Weekly Report - 28 October 2021 (WR-21-43)

Duque jubilant over the fall of Otoniel

Dairo Antonio Úsuga (‘Otoniel’), the leader of Clan del Golfo, Colombia’s top drug trafficking organisation (DTO), was captured in a large-scale army operation in Antioquia, near the border with Panama, on 23 October. A jubilant President Iván Duque hailed his arrest as the biggest blow to DTOs this century, comparable only to the 1993 killing of the notorious drug kingpin, Pablo Escobar of the Medellín Cartel. Duque also claimed this was “the end of the Clan del Golfo”.  That may be something of an exaggeration.

The Colombian military seized the 50-year-old Otoniel during a major raid on a Clan del Golfo jungle camp, in an area known as Cerro Yoki. Operation Osiris was said to involve 22 helicopters, drones, navy boats, 500 special forces troops, and satellite-based surveillance technology provided by the US and UK. One person was killed but otherwise no major resistance was encountered. Otoniel, who has been on the run for over 10 years, stands accused of smuggling 73 metric tonnes of cocaine into the US in 2003-2014, killing police officers, kidnapping victims, recruiting minors, and sexually abusing children.

Defence minister Diego Molano confirmed the government had initiated the legal process for extradition to the US, commenting “extradition awaits all those who commit international crimes”. The process is expected to take around four weeks. The Colombian authorities had offered a Col$3bn (US$800,000) reward for his capture, while the US had offered US$5m. Molano said both rewards would be paid, confirming speculation that insider information had helped reveal Otoniel’s location. Local media suggested information from DTO members who were delivering medicines to the top leader, reportedly to treat a kidney ailment, may have played a key role.

Given the largely non-violent nature of the operation, there has been some speculation in local media that Otoniel may have been party to a negotiated surrender, in effect turning himself in, in return for assurances on how he would be treated by both the Colombian and US authorities. Those who consider this a possibility note that in 2017 he had proposed a negotiated surrender to the government, offering to lay down arms under certain conditions. Esteban Salazar of lobby group Fundación Paz y Reconciliación (Pares) says that it is puzzling how such a heavily protected DTO leader (he reportedly had eight security ‘perimeters’ around him) could have been seized with minimum resistance. Left-wing presidential front runner Gustavo Petro also said he suspected there had been a negotiation of some kind, adding that there should be scrutiny of the reward payments to ensure they were not corrupt.    

There are a number of similarities – but also some differences – in the captures of Otoniel and Escobar, separated by a 28-year interval. As specialist website Insight Crime has pointed out, both were finally tracked down thanks to expensive multi-year army task force search campaigns. It took the Bloque de Búsqueda seven years to catch Escobar. It took another well-funded army task force, Operation Agamemnon (later renamed Osiris), six years to get Otoniel. At some stages the second task force mobilised around 3,000 police and soldiers.

Both men were seized after their power and influence had appeared to peak. However, there was a major and significant difference. Escobar’s Medellín Cartel was largely a vertical structure with him at the top – meaning his death was a major blow to the organisation. The present-day Clan del Golfo, on the other hand, is thought to have about 1,700 active members recruited from paramilitary organisations and distributed in a much more horizontal manner. The group has five main military hubs, based around the departments of Antioquia, Chocó, Sucre, Bolívar, and Córdoba, each with a regional commander. This, together with the practice of ‘franchising’ some drug trafficking operations to locally based gangs, means the organisation is potentially more resilient than the Medellín Cartel was.

As with the forcible removal of any criminal leader, internecine conflict to determine a successor is a possibility. Among the regional commanders there are at least four potential successors including Wilmer Giraldo Quiroz (‘Siopas’), Jobanis de Jesús Avila (‘Chiquito Malo’), and José Gonzalo Sánchez (‘Gonzalito’). National police chief General Jorge Luis Vargas has claimed that there is tension within the organisation between Chiquito Malo and Siopas and that a struggle between the two could “atomise” the DTO.

But an alternative scenario where regional leaders remain active within a loose cooperative federation is also possible. Adam Isaacson from US-based human rights lobby group Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) said: “They took off an important head today. But the hydra remains intact.” Sergio Guzmán of Bogotá-based Colombia Risk Analysis said the capture was significant but “the equation of the war on drugs remains unchanged”. In other words, strong US demand for cocaine and other drugs is likely to bring new suppliers into operation whenever any gap opens up. Guzmán added: “Whenever a mafia boss falls, several are ready to take his place – and that is what we are seeing with Otoniel.”  John Marulanda, a retired Colombian army colonel and security consultant agreed, telling Reuters news agency: “The arrest of alias Otoniel will not change the problem of drug trafficking, just like the death of Pablo Escobar didn’t end drug trafficking.”

Perhaps as a deliberate sign of defiance four soldiers were killed in attacks attributed to the Clan del Golfo only three days after Otoniel’s capture. In Caracaolí in the Gulf of Urabá (Antioquia), three soldiers died in an explosives and gunfire ambush, while there was another fatality in the village of La Francia further to the north. An army statement said it would step up its campaign against criminal drug traffickers, who would be brought to justice.

Defence Minister Molano said that following Otoniel’s capture he would be seeking to intensify cooperation with the US to fully identify and dismantle the DTO’s international drug trafficking network. Under the Joe Biden administration, cooperation with the US is shifting to place more emphasis on public health responses to addiction, and to protection of the environment.  Whilst Molano did not rule out re-introducing controversial aerial spraying of illegal coca plantations with glyphosate, he said the government would prioritise crop substitution programmes and would ensure any spraying was not environmentally harmful. According to his estimates, 30% of the 500 tonnes of cocaine seized by Colombian law enforcement last year came from the Clan del Golfo. Asked if he feared an increase in violence as the DTO tries to retaliate, he insisted that the organisation had been reduced to geographical “pockets”, and that those in them needed to surrender or face capture.

Political gains?

While Otoniel’s capture was clearly a major win for the Duque government, it is not clear if it will pay any concrete political dividends. Duque has only 10 months of his term in office remaining and is barred from re-election due to constitutional term limits. He has been registering low approval ratings, and his right-wing party, Centro Democrático (CD), is not expected to nominate a presidential candidate until March. As a result, while support for the government may rally somewhat, it is hard to identify any single political leader who might gain popularity from the blow against the Clan del Golfo. 

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