Why you should care
Colombia’s most-wanted man directs the wholesale cocaine trade, as well as terrorism against the state.
Among the steamy banana plantations of a place called Urabá, nestled in Colombia’s Caribbean jungle, a 48-year-old man named Dairo Antonio Úsuga lives on the run. His face looks fat and puffy, and he reportedly has a bad back. He travels by mule in ordinary clothing, passing for a small-time farmer instead of a billion-dollar drug kingpin. He never sleeps in the same bed twice. Instead, he survives on an underground network of contacts in the land where he grew up. Cell phone? Nope. Human messengers only.
He goes by the alias “Otoniel.” There’s a $5 million bounty for information leading to his arrest.
When a New York jury this month convicted Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera of drug trafficking and conspiracy to murder, it was billed as a victory following a long, frustrating hunt for the leader of Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa cartel. Yet Sinaloa is still thriving, and Otoniel’s Gulf Clan is its main cocaine supplier in Colombia.
While Otoniel typically used to put police and local politicos on his payroll, he’s lately turned to terrorism against the state.
“Everyone underestimates” Otoniel, says Gustavo Duncan Cruz, a Colombian political scientist and expert on organized crime. “But he’s actually a lot more powerful than people think.”
Otoniel controls a mafia organization with transnational reach from the Gulf of Urubá, a strategic point near the Panamanian border for cocaine exports that leave Colombia’s northern coast. His business is more than the white stuff. “The network as a whole is less a drug cartel and more a service provider to independent drug traffickers,” writes InSight Crime, a Medellín-based research unit on organized crime in the Americas.
The Gulf Clan benefits from illegal gold mines, human trafficking and extortion. Otoniel’s territory stretches from Panama in the west to Venezuela in the east, allowing him a large piece of the wholesale cocaine market. If you’re a narco in Colombia and you want to export your cocaine through the Caribbean, you need to have a Gulf Clan contact, according to Cruz.
“He knows how to control a private army from the middle of the jungle,” says Cruz. “Coming from humble beginnings and operating with such little information, they’ve been able to survive. He has to be very skillful.”
Otoniel was born poor in the middle of Colombia’s decades-long civil war. A Maoist guerrilla group called the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) recruited him into its ranks. In the early 1990s, EPL demobilized, but Otoniel flouted the plan. His ragtag group of EPL dissidents murdered a top commander in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), inciting the powerful Marxist guerrillas. So, turning pragmatic, Otoniel aligned with Colombia’s right-wing paramilitaries for protection. He grew into an effective mid-rank commander and united with then kingpin Daniel Rendón Herrera (aka Don Mario) to perfect a drug-slinging mafia that dominated Colombia’s underworld. In 2009, the authorities nabbed Don Mario, and that’s when Otoniel took the reins.
Like a scene out of the Wild West, pamphlets of Otoniel’s profile began to litter town squares, his face splashed on TV. “Otoniel has a mug shot. He’s old-school,” says Adam Isacson, director of defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America. “Most guys — smarter narcos — keep a very low profile.” Over the past decade, Otoniel has transformed into Colombia’s most wanted man.
In a sense, Colombian organized crime can be considered about five years ahead of its Mexican counterpart. While Sinaloa racks up a huge body count in its wars with other cartels, the Gulf Clan and others in Colombia have realized this is bad for business and only invites more heat from law enforcement — leading to a kind of “Pax Mafioso” in which cocaine production increases without pushing up violence. Colombia saw its lowest levels of violence in 42 years in 2017. Although homicides rose slightly in 2018, it is significantly less violent than neighboring Venezuela and Central American nations such as Honduras and El Salvador.
That’s not to say Otoniel’s crew is above violence. While he typically used to put police and local politicos on his payroll, he’s lately turned to terrorism against the state — taking a page from Pablo Escobar, who terrorized Colombia during the 1980s and ’90s. In 2017, he declared a “pistol plan,” effectively offering cash to assassins for police killings. He’s also earned a reputation for child abuse, allegedly forcing the peasants who shack him up for a night to prime their teenage daughters in accordance with his tastes, according to local reports.
Federico Varese, a criminology professor at Oxford University, is wary of obsessing over kingpins and doesn’t buy the doctrine that authorities should squeeze a group’s finances. Instead, he proposes a third way. “There will always be some organized crime in a complex society because there will always be some illegal commodities,” says Varese. But inequality, segregation and discrimination, he argues, are the roots of organized crime. “What you want to stop is the governance dimension. You want people to stop following the authority of a gang leader and start following the authority of an elected democratic politician.”
In 2015, Colombia launched a military operation where around 1,000 elite police-military agents were flown into Otoniel’s territory for a massive search mission called Agamemnon. Except they still can’t catch him, more than three years later. Two key partners were killed. Widespread cocaine seizures weakened the group’s finances. But Otoniel remains at large. In September 2017, the boss of the Gulf Clan appeared on television wearing fatigues and a black cap. Unlike the eerie videos of masked terrorists uttering their demands, he showed his face to the camera. Otoniel appealed to the government for a place at the negotiation table and said his organization wanted to “be part of the end of the conflict.”
Earlier that year, FARC had laid down their weapons and demobilized, ending 50 years of war against the state. Otoniel was portraying his willingness to surrender too. So in January 2018, then-president Juan Manuel Santos gave Otoniel and his Gulf Clan a chance to drop their weapons and submit — only if they did so in one fell swoop. A year later, the offer expired.
Meanwhile, the syndicate expanded into a void left behind by the FARC demobilization. Though weakened by Agamemnon, Otoniel is still the master of evading state security forces. Now the Gulf Clan is clashing with the National Liberation Army guerrillas. It is an enemy Otoniel knows well. After all, he used to be a guerrilla himself.
Read more: The illegal gold mining boom that’s poisoning Colombia.