.S. agencies.
With the government and FARC due to sign a peace deal in late March, “I hope Congress will be committed from Day One,” said Whitaker, a veteran of numerous Latin America postings. “With Colombia, we have the closest security relationship I have ever witnessed in my career.”
Clan Úsuga is the government’s name for the trafficking group, but on the streets of Colombia it’s known as the Urabeños, named for the lush coastal region of Uraba, near the border with Panama, which has been a smuggling corridor for decades.
Last year, authorities seized 15 tons of cocaine, worth $150 million, from the group in Uraba alone, according to police statistics — equal to about 10 percent of all the cocaine confiscated annually in Colombia.
The helicopter base here operates as a “fusion center” where Colombian narcotics agents, commandos and prosecutors filter intelligence and plan raids against Clan Úsuga targets. Commanders say they are in daily contact with the DEA and other U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
On one recent muggy afternoon, dozens of police commandos with automatic rifles and grenade launchers took off in three helicopter teams for a raid on a suspected Clan Úsuga courier known by the nickname “Batman.”
Landing their Black Hawk helicopters in the middle of a banana plantation, the troops circled Batman’s shack, finding him barefoot and stretched out in a hammock with two small children. A “Happy Birthday” banner with the Peppa Pig cartoon character stretched above the doorway. Batman handed the troops his ID card and invited them inside.
The agents found no drugs or weapons but said they were suspicious of the dozen or so purebred fighting cocks in Batman’s care. It looked like an expensive bird collection for a humble banana worker. One officer noted that Úsuga, the leader of the organization, liked fighting cocks.
“These are probably his,” the officer said.
Úsuga himself is a product of failed attempts at government-negotiated disarmament. As a young man he joined the People’s Liberation Army (EPL), a small leftist guerrilla group that agreed to lay down its weapons in 1991. When units from the larger FARC moved into Uraba and hunted the group’s former members, Úsuga joined a paramilitary “self-defense” movement to drive out the guerrillas.
The paramilitaries also thrived on cocaine profits. When they made a deal with the government to disarm in 2006, Úsuga was one of the mid-level commanders who went back into the drug business.
He lived in relative comfort until last year, authorities say, shuttling between safe houses in the mountains of Uraba and providing cocaine to Mexican trafficking groups such as the Sinaloa cartel. Now he’s on the run, authorities say.
“We’ll get him this year,” said one Colombian narcotics agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he works undercover. “We’re close.”