Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias “Otoniel,” is the head of Colombia’s most powerful criminal group, the Urabeños, and the country’s most wanted man. But his grip on power is slipping as the security forces close in and his days among Colombia’s underworld elite may be numbered.
Otoniel began his underworld career as a member of the now-demobilized guerrilla group, the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL). Though he demobilized in 1991, at the age of 19, along with some 2,500 other guerrilla members, he returned to fighting soon after when he and his brother Juan de Dios Úsuga, alias “Giovanni,” signed up with the paramilitary Córdoba and Urabá Peasant Defense Forces (Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá - ACCU).
The ACCU was later incorporated into the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC), and Otoniel was sent to join the ranks of the AUC’s Centauros Bloc. There, he worked under the bloc’s finance chief, Daniel Rendón Herrera, alias “Don Mario," laundering funds and handling extortion payments. In 2005, he again surrendered arms, this time under the AUC’s demobilization process. But once again his demobilization was short lived, and he soon reunited with Don Mario to help form the Urabeños.
After Don Mario’s capture by Colombian authorities in 2009, Otoniel and Giovanni assumed complete control of the Urabeños.
Under the brothers’ command, the Urabeños expanded across the country using a mix of violence and deal-making, setting them on the path to eventually become the most powerful criminal group in Colombia.
In January 2012, the security forces killed Giovanni, leaving Otoniel as the maximum leader of the Urabeños. Since then he has headed a small command group dominated by his ex-comrades from the EPL and AUC. Under Otoniel’s leadership, the Urabeños continued their expansion, either absorbing their rivals or wiping them out, and they soon became the only Colombian criminal organization remaining with a truly national reach.
In 2015, the security forces launched Operation Agamemnon, an offensive that sent top anti-drug officials and over 1,000 police and military officials to Urabá to target the Urabeños operations and hunt down Otoniel. The criminal leader made entreaties to the government to negotiate his surrender, including via a public video appeal in which he publicly made the request in September 2017, however, these negotiations did not successfully result in his surrender.
Otoniel is the leader of one of Colombia’s largest criminal organizations, which controls strategic drug production and trafficking territories and provides services to independent drug traffickers. He also runs drug routes as a trafficker in his own right. Local Urabeños cells are also involved in a broad range of criminal activities, including extortion, illegal mining, microtrafficking and contraband, and many of these pay a percentage of their profits to the national leadership headed by Otoniel.
Otoniel is believed to be his home region and Urabeños stronghold, Urabá. He lives on the run, and reportedly uses guerrilla tactics to avoid capture, including traveling only by foot or mule and never sleeping in the same place on consecutive nights.
Allies and Enemies
Otoniel and his brother Giovanni expanded the Urabeños influence by violently confronting rivals such as the Rastrojos, while making allies of local criminal groups and drug traffickers across the country. In many cases these actors became part of the Urabeños “franchise.” In some regions, the group also struck drug trade agreements with the now-demobilized guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC).
In the city of Medellín they made a pact with the city mafia, the Oficina de Envigado, with which they had previously fought for control of the city. They also contract out tasks to street gangs, for crimes such as microtrafficking, extortion and targeted killings.
Amid underworld shake-ups in the wake of the demobilization of the FARC, Otoniel’s Urabeños have become embroiled in bitter turf wars with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) guerrilla and the ex-FARC mafia groups. In early 2018, they also became involved in violent confrontations with rebellious local factions of their own network.
Otoniel’s prospects look quite bleak. Not only are the authorities closing in on him, but several of his closest men have have also been arrested or killed.
Although he continues to be among Colombia's most wanted, it is possible that he is no longer the country's most powerful criminal. Living on the run in Urabá, he is increasingly isolated, and his offer to surrender has almost certainly weakened his already slipping grip over the different Urabeños factions. Sources indicate that Otoniel no longer has the complete loyalty of the organization’s commanders, who only obey his orders when it is in their interest, and it is likely only a matter of time before he is captured, killed or surrenders.