Colombia’s Gulf Clan: The Capture of a Kingpin and the Future of Colombia’s Cartels

Colombia’s Gulf Clan: The Capture of a Kingpin and the Future of Colombia’s Cartels

In late October 2021, the Colombian military captured Dairo Antonio “Otoniel” Usuga, the head of the Gulf Clan and one of Colombia’s most wanted drug kingpins. Although Colombian president Duque compared Otoniel’s capture to Pablo Escobar’s killing, the two men were dissimilar in most ways. Furthermore, Otoniel’s downfall is unlikely to have a positive effect on Colombia’s drug war, and may actually cause the violence to increase.

The Downfall of a Kingpin

On October 23, 2021, Colombian soldiers captured Dairo Antonio “Otoniel” Usuga, a much-wanted godfather of Colombia’s Gulf Clan drug trafficking organization. More than 500 Colombian soldiers raided the heavily fortified jungle hideout in northwest Colombia. Praising the drug lord’s capture, President Ivan Duque stated that “this is the biggest blow against narco-trafficking in the country in this century and only comparable to the fall of Pablo Escobar.”

Otoniel’s story began as a teenage guerrilla fighting with the leftist Popular Liberation Army (EPL), until he demobilized at age nineteen. He soon switched sides by joining the Córdoba and Urabá Peasant Defense Forces, which was later rolled into the far-right, anti-communist United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). In 2005, he again surrendered, this time during the AUC’s demobilization, but soon returned to violence by joining the Gulf Clan, also known as the Urabeños. It was as leader of this criminal organization that Otoniel’s power achieved its maximum extent; the Gulf Clan decimated smaller rivals until it became the final Colombian criminal organization with a truly national reach, triggering the decade-long manhunt that resulted in his October 2021 capture.

President Duque’s comparison of Otoniel to Pablo Escobar, the notorious head of the Medellin Cartel from the late 1970s until 1994, obfuscates more than it enlightens. While the two men were both extraordinarily rich narcos who incurred the wrath of the Colombian and U.S. governments, the similarities end there. Unlike Escobar, who was a primarily apolitical, profit-motivated criminal, Otoniel’s criminal career can only be understood against the backdrop of Colombia’s nearly six-decade insurgency. Furthermore, it is exceedingly unlikely that Otoniel’s arrest will have the cartel-crippling outcome that Escobar’s killing did in 1994.

Otoniel’s Career and the Fracturing of Colombian Crime

Otoniel’s career trajectory aligns closely with developments in the Colombian drug trade over the past thirty years. After the destruction of the Medellin and Cali Cartels, the center of gravity shifted within Colombian crime. Instead of one or two relatively apolitical supercartels controlling the cocaine trade, the main players in the drug trade were ideological organizations. On one side were Marxist insurgencies, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), and on the other was the AUC and allied right-wing militias. Both sides in Colombia’s civil war bankrolled their paramilitary operations through the cocaine trade, with the line between political insurgency and crime syndicate growing increasingly blurry. During this period, Otoniel entered Colombia’s drug business through involvement in both communist and anti-communist insurgent organizations.

However, as the Colombian government cracked down on the insurgents, the main players in the drug trade shifted again, this time to small groups of traffickers deemed BACRIM (bandas criminales – criminal bands). The BACRIM are largely offshoots of rightist paramilitary groups who have shed all ideology and now act purely on profit motive. The BACRIM typically no longer traffic cocaine directly to the U.S., but instead oversee harvest and production, and then sell it to Mexican cartels in Central America, who move it north.

This is the stage that Otoniel has dominated, with his Gulf Clan becoming the most powerful and ruthless of the BACRIM. However, contrary to President Duque’s claim, Otoniel is no latter-day Escobar. The Gulf Clan thrived because it organized itself as a networked franchise system. Otoniel’s organization only controlled roughly one-third of organizations that claimed the name. The rest were “franchises” that were locally self-sufficient, but that relied on the Gulf infrastructure for trafficking, and in exchange were required to provide services or support if requested.

What’s Next for Colombia?

Understanding the networked nature of the Gulf Clan is key to appreciating the future of Colombian organized crime. When Pablo Escobar was killed, the intensely hierarchical nature of his organization meant that the Medellin Cartel essentially died with him, splintering into competing factions and the next generation of feuding narcos. However, because the Gulf Clan is already so networked, the fallout from Otoniel’s capture is likely to be much less severe than Escobar’s killing. Looking to the future, several potentialities exist.

Future #1: “Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss”

This possibility sees the Gulf Clan’s power and influence within Colombia’s underworld remaining relatively intact, with another leader taking Otoniel’s place in a relatively painless transfer of power. Several possibilities exist. The first is Wilmer Antonio “Siopas” Giralda Quiroz, who was Otoniel’s overall second-in-command and is based in Choco. Another possibility is Avila “Chiquito Malo” Villadiego, who was allied to Otoniel for two decades and oversaw the Gulf’s cocaine exports. This scenario assumes that one leader obtains power relatively cleanly (either peacefully or not), and the Gulf Clan’s affiliates fall in line with the new order.

Future #2: Acapulco Arrangement, Colombia Edition

Under this scenario, the future of Colombia’s cartels follows a similar path to those of Mexico’s following the arrest of cartel padrino Miguel Felix Gallardo in 1989. A perhaps apocryphal story tells of how, after the arrest, narcos organized a summit in Acapulco to divide the Guadalajara Cartel into constituent pieces. Although the gambit was meant to keep the peace, each group was unable to stay content with their inheritance, and brutal fighting broke out between the new cartels. In Colombia, Otoniel’s arrest may result in the Gulf subdividing relatively peacefully into mini-cartels, based on pre-existing regional alignments. History suggests that peace between successor cartels will be fleeting, and wars of aggression between them are likely to ravage Colombia.

Future #3: Narco-Mitosis

In this case, the succession of power within the Gulf Clan proper proceeds relatively cleanly, as in Future #1, but the affiliated organizations refuse to fall in line. Sensing a power vacuum and figuring that they can make more on their own, the Gulf’s affiliates secede from the present arrangement without the consent of Gulf Clan leadership. Violence breaks out between the recently emasculated Gulf Clan and their newly independent former allies. Because of the Gulf Clan’s networked structure, both sides are strong enough to wage war, but neither side is strong enough to decisively win. Caught in the middle is the Colombian population.

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