The extradition of accused Colombian drug lord Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias "Otoniel," to the United States brings to an end an era of traffickers forged in the fires of the country’s civil conflict.
Úsuga was arraigned on May 5 in a New York court, where he pleaded not guilty to charges of engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise and conspiring to manufacture and distribute cocaine. US Magistrate Judge Vera Scanlon ordered Úsuga to be held in detention without bail, saying he posed a "significant risk of non-appearance."
A day earlier, Colombian authorities transferred to US anti-drug agents the longtime leader of the Urabeños drug clan, who had escaped justice for decades and had been considered the country’s most-wanted trafficker until his arrest in October of last year. Photos of Otoniel on a US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) plane showed him handcuffed and bowled over with his head in his hands.
Úsuga has been on US prosecutors’ radar for more than a decade, with indictments against him in three US courts, two in New York and one in Florida.
In a 2015 indictment filed in the Eastern District of New York, prosecutors named Otoniel as the principal leader of the Urabeños trafficking organization, also known as the Gulf Clan (Clan del Golfo). The document details how – during a nine-year span from 2003 to 2012 – the group trafficked some 75 tons of cocaine to the US. Prosecutors also said in the indictment that the group coordinated the “production, purchase and transfer” of cocaine shipments, and that it taxed cocaine moving through areas under its control.
In the court document asking that Úsuga be held in jail while awaiting trial, prosecutors accused him of a litany of violent crimes, including placing bounties on security forces, murdering rival traffickers and attempting to poison a witness with cyanide while he was imprisoned overseas.
In the document, prosecutors illustrated his group’s firepower in three weapons seizures made in January of last year. The arsenal included Galil, AK-47 and M-14 assault rifles; rocket-propelled grenades; 1,000 rounds of ammunition; and handguns.
Úsuga assumed “power and territorial control” over vast swaths of Colombia's coastline, prosecutors said, calling him the supreme leader of the Gulf Clan, one of the "largest distributors of cocaine in the world."
He was captured in October 2021 in a military operation that included more than 500 security forces and 22 helicopters in the Paramillo Massif (Nudo de Paramillo), in northern Colombia near the Panama border. He had spent his final months on the run from security forces in the tropical forests of the mountain range, moving among different campsites and rural properties.
After more than six months in custody, Úsuga was extradited suddenly on May 4 after Colombia’s Council of State, the highest court in the country, reversed an April 28 decision to block his removal. Victims had appealed to the court to stop his extradition on the grounds that their rights had been violated.
Since his capture, Otoniel had appeared several times in front of Colombia’s peace court to speak about his group’s actions in recent decades, including making explosive accusations of links to politicians and other officials.
In Colombia, there are 500 open legal proceedings against Úsuga for alleged crimes committed between 2007 and 2021, El Colombiano reported. He also faces a 40-year prison sentence in the country for a 1997 massacre in Mapiripán, where paramilitaries brutally murdered at least 30 civilians.
The charges against him in the US carry a life sentence in prison under federal guidelines. But to comply with Colombia’s extradition agreement with the US, he can only receive a maximum sentence of 60 years. He is 50 years old.
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Otoniel bridges three generations of criminal groups in Colombia. As a young man he joined the guerrillas and then switched sides, enlisting with one of the country’s shadow paramilitary armies. After a government-led effort to demobilize the paramilitaries, he helped form the Urabeños, the most powerful of Colombia’s criminal groups known as “BACRIM” – a moniker created from the Spanish bandas criminales (criminal bands) – in the early 2000s.
More of a criminal than an ideologue, he and his brother, Giovanni, then took up with a paramilitary cell that was later absorbed by the umbrella organization the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC). He worked under Daniel Rendón Herrera, alias “Don Mario," who soon proved pivotal in his criminal trajectory.
After the bulk of the AUC demobilized in 2006, Don Mario brought the Úsuga brothers into the fold of a new criminal group that took its name from the northwestern region of Colombia, Urabá, where it controlled cocaine smuggling routes along the Pacific and the Caribbean.
The group, like Otoniel, was an amalgam. They formed along paramilitary lines but called themselves the "Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia," a reference to the assassinated liberal political leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitan.
The Urabeños’ structure also differed from that of the top-down cartels in Colombia’s past, acting more like a network of franchises to control territory in both rural and urban areas.
The group became the most powerful of the emergent BACRIM, regularly sending multiple tons of cocaine to nearby Panama and other Central American countries in go-fast boats. As other leaders in the group were captured or killed, including his brother, Otoniel ascended to the top spot.
He and the Urabenõs became the focus of a massive military campaign in 2015. Thousands of troops were deployed over several years to capture him. The only other manhunt akin to Otoniel’s was that of Medellín Cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar, which involved a fraction of the forces and cost.
Hardened in both guerrilla and paramilitary structures, Otoniel was a chameleon who adapted easily and knew only conflict and the cocaine trade. Trafficking groups today lack the military backbone of their forebears and tend to be more fragmented, relying on alliances with outside networks.
Since Otoniel’s capture, the Urabeños have floundered without their central leader. Even if a new leader does emerge, he will not have been formed like Otoniel.
*This story has been updated with information about Otoniel's arraignment