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What Does Otoniel's Arrest Really Mean for Colombia?

COLOMBIA / 25 OCT 2021 BY CHRIS DALBY AND JUAN DIEGO POSADA EN

Dario Antonio Úsuga was the most wanted drug trafficker in Colombia. His arrest was seen as so significant that a $5 million reward was on offer. He will soon be extradited to the United States to face a litany of federal charges.

But, after years on the run from authorities, is Úsuga, alias "Otoniel," still as important a drug kingpin as he once was? Does his arrest carry the immediate consequences for Colombian drug trafficking as authorities are making out?

Here, InSight Crime examines three essential aspects of Otoniel's arrest: his place in drug trafficking history, the number of men and money that went toward his capture and the consequences for the vast criminal network he once oversaw.

1. Otoniel was not Escobar

In the hours after Otoniel's capture, a triumphant President Iván Duque said that "this is the hardest blow that has been dealt to drug trafficking in this century…and is only comparable to the fall of Pablo Escobar in the 1990s."

There were apparent similarities in the way they both fell. The two drug lords had dedicated task forces after them. The Search Bloc (Bloque de Búsqueda) was created in 1986 to bring down Escobar. Their mission took seven years and a fortune to complete. Otoniel was tracked by a task force of thousands of soldiers in Operation Agamemnon, founded in 2015 to fight the Urabeños. Their mission took six years and a fortune to complete.

SEE ALSO: Profile of Dario Antonio Úsuga, alias 'Otoniel'

Both oversaw major drug trafficking organizations that were on the decline at the time of their death or capture. The power of the Medellín Cartel, founded by Escobar, had already begun to decline severely by the time he was shot on a rooftop in 1993. Prior to this, attention from authorities had led to the capture and killing of other top Medellín Cartel figures, weakening the organization from within. Pressure from the Cali Cartel, which stood all too ready to fill the drug trafficking void, only hurried its demise.

Otoniel's Urabeños are also not what they once were. After the demobilization of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC) in 2006, the Urabeños broke off and rapidly spread across the country. By 2012, the group was the premier drug trafficking organization in Colombia. However, the country's cocaine production was such that the Urabeños never had the monopoly the Medellín Cartel once had. Escobar's organization once handled 80 percent of the world's cocaine.

While the Urabeños have a sizeable nationwide presence, handling colossal amounts of cocaine, the horizontal nature of the group's command structure means that Otoniel has not had the single-handed power that Escobar once wielded. Under the control of a "board of directors," Urabeños leaders sent key lieutenants to open up their own drug trafficking operations across Colombia, seeking control of coca crops, cocaine production and distribution through alliances or violence.

This form of horizontal control worked wonders for the group at the time of its ascendancy. And while the Urabeños remain among Colombia's major criminal threats, Otoniel was no longer in a position to exert direct control over these disparate groups, given that he spent recent years constantly on the run.

2. The Cost of Bringing Down Otoniel

Ending Otoniel's years on the run did not come cheap. Since February 2015, Colombian police have hunted the Urabeños as part of the most extensive action against organized crime in the country: Operation Agamemnon.

While it was initially conceived as a short-term operation to hit hard, some 1,200 soldiers and police deployed into the Urabá region with two clear missions: dismantle the Urabeños and capture Otoniel.  

Two years later, and with neither of those objectives achieved, the operation was renewed and strengthened. Agamemnon II brought in extra resources from the army, judiciary and Attorney General's Office.

By early 2021, the operation counted some 3,000 security personnel, according to general Fernando Murillo Orrego, director of Colombia's judiciary police.

So what did all these troops have to show for it? In an interview with El Tiempo in January 2021, Murillo Orrego said that Agamemnon troops had carried out 1,420 operations in the northern departments of Antioquia, Córdoba, Chocó and Sucre and had arrested over 4,000 people.

Agamemnon's mission statement involves dismantling one of the most powerful drug trafficking groups in Latin America, with international connections and local support. Still, over the last seven years, it has involved large-scale expenditure. While the amount of money invested by the Colombian government has not been revealed, Agamemnon has not succeeded in its most ambitious objective.

Duque has insisted that Otoniel's capture marks "the end of the Gulf Clan." This is false. The group still has about 1,700 active members, according to Colombian police. Many of these are unlikely to be particularly loyal to Otoniel, whose leadership of the group has faded in recent years.

SEE ALSO: Urabeños Leadership Under Mounting Pressure in Colombia

3. What's Next for the Urabeños?

The Colombian Army finally got their man after years of rumors and anticipation. But will this sustained pressure also weaken the group he once led?

The horizontal nature of the Urabeños means that specific regional leaders may see their loyalties to the group weaken and strike out alone.

But some of the group's commanders may seek to maintain nationwide sway. Wilmer Antonio Giralda Quiroz, alias "Siopas," identified as Otoniel's second-in-command, could try to take control from his base in the northern department of Chocó. He may find a rival in Ávila Villadiego, alias "Chiquito Malo," who was an ally of Otoniel's for almost 20 years. Villadiego was reportedly in charge of coordinating the group's cocaine trafficking operations and is wanted by the United States.

Other factors will help the group survive: They currently control some of the most important coca production areas and drug trafficking routes in Colombia, as well as having the men, the weapons and the contacts to send new shipments out.

The group's five main armed structures are based in and around the departments of Antioquia, Chocó, Sucre, Bolívar and Córdoba. These all have commanders who came up under Otoniel or were appointed by those closest to him.

While these core groups could break out into internecine violence, there is a greater likelihood of bloodshed in regions where the Urabeños designated control to "franchises." These franchises were developed by the Urabeños, who sought to co-opt local gangs across Colombia. While such backing might temporarily prove useful to the criminal groups, the arrest of Otoniel is likely to fray ties between Urabeños and their franchisees.

This could be reflected in regions such as Norte de Santander, a crucial coca crop area along the Venezuelan border where the Urabeños are engaged in a long-term fight with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN). The same could happen in other crucial parts of Colombia, such as Nariño, along the border with Ecuador, or northern Colombia, where the Urabeños are present in the strategic cities of Santa Marta and Barranquilla. These groups could well decide that going it alone makes better financial sense than maintaining loyalty to a central unit that no longer exists.

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