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Will Colombian drug lord Otoniel’s capture impact the trade of illicit drugs in the US?

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Dairo Antonio Úsuga, better known as Otoniel born in Antioquia in the early 1970s, also known as Gulf Clan, having a $5 million bounty on his head was captured from his rural hideout in Antioquia province in north-western Colombia, close to the border with Panama.

Otoniel – Colombia’s most-wanted drug trafficker and the leader of the country’s largest criminal gang was captured on Saturday following a joint operation by the army, air force, and police.

The Colombian government had announced an $800,000 bounty leading to his location, while the United States had placed a $5 million reward on his head.

In a televised video message, President Iván Duque praised Otoniel’s capture.

“This is the biggest blow against drug trafficking in our country this century,” he said.

“This blow is only comparable to the fall of Pablo Escobar in the 1990s.”

He was apprehended from his rural refuge in Antioquia province, on the border with Panama, in northwestern Colombia.

The mission included 500 soldiers and 22 helicopters. One officer was killed in the line of duty.

Otoniel had moved about and evaded the authorities by using a network of rural safe homes, and he didn’t use a phone, instead relying on couriers for contact.

Police have previously discovered special orthopaedic beds for Otoniel in these sparse dwellings, since he suffered from back pain caused by a herniated disc.

According to police head Jorge Vargas, the drug boss was afraid of being apprehended and never approached residential areas.

However, El Tiempo newspaper reported that investigators were able to determine the spot where he was eventually apprehended two weeks ago.

Chief Vargas stated that his movements were tracked using satellite photos by more than 50 signal intelligence professionals. The search was conducted by agencies in the United States and the United Kingdom.

According to the AFP news agency, Mr. Duque described the operation as “the biggest penetration of the jungle ever seen in the military history of our country”.

Colombian officials undoubtedly regard this as a coup, given they had been attempting to apprehend Otoniel for several years. The Gulf Cartel is a formidable and dangerous gang that has considerable power.

And it’s easy to draw parallels with Pablo Escobar. Otoniel is a household name and has wielded enormous authority, particularly in the country’s northwestern corner.

“In South America, there is no larger cocaine trafficker,” says Toby Muse, author of Kilo: Inside the Cocaine Cartels.

“We are living in the golden age of cocaine, we are producing more cocaine than ever – that’s a fact.”

However, the parallels may end there because Otoniel is not as well-known outside of Colombia. And, speaking with folks who lived in the country at the height of Pablo Escobar’s influence, many believe it was a more terrifying time.

It is estimated that it has roughly 1,800 armed members, most of whom are recruited from far-right paramilitary groups. Members of the gang have been apprehended in Argentina, Brazil, Honduras, Peru, and Spain.

Many of the routes used to move drugs from Colombia to the United States, and even as far away as Russia, are controlled by the gang.

The Colombian government, on the other hand, says it has decimated its numbers in recent years, forcing several top leaders to hide in distant forest districts.

Otoniel is now facing plenty of allegations, including smuggling cocaine into the United States, assassinating police officers, and recruiting kids.

He was indicted in the United States in 2009 and is currently facing extradition proceedings, which could result in him appearing in court in New York.

The question is, will Otoniel’s capture impact the trade of the illicit drug? It’s hard to know now. We’ll have to see what happens in the coming months but most experts seem to think that while demand for cocaine remains strong, it’s likely there will be new “capos” rising to the top to replace him.

The question still remains unanswered whether Otoniel’s arrest will have an influence on the illicit drug trade in the US or other parts of the world.

It’s difficult to say right now. We’ll have to wait and watch what happens in the coming months, but most experts believe that as long as demand for cocaine is high, new “capos” will rise to the top to replace him.

Image Credit: Reuters

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