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Capture Of Drug Kingpin Otoniel, What It Means For Colombia

The capture of Colombia's most wanted drug trafficker shows that in spite of the cartels' resilience, the state can and will fight crime at the highest levels, writes top Bogotá daily El Espectador.

Photo of drugs being guarded by a soldier after a major bust at the border between Colombia and Panama

Drug bust at the Colombia-Panama border

Alejandro Bolivar/EFE/ZUMA


BOGOTÁ — The arrest of the Colombian mobster Dairo Antonio Úsuga David, a.k.a. "Otoniel," is a victory for Colombian intelligence, law-and-order forces and the broader fight against crime. Details of the eight-year-long pursuit of the head of the Gulf Clan, of the tireless and meticulous work, testify to the capabilities that the police and army have managed to develop in the fight against the narco-trafficking that has long been a stain on Colombia.

The capture of the kingpin is also a demonstration of a strong state able to confront the worst of the cartel chiefs in person. While the war on drugs' focus remains outdated and power vacuums will fuel more violence, in the overall strategy Colombia must show that those who the oppose public institutions will face the full force of the law.

Vacuum left by El Chapo

Otoniel is responsible for a criminal organization with more than 3,800 members and influence on 12 departments and 128 districts in Colombia (though data from the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation counts 211 districts).

The Gulf Clan sends half the drugs going out of Colombia, and is the main exporter to Mexico. Its ties to the Mexican cartel chief Joaquín "el Chapo" Guzmán are well-documented — and Otoniel had aspired to fill the power vacuum left by Guzmán's capture.

A monumental victory.

Regardless of the destabilizing effects on Colombia of the existence of such a powerful trafficking gang, the impact of its violence cannot be overlooked. Otoniel was sought for dozens of crimes and subject to six confirmed convictions and at least two extradition orders to the United States. His crimes include extortion, assassination of community leaders, expulsions, corruption and armed acts against civilians and the police.

Video footage of the capture of Colombian drug lord

Nobody is above the law

As the police and army declared when he was captured, "his criminal finances are tied to international trafficking of cocaine to Central America and Europe [...]. The result of this operation directly impacts the Gulf Clan's strategic, structural and financial component, and duly destabilizes the criminal organization's chain of command through neutralization of its main articulator and head of international trafficking."

There's a limit to hard-line response.

Otoniel's capture is thus a monumental victory. Some have observed that the ensuing power vacuum will engender more violence, which is true. But we are, in any case, far from eliminating drug trafficking in Colombia or cutting its tentacles across public life. That shows the limitations of the hard-line response to drugs, when we have seen it is not enough.

Still, it is essential in any fight against crime for the state to show its operational capabilities. The message is clear: not even drug overlords are above the law in Colombia. The key is to be able to convert this police and military superiority into the state's physical presence, to further weaken criminal structures. The fight continues, but Otoniel's capture is a big step forward.

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