Dairo Antonio Usuga David, alias “Otoniel,” is escorted in handcuffs in Bogota, Colombia, Oct. 23, 2021. (PhotColombia Police Press Office via AP, File)
BROOKLYN, New York — Dairo Antonio Úsuga David, known as “Otoniel,” was once the most notorious drug trafficker and paramilitary leader in Colombia, responsible for fueling a generation of violence across his country while exporting hundreds of tons of cocaine to the United States.
But in a federal courtroom on Wednesday, the feared leader of the narco-paramilitary group known as the Gulf Clan appeared humbled. He sat timidly wearing a blue jail smock, reciting the Spanish words for guilty as a judge read through the charges against him from three separate federal indictments: “Culpable. Culpable. Culpable.”
The 51-year-old Úsuga David admitted to smuggling a whopping 96,856 kilos of cocaine from Colombia and agreed to hand over $216 million in drug proceeds to the U.S. government as part of his plea agreement. Otoniel would typically face life in prison for his crimes, but Colombia does not allow life imprisonment so, in exchange for his extradition, the U.S. agreed not to keep the infamous drug lord incarcerated until the end of his days.
Judge Dora Irizarry will ultimately decide what sentence to hand down for Úsuga David, and she warned him that whenever he is released, “because you have no legal status in this country, you would be deported back to Colombia.”
Short and stocky, with an intense gaze and a nearly bald head except for a few patches of gray stubble, Otoniel delivered a short statement that he had prepared for the occasion. A native of Turbo in the Colombian province of Antioquia, he told the court that he had dropped out of school after fourth grade and occasionally stumbled over his words as he read aloud.
He explained that he and his group, also known as the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia or AGC, “provided security to narcotics traffickers and their labs,” and “taxed” any cocaine that passed through his territory.
“Tons of cocaine were moved at my direction through Panama, Costa Rica, and Mexico for ultimate importation to the United States,” he said. “There was a lot of violence through guerrillas, criminal gangs, and offices for the collection of proceeds of drug trafficking.”
“Were homicides committed by members of the AGC?” a federal prosecutor asked him.
“Yes,” Otoniel replied. “In military work, homicides were committed.”
An estimated 500 members of Colombia’s special forces reportedly discovered Úsuga David at his jungle hideout on October 25, 2021, working on tips provided by U.S. and U.K. intelligence. He was extradited to the U.S. in May 2022, and he’s been locked up under strict security in a federal jail in Brooklyn ever since. At the plea hearing, nearly a dozen federal agents filled the benches on one side of the courtroom and several burly U.S. Marshals stood guard behind Otoniel and his attorneys.
Úsuga David dodged authorities for years even though the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration placed a $5 million bounty on his head, along with an additional $800,000 reward offered by the Colombian government. Former Colombian president Ivan Duque said at the time that the importance of “the arrest was only comparable to the fall of Pablo Escobar.”
Úsuga David allegedly headed the Gulf Clan or AGC, also known as the Urabeños, since 2009 after the arrest of its then-boss, Daniel Rendón Herrera. During Otoniel’s reign, his group became arguably the strongest Colombian cartel of the 21st century, controlling a large portion of the transnational drug trade, facilitating the production and shipments of massive quantities of cocaine to other criminal organizations who smuggled it mostly to markets in Europe and North America. U.S. authorities alleged he worked with groups all throughout Latin America, including Mexico, Venezuela, Ecuador, Guatemala, Panama, Honduras, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and elsewhere, according to the superseding indictment.
Born in 1971 during Colombia’s decades-long civil war, Úsuga David reportedly first picked up arms for a Marxist guerrilla organization known Colombia as the Popular Liberation Aarmy (EPL for its Spanish acronym.) His defense attorney, Paul Nalven, told reporters that Otoniel started out as a child soldier who was “basically carried away by the EPL at age 16.”
“Our client is really a child of the cycle of violence in Colombia,” Nalven said. “It was kind of the law of the jungle. He was indoctrinated.”
Úsuga David later joined a group of right-wing Paramilitaries before aligning himself with the growing Gulf Clan. U.S. authorities alleged that he began trafficking cocaine as early as 2002.
Unlike Pablo Escobar—known before his death in 1993 for his opulent lifestyle and flaunting wealth and power—Úsuga David gained infamy for his ability to evade authorities and maintain a low-profile living a near-off-the-grid lifestyle in the South American jungles. While many drug traffickers own luxury cars or travel by fortified vehicles, Úsuga David reportedly often rode donkeys to get from one place to another amid the rugged Colombian countryside.
But in the final years prior to his arrest, it is believed that Úsuga David’s control within the Gulf Clan began to wane. His 2021 arrest and subsequent arrest had little effect on the organization, according to an April 2022 report by the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation (PARES), that said the Gulf Clan actually increased its presence around Colombia with more than 5,000 members.
Following Otoniel’s extradition last May, in the leadup to a presidential election in Colombia, the Gulf Clan ratched-up violence against the country’s security forces. Sergio Guzmán, director of political risk consultancy firm Colombia Risk Analysis, told VICE World News the bloody campaign was intended to send a message.
“They demonstrated that they have the capacity and intent to grind a big portion of the country to a halt,” Guzmán said. “And so I don’t think that their capacity or their intent have been mollified because of the extradition of this man.”
Nalven, Otoniel’s defense attorney, noted after the hearing Wednesday that his client had been allowed to send a message to his fighters last year urging them to quell the violence and give “space” to Colombia’s new president, Gustavo Petro to engage in peace negotiations with the Gulf Clan and other armed groups. Nalven said the message was “immediately acknowledged by the troops” who served under Úsuga David.
“He has a lot of family and a lot of friends in Colombia,” Nalven said. “He’d like to see a better Colombia.”
Guzmán, the security expert, didn’t think that Otoniel’s guilty plea would make much difference in Colombia.
“It’s not going to change the fundamental equation. And that is that the war on drugs is unwinnable, that drug trafficking organizations overwhelm the state,” said Guzmán. “Otoniel, as important as he was, is replaceable by the other drug traffickers in Colombia.”
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