Security forces in Colombia have captured Dairo Antonio Usuga, the country’s most wanted drug trafficker.
Better known as Otoniel, the 50-year-old was arrested on Saturday during an operation in a rural area of Colombia’s Uraba region, located in Antioquia province.
Images circulating on social media show Otoniel handcuffed with his face planted to the ground.
President Ivan Duque likened his arrest to the capture three decades ago of Pablo Escobar, the famed Colombian narco-trafficking kingpin.
Duque said Otoniel is accused of sending dozens of shipments of cocaine to the United States, as well as of killing police officers, recruiting minors, and sexually abusing children among other crimes.
Colombia had offered a reward of up to 3 billion pesos (about $800,000) for information concerning Otoniel’s whereabouts, while the US government had put up a reward of $5m for help locating him.
“This is the biggest blow against drug trafficking in our country this century,” Duque said during a broadcast video message. “This blow is only comparable to the fall of Pablo Escobar in the 1990s.”
One police officer died during the operation, the president said.
Otoniel rose to become the leader of the drug trafficking group the Clan del Golfo, or Gulf Clan, following stints as a left-wing guerrilla and later as a paramilitary.
Clan del Golfo has around 1,200 armed men – the majority former members of far-right paramilitary groups – and is present in 10 of Colombia’s 32 provinces.
As well as drug trafficking, Clan del Golfo is involved with illegal mining, authorities say. The government also accuses the group of threatening and killing community leaders across the country.
‘Bound to be replaced’
Though Duque said Otoniel’s capture represented the end of the Clan del Golfo, Colombia Risk Analysis director Sergio Guzman said a new leader would surely be waiting to take over.
“It’s a big deal because he’s the biggest drug kingpin in Colombia,” Guzman told the Reuters news agency, adding that the capture would not change the fundamentals of drug trafficking.
“Otoniel is bound to be replaced.”
Colombian authorities had stepped up their efforts to capture Otoniel in 2016, killing and capturing dozens of his lieutenants, going after his finances and forcing him to be constantly on the move, according to the police.
Leaks and a network of safe houses at rural homesteads allowed him for years to resist the military’s scorched-earth campaign.
But the war was taking its toll on the fugitive, who even while on the run insisted on sleeping on orthopedic mattresses to ease a back injury.
In 2017, he showed his face for the first time on occasion of Pope Francis’ visit to the country, publishing a video in which he asked for his group be allowed to lay down its weapons and demobilise as part of the country’s peace process with the much-larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The plan never came to fruition, however.
Authorities said intelligence provided by the US and UK led more than 500 soldiers and members of Colombia’s special forces to Otoniel’s jungle hideout, which was protected by an eight rings of security.
It was “the biggest penetration of the jungle ever seen in the military history of our country”, Duque said.
His arrest is something of a boost for the conservative president, whose law and order rhetoric has been no match for soaring production of cocaine.
Land dedicated to the production of coca – the raw ingredient of cocaine – jumped 16 percent last year to a record 245,000 hectares, a level unseen in two decades of US eradication efforts, according to a White House report.