Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias “Otoniel,” was the head of Colombia’s most powerful criminal group, the Urabeños, and the country’s most wanted man. But his grip on power had steadily been as security forces gradually closed in and he was captured in the municipality of Necoclí, near Colombia's northern border with Panama, Colombia's President Ivan Duque announced on October 23.
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. That same year, Colombian police stated that Agamemnon had dismantled "half" of the Urabeños, although that number is hard to quantify.
In 2018, the operation was renewed as Agamemnon 2, with up to 3,000 soldiers reportedly dedicated to fighting the Urabeños. This maintained pressure certainly weakened Otoniel, who saw his closest advisors captured or killed, his brother, sister and cousin arrested and extradited to the United States.
In recent years, InSight Crime fieldwork suggested that Otoniel had steadily lost his direct grip on Urabeños operations around the country, with new commanders taking control of key regions of operation.
Following his capture, Colombian media reports revealed how he had spent his final months trying to stay ahead of security forces in the Paramillo Massif, a mountain range with numerous waterways, in northern Colombia, moving between campsites and rural properties.
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.
Following his arrest, the Colombian government released a list of his alleged crimes, accusing him of "aggravated homicide, illicit recruitment, conspiracy to commit crimes, extortion and kidnapping, terrorism, illegal carrying of weapons, drug trafficking...forced disappearances and illegal recruitment of minors."
Otoniel was believed to largely operate in his home region and Urabeños stronghold, Urabá, a subdivision of Colombia's northwestern department of Antioquia, as well as in Córdoba, a neighboring department to the north. He lived on the run, and reportedly used guerrilla tactics to avoid capture, including traveling only by foot or mule and never sleeping in the same place on consecutive nights.
In October 2021, he was captured by government forces in Necoclí, a coastal municipality in northern Colombia, near the border with Panama.
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 ex-FARC Mafia groups.
In 2020 and 2021, the group also became involved, albeit in a limited manner, in the ongoing scramble for cross-border criminal economies between Colombia and Venezuela, reportedly reaching some sort of alliance with their old enemies, the Rastrojos, to fight the ELN there. Their impact inside Venezuela, compared to the ELN or ex-FARC Mafia, has remained somewhat limited, however. Since this evolution happened in the final months of Otoniel's freedom, it is uncertain how much sway he had on this development.
Since 2015, Otoniel and Urabeños leadership had been the target of Operation Agamemnon. This placed Otoniel on the back foot as he reportedly had to regularly move camp around Urabá and other parts of Antioquia. While security forces did take several years to finally track him down, speaking to the support Otoniel received and knowledge of the area among his forces, this sustained pressure eventually caught up with him.
Otoniel's criminal career is likely finished after his arrest on October 23, 2021. While he had remained the leader of the AGC, he had been the subject of an unusually dogged manhunt by Colombian authorities since Operation Agamemnon was launched in 2015. This had led to the capture of his brother and second-in-command in 2019 and his sister in 2021. There was frequent speculation in the Colombian press that the army was close on his heels in northern Colombia and it seemed inevitable that he would soon be captured or killed.
He will likely be extradited to the United States, with President Duque mentioning this after his capture, although adding that Colombian authorities wanted to learn as much from him beforehand. This would follow precedent as Otoniel's family members and Urabeños leaders have been extradited in the recent past. He faces criminal charges at federal courts in Manhattan and Brooklyn in New York as well as Miami and Tampa in Florida.
The question now is what becomes of the organization he once ran. While President Duque called his arrest the most significant blow to Colombian drug trafficking since the arrest of Pablo Escobar, the direct impact of this capture is uncertain. As he lived on the run, Otoniel had become increasingly isolated, and his offer to surrender to the government almost certainly weakened his grip over the different Urabeños factions. Investigations by InSight Crime indicated that Otoniel, for several years, no longer had the complete loyalty of the organization’s commanders, who only obeyed his orders when it was in their interest.