Otoniel, a catch that hardly hurts Colombia’s cocaine empire

Otoniel fell as in the past, other drug lords in Colombia were arrested or killed. But beyond the government’s rejoicing at arresting the head of a powerful mafia army, the world’s largest cocaine empire is far from crumbling.

The arrest on Saturday of the most wanted criminal in the country "It is great news for the government of (President Iván) Duque, but on the ground it is not that much will change", estimates Ariel Ávila, analyst at the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation.

Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias ‘Otoniel’, 50 years old and head of the Clan del Golfo, was arrested in a military and police mega-operation in northwestern Colombia.

This robust peasant, with an easy smile and suffering from diabetes, was a guerrilla and paramilitary before becoming a kingpin of the 21st century.

The United States and Colombia offered rewards for their location that exceeded 5 million dollars.

Held in a Bogotá dungeon, he awaits his surrender to the US justice system. In Colombia he had 128 arrest warrants for drug trafficking and recruitment of minors, among other crimes.

Duke, relieved

President Iván Duque celebrated his arrest as the most forceful blow that drug trafficking has received since the death of Pablo Escobar, the king of cocaine who was shot dead in Medellín by the authorities, although in reality there is an abyss of power between the two.

For months Otoniel had been harassed by the authorities in a jungle area, sleeping in the open and forced to replace his phones with human emails.

After five decades of fierce persecution, with thousands of deaths among police, civilians and drug traffickers, Colombia continues to be the largest exporter of cocaine and the United States the main consumer.

And no analyst believes that this will change due to the departure of a kingpin. The Clan del Golfo maintains control of the Colombian-Panamanian border, a key route for smuggling cocaine into the United States.

And other armed groups continue their expansion in remote regions where the coca leaf, the main ingredient of this stimulant drug, is grown.

Duque, who will leave power in 2022, has failed to resume spraying with glyphosate on coca fields, which are his main bet in the fight against drugs and were suspended by the justice in 2015 due to risks to health and the environment.

With the arrest of Otoniel, the government succeeds "a coup of opinion (…) in the midst of a security crisis, massacres, beheading, dismemberment", which he attributes to the armed drug gangs, says Ávila.

An absent boss

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While its top leader fled into the jungle, the Clan del Golfo, made up of the remnants of the far-right paramilitaries who sowed terror in the 1990s with their anti-guerrilla struggle, remained firm in their dominions.

It has a force of about 1,600 combatants and is present in almost 300 (of the 1,100) municipalities, according to the independent study center Indepaz.

The gang controls routes to export drugs to Central America and also profits from the massive smuggling of migrants across the border with Panama to the United States.

"It is a very decentralized organization", with five commanders and a regional network of operations, Ávila commented, emphasizing that Úsuga’s arrest "the business doesn’t change much".

Other voices warn of a possible violent escalation by occupying the place of Otoniel in the clan, also known as Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC).

He "It unified very fragmented sectors (…). Large catches often lead to struggles for control"Elizabeth Dickinson, a researcher at the NGO Crisis Group, warned on Twitter.

– Business on the Rise – Otoniel is the latest in a long line of headless Colombian drug lords after Escobar.

The government of Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) demobilized and extradited several paramilitary leaders linked to drug trafficking to the United States.

Úsuga’s older brother, Juan de Dios, was then promoted as the new baron of the business and Otoniel succeeded him after his death in a fight with the police in 2012.

Colombian drug trafficking has hardly felt the blows: last year the country registered record numbers of cultivation (245,000 hectares) and production (1,010 tons) of cocaine, according to the White House.

With Otoniel captured, two possible successors are outlined: "The first case is that of (alias) ‘Chiquito Malo’", who leads the clan’s networks in the Urabá region, Antioquia, near Panama, Esteban Salazar, also a researcher on the conflict, explained on Caracol Radio.

"The other who is called to this space is alias ‘Siopas’ who comes from committing a crime for 15 years with ‘Otoniel’"Salazar added.

Apart from the Clan, the public force also faces the last recognized guerrilla in Colombia, the National Liberation Army (ELN), and rebels who broke away from the peace pact signed with the FARC in 2016 known as "dissidents".

According to Indepaz, both groups number almost 8,000 combatants and they dispute the income from drug trafficking and illegal mining.

"This does not stop the security crisis that Colombia is experiencing at all: the ELN is growing, dissidents are growing (and) the drug trafficking economy is booming", Avila sentenced.

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