Otoniel, the fallen head of the Urabeños crime syndicate, has pleaded guilty to a raft of crimes in New York. His trial marks the end of an era in Colombia’s drug trafficking world.
Colombia’s criminal underworld is now no longer dominated by powerful drug kingpins, those solitary figures with large private armies whose personal decisions influenced the international cocaine trade.
On January 25, Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias “Otoniel,” the former top commander of Colombia’s Urabeños criminal group pleaded guilty in front of a New York courtroom to running a criminal organization, to conspiracy to distribute narcotics by sea, and to conspiracy to import narcotics, according to a statement from the US Department of Justice.
As part of a plea deal, Otoniel will also give up assets worth $216 million and face a sentence of 20 years to life in prison upon conviction. The charges against the Colombian drug lord were transferred to the Eastern District of New York, where he will be held accountable. During his trial on January 25, Otoniel read a statement in which he admitted having trafficked 96.8 tons of cocaine to the United States through Central America and Mexico.
Since 2009, Otoniel headed up the Urabeños, also known as the Gulf Clan (Clan del Golfo) by the government, or as they prefer to call themselves, the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC).
Breon Peace, US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, stated, “with today’s guilty plea, the bloody reign of the most violent and significant Colombian drug trafficker since Pablo Escobar is over.”
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Otoniel was forged in war, joining the now-defunct Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL) as a child. While he laid down his arms at 19, along with many in the EPL, he then joined the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC) at the age of 25. But, after the group was also demobilized in 2005, Otoniel saw an opportunity to command his own force and helped found the Urabeños.
He and his brother, Juan de Dios Úsuga David, alias “Giovanni,” turned the fledgling group into Colombia’s most significant drug trafficking force. Control over some of Colombia’s most crucial coca-growing territories, and alliances with Mexican cartels and Italian mafia groups, cemented Otoniel’s importance.
His varied background, as both a left-wing guerrilla and a right-wing paramilitary, helped to forge Otoniel into the kingpin he became. He gained a reputation for barbarity, even among his criminal peers. One of Colombia’s most infamous drug traffickers, Daniel Barrera, alias “El Loco,” described Otoniel as an “animal” to his captors after being arrested in 2012.
Otoniel also evaded capture far longer than anyone expected. Moving around the Paramillo Massif, a mountain range in northern Colombia, and surrounded by family members, Otoniel maintained the unity and drug trafficking empire of the Urabeños. For years, he eluded the efforts of authorities to capture him, including a search effort several times larger than that deployed against Pablo Escobar.
But since his arrest in 2021, a post-Urabeños era is dawning. No potential successor to his title seems to have the ability to emulate Otoniel’s achievements and power in the underworld. Colombia’s increasingly fragmented criminal dynamics have already led to Urabeños cells striking out on their own, including making alliances with old enemies.
One man has tried. Otoniel’s former right-hand man, Jobanis de Jesus Ávila, alias “Chiquito Malo,” has assumed control of the Urabeños. Chiquito Malo has tried to showcase his strength with varying degrees of success.
But he is rumored to only truly control Urabeños cells in their heartland of Urabá.
The future of the group is uncertain. Otoniel pled guilty and reached a plea deal with New York prosecutors, which may see him cooperate and provide information about his former group.
At the same time, the Colombian government of President Gustavo Petro is engaging the Urabeños as part of its approach to “Total Peace,” a plan to negotiate a demobilization of numerous gangs across Colombia. But without Otoniel, and with the fragmented legacy he left behind, it is uncertain if there is one leader able to speak for the entire organization.
The Petro government has identified Chiquito Malo as a likely interlocutor and requested that his arrest warrant, as well as those of other Urabeños leaders, should be lifted. To make matters more complicated, Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office has refused to comply.
Like after Escobar, Otoniel’s departure leaves behind a transformed Colombian criminal landscape. It is unlikely to be dominated by a similarly powerful criminal figure anytime soon. The days of kingpins, dedicated manhunts, and unspent riches may be over.
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