Arrest of Colombian crime lord unlikely to turn tide in drug war

FILE PHOTO: Dairo Antonio Usuga David, alias "Otoniel", top leader of the Gulf clan, is photographed after being captured, in Bogota
·3 min read

By Luis Jaime Acosta

BOGOTA (Reuters) - The arrest of Colombia's most wanted drug lord will likely have little effect on trafficking from the world's largest cocaine producer, with several lieutenants waiting to fill his shoes in the powerful Clan del Golfo cartel, analysts said.

Dairo Antonio Usuga, known by his alias "Otoniel," was considered by authorities to be Colombia's biggest drug capo for seven years until his arrest https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/colombias-priority-is-extradite-drug-lord-otoniel-united-states-sources-2021-10-24 on Saturday in a major operation by security forces in the jungle area of Colombia's northern region of Uraba.

The operation involved 500 special forces and 22 helicopters and comes as the military has promised to crush the Clan cartel.

The Clan, which is present in around one-third of Colombia's territory and counts some 3,800 members, has the capacity to produce and export hundreds of tonnes of cocaine per year, mostly to the United States and Europe, security sources say.

With Usuga set to be extradited to the United States to face drug charges, the eyes of the police and military have turned to his potential replacements within the Clan.

But if deaths and arrests of previous gang leaders are any indication, the loss of 50-year-old Usuga will not detain the hydra-like Clan for long, as several would-be leaders are waiting in the wings, analysts said.

Wilmer Giraldo Quiroz, who uses the alias "Siopas", Jobanis de Jesus Avila, alias "Chiquito Malo", Jose Gonzalo Sanchez, alias "Gonzalito" and Orozman Osten Blanco, alias "Rodrigo Flechas" are considered potential successors to Usuga, according to security officials.

"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," said security consultant John Marulanda, a retired army colonel and president of the retired officers' association.

Besides combating criminal groups, holistic solutions to drug trafficking must include aerial fumigation of crops of coca, the base ingredient in cocaine, he said.

President Ivan Duque's government has said it plans to restart aerial fumigation, which was suspended in 2015 on health concerns, but it still lacks judicial approval.

"We will continue to combat the Clan del Golfo and will not rest until this organization is finished," General Fernando Murillo, the director of the judicial police, said late on Sunday. "We're going for Siopas, for Gonzalito, for Chiquito Malo."

Defense Minister Diego Molano said the offensive against the Clan will continue until the organization is completely destroyed, as he announced a total of $5.8 million in rewards would be paid to informants who helped with Usuga's arrest. Police say many Clan members betrayed Usuga.

"The operation continues: the men are deployed; their structures will be neutralized," Molano said.

But trafficking is likely to continue apace, analysts said. Colombia's potential cocaine output rose 8% last year to 1,228 tonnes, according to United Nations figures, the largest in the world.

National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels, former FARC guerrillas who reject a 2016 peace deal, and crime gangs all participate in drug trafficking, according to security sources.

Usuga's arrest could break the Clan into small groups, cause an internal war or lead groups like the ELN to attempt a takeover, Marulanda said.

"There could be a worsening of violence and we can't rule out that - as has happened before in Colombia - there will be retaliation for the capture, including killings of members of the security forces and the public," he said.

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)

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