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The Rise and Fall of Otoniel, the So-Called ‘New Pablo Escobar’

The arrest and capture of Dairo Antonio Úsuga, aka Otoniel, was lauded by the President of Colombia. But what influence will his downfall realistically have on international drug trafficking?

In October, when 50-year-old Dairo Antonio Úsuga David, aka “Otoniel,” the alleged leader of the notorious Gulf Clan cartel, was arrested by the Colombian military on charges of cocaine trafficking, the Colombian President Ivan Duque referred to him as “the New Pablo Escobar.” 

That’s high praise, of course. Pablo Escobar was the most famous gangster since Al Capone, and he was singularly responsible for the modern cocaine cartel model. By revolutionizing the distribution game, Escobar turned coke into the drug that powered the 1970s and 1980s. When clubgoers in American cities blew rails, it was almost guaranteed that it was from Escobar. By 1989, he was the seventh richest man in the world. So rich that, per his brother, each year rats ate roughly $2 billion of his hidden cash, and Escobar just wrote it off as a loss. He was also known for his brutality; Escobar was said to hasten business negotiations by offering “plata o plomox?” Translation: Silver or lead? 

Otoniel came of age at the tail end of Escobar’s reign. When he was a teenager in the early 1990s, he joined the revolutionaries who stalked the jungles and mountain trails of Colombia. To afford their armed struggle, the revolutionaries sold cocaine, which made them some of Escobar’s chief rivals. 

As in many other jungles around the world, a number of those revolutionaries were motivated by a Communist ideology; in Colombia, they belonged to the Marxist-Leninist-leaning FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and EPL (Popular Liberation Front). However, in those same Colombian jungles were counter-revolutionaries, like the Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá (ACCU), formed by survivors of FARC violence. At one time, the ACCU was aligned with Escobar, but they later helped the Colombian government with their manhunt for the drug lord. And after Escobar was killed, the far-right counter-revolutionaries jumped into the cocaine game with both boots. 

It was during this violent transition that 19-year-old Dairo Antonio Úsuga David, nicknamed “Mao” by his fellow Communists in the EPL, decided to switch sides, joining the ACCU alongside his brother, Juan de Dios Úsuga, or “Giovanni.” After which, “Mao” became “Otoniel.” With the support of his brother, Otoniel climbed the ranks of the militia, which eventually merged with a larger far-right paramilitary group, United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. By the end of the aughts, Otoniel allegedly became the most powerful drug trafficker in a country that produces 70 percent of the world’s cocaine. 

Otoniel had grown up in the region of Urabá in the northwestern Antioquia Department, a mountainous landscape where the Andes meet the Caribbean (and where he’d eventually spend the final years of his life hiding from capture). The capital of Antioquia is the famed city of Medellín — Escobar’s hometown. During Escobar’s heyday, Medellín was considered by many as the most dangerous in the world. 

In April 1983, the weekly news magazine Semana published the first feature-length news story on Escobar, who had just been elected to the Colombian Congress. At the time, his cocaine empire was but a rumor. Toward the end of the mostly salutary piece, the journalist provides an incredible understatement: “The emergence of Pablo Escobar on the national scene is a momentous event whose implications are yet to be seen.” 

The next year, Escobar had the Minister of Justice murdered in broad daylight. Rodrigo Lara Bonilla was a young, idealistic politician who wouldn’t accept Escobar’s presence in Congress, believing him to be a narcotrafficker. The allegation was confirmed by an old arrest photo resurfaced by a journalist that showed a young, smiling Escobar caught with 39 pounds of coke. That evidence led to Escobar’s expulsion from Congress and judicial proceedings against him. 

On the day Escobar got his revenge against Lara Bonilla, two sicarios on a motorbike pulled up alongside the minister on the streets of Bogota in an ambush. A hail of bullets snatched his life. Over the ensuing years, Escobar would claim thousands of more lives — including urban bombings and the downing of a passanger plane.

Otoniel, on the other hand, didn’t have such a storied rise to power. Nearly a decade after Escobar was killed, in 2002, then-President Alvaro Uribe prioritized cleaning up Medellín. It became a primary focus of his administration, which meant ending the presence of paramilitary groups from both sides. Within a few years, the anti-militia trend took hold in Colombia, and by 2008, the paramilitary groups put down their arms, and thousands of former jungle-hardened soldiers returned to civilian life. 

In 2009, Otoniel took over as the leader of what remained of the paramilitary groups — called Los Urabeños, or the Gulf Clan — and aimed to become the dominant criminal force in Colombia. Like Escobar, Otoniel believed he was protected by spirits. For Otoniel, that meant a devoted interest in witchcraft and objects like amulets and shaman-blessed totems. But Otoniel also learned from Escobar’s failures — his flourishes of self-defeating anger and ego and proclivity toward lavish expenditures — and in doing so, he obsessed over avoiding his predecessor’s ultimate demise. When spotted, he was typically dressed like the peasants and paisas — jeans, boots, a jacket covered with a poncho. Similarly, he always traveled by foot or by mule, hiking across arduous mountain paths, fording creeks and traveling the riverways by jon boat. He almost never slept in the same place two nights in a row, and his movements were militarized, as if in a constant war. 

Otoniel also tried to best Escobar’s elusiveness by keeping simple rules. He limited the number of people who could speak with him directly to eight men in his inner circle, all of whom had started out with him as militia members decades earlier in the jungle. Otoniel also forbade any of his men from carrying cell phones. According to local news reports, when Otoniel would take a rare meeting, callers would be forced to strip down first. Their clothing would then be gathered up and burned.

Thanks to this strange combination of his austere soldier lifestyle, his belief in Colombian witchcraft and the lubricating influence of his extreme wealth, Otoniel managed to stay criminally powerful through the 2010s. In fact, he allegedly increased coke production and built new, international networks of distribution. 

But, again, in October, Otoniel’s criminal empire came to a surprise end. His Achilles’ heel had been a logistical weakness in his careful movements and jungle treks. The drug lord had medically compromised kidneys, so instead of hunting the man himself, the Colombian authorities focused on following the rare kidney medication he required for treatment. They tracked the supply of the medicine in local pharmacies until they eventually found the underlings responsible for couriering the cartel boss’ medicine, who led them back to Otoniel. 

At that point, a hit team composed of hundreds of soldiers and sailors was assembled as part of a joint task force code-named “El Blanco.” They blocked all of his possible river escapes, and the Caribbean Sea was choked with Colombian Navy vessels. Meanwhile, helicopters and drones dominated the skies over the jungle. 

On the afternoon of October 23rd, Otoniel was spotted by a Colombian soldier, who leveled his weapon at him. “Calm down, soldier,” Otoniel said to him. “I am the person you are looking for.”

With those eleven words, his empire ended. 

Understandably, Colombian authorities couldn’t be more thrilled. To that end, President Duque tweeted out news of the capture, vigorously hyping it and making the comparison to Escobar in a video message to the country. The thing is, the comparison does far more for Duque’s reputation than accurately reflects Otoniel’s status in the cocaine game. Because in reality, Otoniel may be nothing more than a hazy reflection of Escobar. 

“This isn’t going to move the needle in terms of the War on Drugs,” Sergio Guzmán, director of the consulting firm Colombia Risk Analysis, told the Washington Post. “What happens next is different pieces of the puzzle aligning to fill the vacuum of power left by Otoniel. Soon we’ll have another kingpin and another drug lord who may be much worse.” He added that while the capture was no minor feat, “the War on Drugs remains unchanged,” explaining that, “it doesn’t represent a seismic change in how [it’s] being waged and lost.”

Otoniel is expected to be extradited to the U.S. to face justice, which was the worst fate imaginable to Escobar, who often said he preferred to die in Colombia than to rot in an American prison. 

So, no, Otoniel isn’t the new Pablo Escobar. He’s just more of the same — a drug kingpin who existed in the long shadow of the violent criminal pioneer. Nor, as Guzmán points out, does this mean that Colombia’s most powerful cartel will now collapse. Instead, we can expect to hear about another cocaine cowboy who will someday grow his empire big enough that he too will evoke Escobar’s name. It’s a vicious cycle that says as much about how easily the War on Drugs creates new Escobars as it does about how it stops them.