Colombia’s most-wanted drug trafficker “Otoniel” has been captured in a victory for the government of the world’s top cocaine exporter.
Dairo Antonio Usuga, who headed the country’s largest drug-trafficking gang known as the Gulf Clan, was captured near one of his main outposts in Necocli, near the border with Panama.
Images released by the government showed the 50-year-old Otoniel in handcuffs and surrounded by soldiers.
“This is the hardest strike to drug trafficking in our country this century,” said president Ivan Duque. He said the arrest was “only comparable to the fall of Pablo Escobar”, the famed Colombian narco-trafficking kingpin.
About 500 soldiers backed by 22 helicopters were deployed in the Necocli municipality to carry out the operation, which left one police officer dead.
It was “the biggest penetration of the jungle ever seen in the military history of our country”, Duque said.
Colombia’s police chief Jorge Vargas said during a press conference that authorities carried out “an important satellite operation with agencies of the US and the UK.”
According to police, Otoniel was hiding in the jungle in the Uraba region, where he is from, and did not use a telephone, relying on couriers to communicate. Fearful of authorities, he “slept there in the rain, never approaching inhabited areas”, Mr Vargas said.
The US had offered a $5 million bounty for information leading to the arrest of Otoniel, who is one of the most feared men in Colombia.
He was indicted in the US in 2009, and faces extradition proceedings to the country, where he would appear in the Southern District of New York federal court.
The Colombian government blames the group, financed mainly through drug trafficking, illegal mining and extortion, for being one of the main drivers of the worst bout of nationwide violence since the signing of a peace pact with FARC guerrillas in 2016.
The Gulf Clan is present in almost 300 municipalities in the country, according to the independent think tank Indepaz. However, recent government efforts have seen the organisation decimated.
Although Otoniel announced in 2017, he intended to reach an agreement to participate with the Colombian justice system, the government responded by deploying at least 1,000 soldiers to hunt him down. He took over the leadership of the Gulf Clan, previously known as the Usuga Clan, from his brother Juan de Dios, who was killed by police in 2012.
Colombia is the world’s largest provider of cocaine, with the US as its principal market, despite half a century of trying to clamp down on the drug trade.