“Socalj” for Borderland Beat

For years, the man known as Otoniel was seen as one of the world’s most dangerous drug lords, the elusive boss of a cartel and paramilitary group with a blood-drenched grip on much of northern Colombia. On Tuesday, Dairo Antonio Úsuga said he was “accepting responsibility for the crimes that I have committed” as he was sentenced to 45 years in prison in the US.

“I apologize to the governments of the United States and of Colombia and to the victims of the crimes that I have committed,” Úsuga, 51, said through a court interpreter.

The former leader of the notorious Clan del Golfo, or Gulf Clan, had pleaded guilty in January to high-level drug trafficking charges, admitting he oversaw the smuggling of tons of US-bound cocaine and acknowledging “there was a lot of violence.”

The US agreed not to seek a life sentence in order to get him extradited from Colombia, where he faces the prospect of further prosecution if he survives long enough to be released in the States.

US Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement that the 45-year sentence showed the nation would hold criminal kingpins accountable, “no matter where they are and no matter how long it takes,” for harming Americans.

Úsuga and his lawyers sought to cast him as a product of his homeland’s woes — remote rural hardship, surrounded by guerilla warfare, recruited into it at age 16, and hardened by decades of losing friends, fellow soldiers, and loved ones to violence.

“Having been born into a region of great conflict, I grew up within this conflict,” he said in court, advising young people “not to take the path that I have taken.”

“We should leave armed conflicts in the past,” he added.

But U.S. District Judge Dora Irizarry, invoking her own childhood in a South Bronx housing complex that she said was wracked with drug dealing and violence, told the kingpin that environment was no excuse. “People growing up in these communities, who have the will and have the desire, work their way out of it,” she said, telling Úsuga that he had chances “to leave this life behind — and you didn’t.”

For decades, nearly every Colombian’s life has been touched by the country’s many-sided conflict. A mishmash of leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary groups, narcotraffickers, and other bands of criminals have warred for control of mountainous swaths of the country.

The violence has claimed the lives of more than 1 million people and left millions more forcibly displaced, disappeared, and otherwise harmed, according to data from the country’s Victim’s Unit. The government has sought to sign peace accords with the armed groups but has struggled to consolidate peace in a complex conflict rooted in rural poverty and lack of opportunities.

Úsuga fought alongside both left- and right-wing combatants at different points in his life before becoming part and then supreme leader of the Gulf Clan, known as one of Colombia’s most powerful and brutal forces. He was the country’s most-wanted kingpin before his arrest in 2021, and he had been under indictment in the US since 2009.

The Gulf Clan, also known as the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (or AGC). The Colombian group holds sway in an area rich with smuggling routes for drugs, weapons, and migrants. Boasting military-grade weaponry and thousands of members, the group has fought rival gangs, paramilitary groups, and Colombian authorities. It financed its rule by imposing “taxes” on cocaine produced, stored, or transported through its territory. As part of Úsuga’s plea deal, he agreed to forfeit $216 million.

Úsuga ordered killings of perceived enemies, one of whom was tortured, buried alive, and beheaded, and terrorized the public at large, prosecutors say. They say the kingpin ordered up a days-long, stay-home-or-die “strike” after his brother was killed in a police raid, and he offered bounties for the lives of police and soldiers, even $70,000 for a police dog.

Even for a prosecutor’s office that has won trafficking convictions of such figures as Mexican drug baron Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and former Mexican Public Security Secretary Genaro García Luna, Úsuga was a major target. Brooklyn-based US Attorney Peace said in a statement that the misery spawned by Úsuga’s “incredibly violent, vengeful, and bloody reign” might never be fully calculated.

“The damage that this man named Otoniel has caused to our family is unfathomable,” relatives of slain police officer Milton Eliecer Flores Arcila wrote to the court. The widow of Officer John Gelber Rojas Colmenares, killed in 2017, said Úsuga “took away the chance I had of growing old with the love of my life.”

“All I am asking for is justice for my daughter, for myself, for John’s family, for his friends, and in honor of my husband, that his death not go unpunished,” she wrote. All the relatives’ names were redacted in court filings.

Despite manhunts and US and Colombian rewards offering $5 million in total, Úsuga long evaded capture, partly by rotating through a network of rural safe houses. After his arrest, Gulf Clan members attempted a cyanide poisoning of a potential witness against him and tried to kill the witness’ lawyer, according to prosecutors.