Dairo Antonio Úsuga, known as Otoniel, Colombia’s most sought after drug trafficker and leader of the Clan del Golfo, has been captured at his jungle hideout by the country’s armed forces.
Colombia had offered a reward of up to 3bn pesos (about $800,000) for information concerning Otoniel’s whereabouts, while the United States government had put up a reward of $5m for help locating him.
President Iván Duque likened the arrest Saturday of Otoniel to the capture three decades ago of Pablo Escobar.
“This is the biggest blow against drug trafficking in our country this century,” Duque said during a broadcast video message. “This blow is only comparable to the fall of Pablo Escobar in the 1990s.”
One police officer died during the operation, Duque said.
After stints as a leftwing guerrilla and later paramilitary, Otoniel, 50, rose to become the leader of the criminal gang Clan del Golfo, or Gulf Clan, a drug trafficking group. The gang has about 1,200 armed men – most of them former members of far-right paramilitaries – and is present in 10 of Colombia’s 32 provinces.
Authorities said intelligence provided by the US and UK led more than 500 soldiers and members of Colombia’s special forces to Otoniel’s jungle hideout, which was protected by an eight rings of security.
Otoniel for years flew under the radar of authorities by eschewing the high profile of Colombia’s better known narcos.
He and his brother, who was killed in a raid in 2012, got their start as gunmen for the now defunct leftist guerrilla group known as the Popular Liberation Army. They later switched sides and joined the rebels’ battlefield enemies, a rightwing paramilitary group.
Otoniel refused to disarm when that militia signed a peace treaty with the government in 2006, instead delving deeper into Colombia’s criminal underworld and setting up operations in the strategic Gulf of Uraba region in northern Colombia, a major drug corridor surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean sea on either side.
Leaks and a network of safe houses at rural homesteads allowed him for years to resist a scorched-earth campaign by the military against the Gulf Clan.
But the war was taking its toll on the fugitive, who even while on the run insisted on sleeping on orthopedic mattresses to ease a back injury. In 2017, he showed his face for the first time on occasion of Pope Francis’ visit to the country, publishing a video in which he asked for his group be allowed to lay down its weapons and demobilise as part of the country’s peace process with the much-larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), but the plan never came to fruition.
His arrest is something of a boost for the conservative president Duque, whose law and order rhetoric has been no match for soaring production of cocaine.
Though Duque said Otoniel’s capture represented the end of the Clan del Golfo, Colombia Risk Analysis director Sergio Guzman said a new leader would surely be waiting to take over.
“It’s a big deal because he’s the biggest drug kingpin in Colombia,” Guzman said, adding that the capture would not change the fundamentals of drug trafficking. “Otoniel is bound to be replaced.”
Land dedicated to the production of coca – the raw ingredient of cocaine – jumped 16% last year to a record 245,000 hectares, a level unseen in two decades of US eradication efforts, according to a White House report.
Colombian authorities launched Operation Agamemnon in 2016 as they worked to close in on Otoniel, killing and capturing dozens of his lieutenants, going after his finances and forcing him to be constantly on the move, according to the police.
In March, Colombian police and the US Drug Enforcement Agency captured Otoniel’s sister, Nini Johana Úsuga, who was extradited to the US to face charges connected to drug trafficking and money laundering.
As well as drug trafficking, Clan del Golfo is involved with illegal mining, authorities say, while the government accuses the group of threatening and killing community leaders across the country.
He was first indicted in 2009, in Manhattan federal court, on narcotics charges and for allegedly providing assistance to a far-right paramilitary group designated a terrorist organization by the US government. He also faces criminal charges in Miami, Tampa and Brooklyn federal courts.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report