Capture of Colombia’s Most Wanted Drug Trafficker Spurs Predictions for the Future of the Drug Trade
On October 23, Dairo Antonio Úsuga—Columbia’s most wanted drug trafficker—was captured after being on the run for over a decade. The warlord, commonly known under the alias “Otoniel,” has been on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) most-wanted fugitives list with a $5 million reward for his capture for the past twelve years.
Photo Courtesy: Associated Press
President Ivan Duque Márquez and the rest of the Colombian government are confident that Úsuga’s capture is a major victory in the war against drug trafficking. Though his capture will certainly alter the dynamic of power within the cartel, it will not mark the end for the ever-thriving cocaine market in Colombia. There remains much speculation as to whether the arrest will truly topple the infamous drug trafficking group titled, the “Gulf Clan.”
Úsuga is but one of the leaders in the Gulf Clan, a violent drug cartel made up of former terrorist organization members. The members include many of the assassins who chose not to disband during the Colombian government’s justice and peace agreement. This major agreement sought to end 50 years of internal conflict with one of the country’s largest guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Úsuga was accused of importing over 73 tons of cocaine into the United States between 2003 and 2014. Indicted in the U.S. in 2009, he faced numerous charges. Among the largest include: transporting cocaine into the U.S., killing police officers, and recruiting children. His recent capture was the product of years of hot pursuit. Tracked by a task force of numerous soldiers, the Gulf Clan leader was finally captured in his rural hideout near the Panama border in an operation involving 500 soldiers, and 22 helicopters.
President Márquez insists that this is the end of the Gulf Clan, stating that the arrest of Úsuga “is only comparable to the fall of Pablo Escobar.” In a press conference following the capture, the president also continued to speak out to the remaining members of the Gulf Clan, urging them to “submit to justice immediately,” or meet ends similar to that of their captured leader.
Minister Diego Molano also spoke out at the press conference to describe what Úsuga’s capture means for security policy, and for the country as a whole. In his response to the aftermath of the Usuga’s capture, he stated that, “there is not a corner of Colombia in which a criminal remains calm.” This sentiment from Molano suggests that Úsuga’s dream for expansion has been halted.
However, the government’s confident sentiment is not shared by all. The capture of the infamous drug kingpin will not disintegrate the 1,700 active members the Gulf Clan still holds. Present in one-third of Colombia’s territory, the group still bears many essential drug trafficking routes, and is currently in control of many of the most important areas for coca production throughout the country. The capture of Úsuga also will not erase the weapons, contacts, and connections that the group has in its tool belt to continue producing and exporting hundreds of tons of cocaine per year. The high demand for cocaine will also help keep the group in power, as Colombia’s potential cocaine production continues to incline, rising 8% last year to 1,228 tons.
In alignment with the words of President Márquez, the Gulf Clan may not operate the same without Úsuga at the head. Although, instead of toppling—as he predicts may occur—the group may continue to evolve and grow in different ways than under their previous leader. According to crime expert Dr. Felab-Brown, Úsuga’s capture could be viewed as an opening for other leaders to rise to the top. Though Úsuga oversaw the group’s five main armed structures, his capture does not mean the end of drug trafficking for its members. Regional leaders could disperse, and the commanders of the five main armed structures may choose to strike out on their own. A fight for power within a unit with no leader could also result in heightened violence. The dispersal of power may even start an internal war, or prompt other leading drug trafficking groups to attempt a takeover and pick up the broken pieces from the Gulf Clan.
The capture of Úsuga may certainly lead to internal conflict, but some experts state that acts of retaliation may also occur. John Marlunanda, a retired army colonel and president of the retired officers’ association, stated that the capture of the kingpin will prompt a violent response which could include killing members of the security forces and citizens. His prediction came true shortly after, when four Colombian soldiers were killed, and three more injured in an attack in northwest Colombia. In an interview with Blu Radio, Army General Juvenal Diaz asserted that the Gulf Clan’s attack was a direct retaliation against the capture of their leader.
While the long awaited capture of Úsuga may be a successful political victory for President Márquez and his task force, it is almost certainly not the end of drug trafficking and violence in Colombia. Although the government is doing what they deem necessary to reduce drug trafficking and related violence, they are also always awaiting the response of the Gulf Clan. While Colombia’s drug-related past can help anticipate an outcome for the group’s future, Úsuga's capture is different. It has created an ever-changing dynamic situation that will make it hard to predict how the tide of Colombia’s drug trade will turn next.