Colombia’s once most wanted drug lord pleads guilty in US
NEW YORK (AP) — A Colombian man who was once one of the world’s most wanted drug lords pleaded guilty Wednesday to U.S. smuggling charges, admitting to leading a cartel and a paramilitary group that dealt in cocaine and lethal force .
“Tons of cocaine have been moved with my permission or at my direction,” Dairo Antonio Úsuga, better known as Otoniel, told a federal court in Brooklyn.
“There was a lot of violence with the guerrillas and the criminal gangs,” he added, acknowledging that “military work involved killings.”
Úsuga, 51, could face decades in prison if convicted. According to U.S. District Judge Dora Irizarry, the U.S. government agreed not to seek a life sentence to secure his extradition from Colombia.
As part of his plea deal, he agreed to forfeit $216 million.
Úsuga presided over the Gulf Clan, which terrorized much of northern Colombia to control key cocaine smuggling routes. US authorities have called him one of the most dangerous drug traffickers in the world and he was Colombia’s most wanted key figure. Former Colombian President Iván Duque compared him to the infamous King Pablo Escobar of the 1980s.
Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Breon Peace said last year that the gang’s thousands of enforcers carried out assaults, kidnappings, torture, assassinations and organized campaigns against Colombian law enforcement and military forces. Úsuga sometimes personally ordered the killing and torture of perceived enemies and used his power by declaring “strikes” requiring businesses to close and people to stay at home throughout the cartel’s territory, Peace said.
Úsuga was named in a series of US indictments dating back to 2009. The US Drug Enforcement Administration offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his arrest, and the Colombian government offered $800,000. Over the years, Colombian authorities have arrested or killed hundreds of cartel members, deployed more than 1,000 police officers to hunt the linchpin, and publicized the US reward by dropping fliers from helicopters.
But Úsuga escaped capture until 2021 through a combination of corruption, alliances with both left and right fighters in the internal conflict that has plagued Colombia for more than half a century, and living outside the grid in rural areas. He reportedly used a different safe house every night.
When apprehended, Duque said that Úsuga was “not only the most dangerous drug trafficker in the world, but he is also a murderer of social leaders, an abuser of boys, girls and adolescents, a murderer of police officers.”
Úsuga was extradited to the US last May. He pleaded guilty Wednesday to leading an ongoing criminal enterprise and several drug trafficking charges involving nearly 97,000 kilograms (107 tons) of cocaine.
Úsuga started out as a gunner for a now-defunct left-wing guerrilla group, then switched sides and joined a right-wing paramilitary organization. Most recently, Úsuga claimed to lead a team called the Gaitanist Self Defense Forces of Colombia, named after a Colombian left-wing firefighter from the mid-20th century. Authorities consider the group to be devoid of any political ideology.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION