The Colombian government has made some discrete changes to its hunt for the country's most wanted criminal, changes that may well tip the scales in what has, for the last two years, been a fruitless search.
With remarkably little fanfare, Colombia's Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas announced on June 22 that the search for Dario Antonio Úsuga, alias "Otoniel," the nation's most wanted drug lord, will now be led by General Jorge Luis Vargas, the director of the criminal investigations branch of the national police -- perhaps the most capable investigative police official in the country.
His appointment also marks the first time that a joint security task force will be under police, rather than military, control. The task force, charged with leading a new offensive against the Gaitanistas' criminal structure, also known as the Gulf Clan, Urabeños, and Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC), will consist of 3,200 members of the police, navy, army, and air force, El Tiempo reported.
US Ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker was present for Villegas' announcement at the task force's headquarters in Necoclí, in the department of Antioquia. There are signs that the United States may well step up assistance to the operation to capture Otoniel and other AGC leaders, with the ultimate goal of dismantling the transnational drug trafficking organization.
"This is the fourth time I have come to Necoclí in order to get to know the results of the police, which demonstrates the commitment and interest my country shares in supporting law enforcement in its fight against drug trafficking and organized crime," Whitaker told El Tiempo.
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The appointment of Jorge Luis Vargas as commander of the new joint task force is part of the second phase of Operation Agamemnon, the Colombian government's name for the search effort targeting the AGC. During its first phase, which lasted over two years, authorities arrested more than 1,000 members of the group, but have been unsuccessful in capturing Otoniel and dismantling the criminal structure.
InSight Crime visited the headquarters at Necoclí where Operation Agamemnon is based. There in full display were Black Hawk helicopters provided by the United States, and a state-of-the-art intelligence center. There is little doubt that this will be the base of operations for General Vargas, who is best known for his work in the Directorate of Police Intelligence (Dirección de Inteligencia Policial - DIPOL), where he elevated Colombia's intelligence infrastructure to world-class standards.
Placing the police in charge of the new joint task force is one of the first signs of a shifting strategy within the Defense Ministry towards a post-conflict environment where the police -- and not the military -- will take the lead in guaranteeing internal security, as the constitution dictates. This could be a small glimpse of what is to come following the demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC).