Once Colombia’s most-wanted drug lord, kingpin Otoniel faces sentencing in US


New York: 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 Usuga faces sentencing to at least 20 years in a U.S. prison. He pleaded guilty in January to high-level drug trafficking charges, admitting he oversaw the smuggling of tons of U.S.-bound cocaine and acknowledging “there was a lot of violence with the guerillas and the criminal gangs.”

The U.S. agreed not to seek a life sentence in order to get him extradited from Colombia. Instead, federal prosecutors in Brooklyn are seeking a 45-year term for Usuga, who is 51 and has a number of medical problems.

His “desire for control and revenge simply cannot be overstated, nor can the degree of harm he inflicted,” prosecutors wrote in a recent court filing. They described his decadelong leadership of Colombia’s notorious Gulf Clan group as a “reign of terror.”

Usuga’s lawyers have sought to cast him as a product of his homeland’s woes a man born into remote rural poverty, surrounded by guerilla warfare, recruited into it at age 16 and forged by decades of seeing friends, fellow soldiers and loved ones killed. Over the years, he allied with both left- and right-wing combatants in the country’s long-running internal conflict.

Understanding his crimes “requires a closer evaluation of the history of violence and trauma that shaped Colombia as a nation and Mr. Usuga-David as a human being,” social worker Melissa Lang wrote, using a fuller version of his last name, in a July report that his attorneys filed in court.

Usuga was Colombia’s most-wanted kingpin before his arrest in 2021, and he had been under indictment in the U.S. since 2009.

The Gulf Clan, also known as the Gaitanist Self Defense Forces of Colombia, holds sway in an area rich with smuggling routes for drugs, weapons and migrants. Boasting military-grade weapons 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 his plea deal, he agreed to forfeit USD 216 million.)

“In military work, homicides were committed,” Usuga said, through a court interpreter, when pleading guilty.

Usuga 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 dayslong, 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.

“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 Usuga “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 U.S. and Colombian reward offers topping USD 5 million in total, Usuga 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. (AP)

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