There is a new kid on Colombia’s drug block. His name is David Antonio Usuga, alias “Otoniel”. He is the head of the drug cartel knows as Clan del Golfo, Clan Usaga or Los Urabanos.
His hope is to move into the vacuum left by FARC with his own tough military structure combined with an enterprising franchise business model which exploits the established Colombian entrepreneurial activities of extortion, money laundering, kidnapping and murder as well as the country’s $8-billion-a-year cocaine production.
According to the US Defence Intelligence Agency, FARC controlled half of Colombia’s lucrative cocaine industry. Most of the money went to supporting its guerrilla army which, at its height, numbered 20,000 and cost about $12,000 a year to clothe, feed and arm each fighter.
A joint FARC-government push to eradicate cocaine production is a key element in the peace package signed last September. But it will be a difficult task.
While negotiations progressed in Havana, FARC commanders advised their base among the peasant farmers to increase coca production so that they would benefit from lucrative crop eradication subsidies when the agreement was signed.
According to the UN Office on Drug and Crime (UNDOC), the result was an increase in land used for coca production from 250,000 acres in 2015 to 365,000 in 2016. The proposed eradication subsidy comes nowhere near the income the farmers earned from coca production. So, with FARC out of the picture, the coca farmers are turning to Otoniel and his fellow drug barons as the only viable market for their product.
Otoniel’s base of operations is in the Uraba region on the border with Panama. Uraba is ideally suited to the drug trade. It has coastlines on both the Pacific and the Caribbean. Its topography includes rugged mountains, impenetrable jungles and rich agricultural land. The impassable Darien Gap lies partly in Colombia’s Uraba region.
Otoniel started on the road to drug kingpin as a 19-year-old recruit to another guerrilla group, the Popular Liberation Army (EPL). In 1991 the EPL was disbanded and Otoniel and his brother Giovanni joined the right-wing paramilitary group the United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC).
In the 1990s the government used the AUC and other paramilitary organizations to perform hands-off distasteful tasks in FARC controlled territories. Otoniel and Giovanni are said to have conducted massacres of FARC-supporting peasants.
The embarrassed Colombian government was eventually forced to distance itself from the paramilitaries, so the AUC turned to the drug trade to finance its operations. In 2005, it abandoned all pretence of fighting the rebels and re-formed as the drug cartel then known as Urabanos. By 2009, Otoniel and Giovanni were running the show. Otoniel was left in sole charge after his brother was killed in a dawn raid in 2012. The new leader responded to his brother’s death by offering a $1,000 reward for every policeman shot. The bounty was repeated earlier this year when another top Usuga Clan commander was killed by security forces.
Otoniel has used his experience as a guerrilla fighter and paramilitary commander to good effect. He has imposed a strict top to bottom military discipline and harnessed that to a franchise type business model. He commands about 3,000 fighters in the Uraba region and is expanding to other parts of Colombia by recruiting wannabe drug barons with the offer of licenses to use his now feared brand for the purposes of extortion, money laundering and kidnapping. Once on board, the franchisees quickly develop into cocaine production centres.
The system works. Business is booming. The UNDO estimates that Clan Usuga is shipping out two million tons of processed cocaine every week. The drugs are going up American and British noses in record amounts—968,000 regular American users in 2016 (up from 600,000 in 2013) and 4.2 percent of young Britons between the ages of 15 and 34, according to a paper produced by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) and the European Commission.
Unlike the late unlamented Pablo Escobar, Otoniel has not had an opportunity to enjoy his ill-gotten gains. He is now 45. His wife is in prison. The US government has placed a $5 million dead-or-alive bounty on his head and he has been indicted for drug smuggling by a New York court. To avoid capture, Otoniel resorts to guerrilla tactics. He travels through his jungle domain either on foot or on the back of a mule. He never sleeps in any one bed for two consecutive nights.
The peace agreement that created business opportunities for the drug lord has also freed up the Colombian military. Instead of winding down the army, the government has increased defence spending to $10.8 billion and dispatched an additional 80,000 soldiers and police into the former FARC controlled areas. Defence Minister Luis Carlos Villegas described the increased presence as the biggest military operation in Latin America.
The army’s top priority is now the drug trade and Otoniel is officially number one on Colombia’s Most Wanted List.
(Tom Arms is the author of Encyclopedia of the Cold War, and editor of lookaheadnews.com)