This weekend there was one of the most important news at the security level in recent months in Colombia: the capture of Dairo Antonio Úsuga David, better known as Otoniel, the head of the so-called Clan del Golfo, one of the main criminal organizations that operate in the South American country.
National and international media picked up the news of the capture, which occurred in a jungle area in western Colombia, and highlighted that alias Otoniel was the “most wanted man” who led an organization made up of some 6,000 men.
In addition, local authorities noted that the Clan del Golfo –also called Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces, The urabeños or Clan ORsuga– had control of drug trafficking through the Gulf of Urabá, a strategic corridor located in the northwest of Colombia.
There too, according to local police officials, they have control over the passage of migrants that occurs on the border between Colombia and Panama during their transit through the Darien Gap.
However, the president of Colombia, Iván Duque, made a comparison that caught the attention of political analysts and historians: “The capture of Otoniel is only comparable to the fall of Pablo Escobar,” he said.
Butmuchs no they agree.
“It’s an exaggeration. Although it is undoubted that Otoniel was the most wanted criminal in Colombia today, in his time Pablo Escobar had managed to subdue the State with a frontal war, ”Hernando Zuleta, a political analyst at the Universidad de los Andes, tells BBC Mundo.
Both Zuleta and other people consulted by BBC Mundo highlight a fact: in 1990, at the worst moment of the war against the drug cartels in Colombia, there were 180 attacks with car bombs, which left thousands of people dead in several cities of the country.
“Things have changed a lot since the death of Pablo Escobar. Although more cocaine is produced than in Escobar’s time, the power of Colombian drug traffickers has been reduced“, He points out.
But what then is the true dimension of Otoniel’s capture, the criminal scope of the Gulf Clan, and the differences with the powerful cartels Like the one in Medellín or the one in Cali in the 80s and 90s?
The power of the Gulf Clan
Although many analysts point out that Otoniel cannot be compared with Pablo Escobar, the truth is that the power of the organization that he led until this weekend cannot be ignored.
According to the report of the National Police and the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, the Clan del Golfo is the criminal organization with the greatest territorial control in the country.
According to their reports, the Clan del Golfo has a presence in 211 of the 1,103 municipalities in Colombia and it is estimated that more than a thousand men acted under the leadership of alias Otoniel, most of them ex-members of the defunct guerrilla of the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) and the self-defense groups.
And that has an explanation: Otoniel himself was part of the EPL and, when this guerrilla group demobilized in 1991, he decided to change sides: he became a member of the self-defense groups that occupied the Urabá region, in northwestern Colombia.
It was in that region where he joined the organization led by Daniel Rendón, alias Don Mario, a man close to paramilitarism and who had taken control of that area that had been first abandoned by the Medellín cartel, after Escobar’s death in 1993. , and later by the self-defense groups when they demobilized in 2003.
This was the place where the Clan del Golfo, first with Don Mario (captured in 2009) and later with Otoniel, for almost a decade it managed to establish its dominance. And thanks to his relationship with several Mexican drug lords, he also managed to get tons of cocaine into that country.
According to the account of the Colombian authorities, it is estimated that half of the cocaine exports that leave Colombia to other countries were controlled by the Clan del Golfo, hence its power.
That is why Otoniel, who was a former paramilitary and ex-guerrilla (did not want to be part of the demobilization processes of both armed groups that occurred in previous years), is considered the “largest drug trafficker in South America.”
However, to achieve that power, he and his group have waged a war with local security agencies, especially with the police operating in the Urabá region. According to this entity, about 40 soldiers were killed by members of the Gulf Clan in the last year.
“It cannot be denied that the Clan del Golfo is the largest criminal organization in Colombia, above all because it has managed to control a large territory and maintain it for several years for drug trafficking, “José Guarnizo, a Colombian journalist, author of the book” La Patrona de Pablo Escobar, “tells BBC Mundo.
Guarnizo points out that this has allowed him to control not only drug trafficking, but also other illicit activities such as extortions to businesses, human trafficking across the border between Panama and Colombia. and high-interest loans, known as “drop by drop“.
“They have managed to know how to control the places where cocaine is produced and where it goes to other countries,” he adds.
The great transformation: from the city to the country
Although the phrase with which President Duque compared Otoniel with Pablo Escobar has been pointed out almost in unison as an “exaggeration” or a device of the “political marketing” of a president with a low popular approval rating, the truth is that it does turn on lights on how the way drug cartels operate in Colombia has changed.
For Gustavo Duncan, researcher and professor of government and political science at the Eafit University of Medellín, one of the great changes has to do with the power that drug traffickers had over the civilian population in Colombia.
“Neither Otoniel, nor the Gulf Clan nor other current organizations in Colombia managed to have what Pablo Escobar or the Cali Cartel had: control of the main cities of the country ”, says the researcher.
Duncan points out that both Escobar and the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers, heads of the Cali Cartel, had achieved economic power that allowed them to dominate large urban areas. And in this lies for him the main difference with current organizations.
“The Clan del Golfo is an organization that works in the periphery and in rural areas and this is a consequence of the passage of Escobar and the Cali Cartel: it is very difficult for a cartel or a drug trafficker to have that influence again in a large city like Medellín, Bogotá or Cali“, Says the academic.
“That was a clear advance of the State and its fight against Escobar. That is why the two catches are not comparable ”, he adds.
And in that sense, the Clan del Golfo raised on the experience that Otoniel had in the domain of rural areas, accumulated in his time through armed organizations that acted in the field such as the guerrillas or the self-defense groups.
The new direction of business
If Escobar or the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers held more power in their heyday, How is it possible that much more cocaine is produced in Colombia now than in those days?
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, coca crops in Colombia tripled, from 50,000 hectares in 1995 to 140,000 hectares last year.
“The drug cartels in Colombia, by abandoning the dominance of urban areas, they stopped having the political influence they used to have and concentrated on producing and exporting cocaine, ”Duncan adds.
“That’s why more cocaine is produced now than in Escobar’s time.”
For his part, analyst Hernando Zuleta explains to BBC Mundo that “the business has changed.”
“Colombian drug traffickers went from importing the coca leaf (from Peru and Bolivia), manufacturing the cocaine and distributing it in the US markets, to planting the coca leaf and producing the cocaine only,” he adds.
“That large part of the business that is distribution and intermediaries, when Escobar and the Rodríguez They were no longer in the hands of the Mexican cartels, “he says.
This explains why the strategy of groups such as the Clan del Golfo, inherited from the passage by the paramilitaries and guerrillas in this area, is to control the territories where coca is produced and where it is exported, even if that means less economic profitability.
And it has also led to the fact that, in 30 years, the production of cocaine and the crops of the leaf that are under its control have multiplied exponentially.
In addition, the new Colombian drug lords learned a lesson: to be invisible.
“These new actors in the drug distribution stage learned something: in the past the visibility and the high profile of the big posters was the one that destroyed them ”.
“Now they are gangsters who don’t look like gangsters,” says Zuleta
The end of the Gulf Clan?
Can it then be said that the fall of Otoniel will lead to a new course in the fight against the drug cartels, as happened with the fall of Escobar in 1993?
For Duncan, There are two key points that answer that question.
“First, with the capture of Otoniel, the Gulf Cartel as a criminal organization is not going to end overnight. It is a process that will take time, “he said.
“Second, and this is a consequence of the above, the government’s strategy will be key to prevent the next head of this organization from maintaining the unity and dominance that Otoniel was able to maintain for several years,” he notes.
For his part, Zuleta points out that As long as there is no internationally articulated operation, it will be very difficult to effectively reduce the drug trafficking business from Colombia.
“Decades of efforts to destroy crops, fumigations and alternative products have not been successful, because the business, the demand, continues to exist,” says the analyst.
One of the strategies that he suggests, of many that should be implemented and without all offering a conclusive answer, is to create pilot legalization projects to determine whether they are feasible on a large scale.
“We have seen that the legalization of marijuana in several US states it has reduced crime factors compared to when it was illegal. A trial could be made where we see the scope of such a measure to reduce the power of these drug cartels ”, he details.
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