Colombia has announced that the country’s most wanted drug trafficker will be extradited to the United States following his capture on Saturday.
Dairo Antonio Úsuga, better known as Otoniel, was kidnapped after a joint operation by the army, air force and police.
He led the largest criminal gang in the country and was on the most wanted list of the United States Drug Enforcement Agency For years.
US officials had put a $ 5 million (£ 3.6 million) bounty on his head.
They accused him of having imported at least 73 tons of cocaine into the country between 2003 and 2014.
Colombian Defense Minister Diego Molano told El Tiempo newspaper that the next step for officials was to comply with the US extradition order.
Authorities have now taken Otoniel to a military base in the capital Bogota before his extradition, according to the daily El Nuevo Siglo.
President Iván Duque greeted the capture of the drug lord in a televised video message.
“This is the biggest blow against drug trafficking in our country this century,” he said. “This blow is comparable only to the fall of Pablo Escobar in the 90s”.
How was he caught?
Otoniel was captured in his rural hideout in the province of Antioquia in northwestern Colombia, near the border with Panama.
The operation involved 500 soldiers supported by 22 helicopters. A police officer was killed.
Otoniel had used a network of rural shelters to get around and evade the authorities, and he didn’t use a telephone, relying instead on couriers for communication.
In the past, police have found special orthopedic mattresses for Otoniel in these scattered homes, as he suffered from back pain due to a herniated disc.
Police Chief Jorge Vargas said the drug lord was afraid of being caught, “he never went near the built-up areas.”
- BACKGROUND: Colombia on the hunt for an elusive drug lord
But El Tiempo reported that the authorities managed to locate the place where he was captured two weeks ago.
Chief Vargas said his movements were tracked by more than 50 signal intelligence experts using satellite imagery. US and UK agencies were involved in the research.
Duque described the operation as “the largest penetration into the jungle ever seen in the military history of our country”.
The Colombian Armed Forces later released a photo showing his soldiers guarding Otoniel, who was in handcuffs and wearing rubber boots.
In recent years, there have been several huge operations involving thousands of officers to capture the 50-year-old.
There is no doubt that this is seen as a coup by the Colombian authorities: they have been trying to capture Otoniel for several years. The Gulf Cartel is a formidable and violent organization with great power.
And the comparisons with Pablo Escobar are understandable. Otoniel is a household name and has been extremely powerful, especially in the northwest of the country.
“There is no bigger cocaine smuggler in South America,” says Toby Muse, author of Kilo: Inside the Cocaine Cartels. “We live in the golden age of cocaine, we produce more cocaine than ever, that’s a fact”.
But the parallels perhaps stop there: Otoniel is not as well known outside of Colombia. And talking to the people who lived in the country at the height of Pablo Escobar’s power, many feel they were scarier times.
The question is, will Otoniel’s capture have an impact on the illicit drug trade? It’s hard to know now. We will have to see what happens in the next few months, but most experts seem to think that while the demand for cocaine remains strong, it is likely that there will be new “capos” that will rise to the top to replace it.
Who is Otoniel?
Born in Antioquia in the early 1970s, Otoniel jumped between several guerrilla and paramilitary groups – including the Farc (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the main Marxist-Leninist rebel group and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) , a far-right paramilitary and drug trafficking gang.
When the AUC disbanded in 2005, he began working for drug lord Daniel Rendón Herrera, known as Don Mario – leader of the Urabeños, who later became known as the Gulf Clan.
Otoniel then took command of the group after his former leader – his brother – was killed by police in a raid on a New Year’s party nearly 10 years ago.
Colombian security forces have labeled the gang as the most powerful criminal organization in the country, while US authorities describe it as “heavily armed”. [and] extremely violent “.
The gang, which operates in many provinces and has extensive international connections, is engaged in drug and human trafficking, illegal gold mining and extortion.
It is believed to have around 1,800 armed members, mostly recruited from far-right paramilitary groups. Members were arrested in Argentina, Brazil, Honduras, Peru and Spain.
The gang controls many of the routes used for drug smuggling from Colombia to the United States and to Russia.
The Colombian government, however, believes it has decimated its numbers in recent years, forcing many prominent members to hide in remote jungle regions.
Otoniel now faces a variety of charges, including sending cocaine shipments to the United States, killing police officers, and recruiting children.
He was indicted in the United States in 2009.
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