Colombia’s most wanted drug lord is behind bars awaiting extradition to the US, after what the country’s president hailed as the biggest blow against the drug trade in 20 years.
Until his capture at the weekend, Dairo Antonio Úsuga – better known as Otoniel – headed Colombia’s feared Clan del Golfo cartel, a criminal empire that oversees the production and smuggling of unknown tons of cocaine, as well as extortion rackets, illegal mining operations and arms smuggling.
But his arrest will have little impact on those living on the frontlines of the drug war.
“Nothing is going to change; when one leader gets captured, another rises to power,” said Carlos Páez, a human rights defender in the Urabá region – the main stronghold of the 2,000-person armed cartel.
Páez, like many others in the region, has received many death threats from the Clan del Golfo, also known as the Urabeños or the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.
“We’ve always been subjected to these groups, and forced to collaborate or keep quiet,” said Páez. “Absolutely nothing will change.”
Colombia remains the world’s top producer of cocaine, churning out about 1,228 metric tons of the drug last year, according to the United Nations’ office on drugs and crime. That figure comes amid an overall decrease in the cultivation of coca, the key plant ingredient used to make cocaine – suggesting that cartels have become more efficient manufacturers.
Úsuga is just the latest in a long line of kingpins to be killed or captured across the Americas.
When Colombia’s most notorious cocaine kingpin, Pablo Escobar, was gunned down in 1993, cocaine output briefly dipped, before reaching new highs.
After Mexico extradited the drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán following his capture in 2016, the country set new records for murder, while the flow of drugs to the US and Europe was hardly affected.
“In no way does this arrest represent a victory in the war on drugs,” said Pedro Piedrahita Bustamante, a professor of political science at the University of Medellín. “Úsuga is a visible face, just one node of a network that operates in different parts of the world.”
Any victory claimed by the government was in the field of public relations, rather than on the battlefield, Piedrahita said.
“International criminal networks are flexible, and they are not always pyramid-structured,” he said. “But this could cause internal wars in the network that would lead to more violence in parts of the country.”
Candidates to replace Úsuga will hardly be in short supply. Like many other Colombian drug bosses, he cut his teeth in the country’s 50-year civil war, where myriad armed groups have simultaneously pursued ideological goals and drug wealth.
Originally a foot soldier in the Maoist Popular Liberation Army (EPL) guerrilla group, he switched sides to join a far-right paramilitary faction, Córdoba and Urabá Peasant Defense Forces (ACCU).
When that group officially disbanded, his faction grew into a sprawling conglomerate of illegal activities, which will now fall into a new, lesser-known leader’s hands.
“All of the infrastructure – all the trafficking routes, the extraction, the coca crops, the processing, the buying – that’s all in place,” said Elizabeth Dickinson, a senior analyst for International Crisis Group in Colombia. “The question really is whether the new leadership is capable of maintaining such a disparate organisation of such a wide geography.
“The risk now is of a violent power struggle to control this very lucrative illicit market – and we’re not just talking about drug trafficking, but also extortion, territorial control, and land,” Dickinson said. “All of those things are now up for grabs and the risk is that it will open fissures that will have an effect on the civilian population.”