In 2012, Colombian news outlet Semana obtained a video from the country’s law enforcement showing a handcuffed man called Daniel ‘El Loco’ Barerra – a drug trafficker who had been arrested in Venezuela and was being extradited to Colombia. Then president Juan Manuel Santos proclaimed that Barerra was ‘the last of the great capos‘. But the video tells a different story: Barerra can be seen warning law enforcement officers of a man named ‘Otoniel’, repeatedly calling him an ‘animal’.

The man he was talking about was Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias ‘Otoniel’, the leader of Clan del Golfo (also known as Clan Úsuga, the Urabeños and Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia) and he came from Úraba, the banana-growing jungle region in the north of the country, on the border with Panama.

A household name

Clan del Golfo was birthed out of a violent right-wing paramilitary movement known as the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia in 2006, becoming a hybrid organized criminal paramilitary group. Operating through a franchise-system structure, over the course of the next 15 years, Clan del Golfo battled with armed groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN), Los Rastrojos, Oficina de Envigado and FARC dissidents to become the biggest drug trafficking organization in Colombia. Its size became such that other organized criminal groups paid Clan del Golfo to traffic their cocaine.

Clan del Golfo cultivated connections with other organized criminal groups across the world – from Mexico’s Jalisco New Generation Cartel and Sinaloa Cartel, to Italian mafia groups including the Calabrese mafia, Cosa Nostra and ‘Ndrangheta, not forgetting the Balkan networks.

Otoniel, along with his brother Juan de Dios Úsuga, alias ‘Giovanni’, took control of Clan del Golfo in 2009. When Giovanni was killed at the hands of law enforcement in 2012, Otoniel assumed sole power. In response to Giovanni’s killing, Clan del Golfo imposed a curfew on the entire population of northern Colombia: all business, trade and public transport were forbidden. In an echo of a move done by Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar, Otoniel also offered US$500 for the life of any Colombian police officer. These actions made Otoniel a household name in Colombia – and a marked man.

Clan del Golfo continued to expand, including into other illicit markets such as illegal gold mining, battling with groups such as the ELN and FARC dissidents for the riches beneath their feet and causing severe and long-lasting environmental damage through deforestation and mercury poisoning. Clan del Golfo now exert control over mines , whether licit or illicit, artisanal or multinational, and they do this through violence, assassinations and the extortion of workers. To top it off, gold is used to launder dirty drug-trafficking money.

Operation Agamemnon

In 2015, Bloque de Búsqueda (search bloc), the Colombian police unit made famous by its killing of Escobar in 1993, was tasked with tracking down Otoniel in Operation Agamemnon. But despite this increased attention from law enforcement, the fortunes of Clan del Golfo continued to rise, particularly after the demobilization of the FARC in 2016, when it expanded into the newly vacated territory. But with the removal of the FARC, the Colombian army sought to find a new role, and they saw that as fighting organized crime. Bloque de Búsqueda was now joined in the search for Otoniel by the Colombian army and their expertise – Operation Agamemnon II had begun.

Otoniel then spent much of his time travelling between rural safe houses in Úraba, with just four armed guards and never staying anywhere for more than two nights, as he feared capture if he got too close to urban areas. He reportedly had a liking for young girls, committing serial sexual abuse on minors who were trafficked to his jungle home.

The misery of a life on the run led him in 2017 to seek a deal with the government. He asked Pope Francis, who was visiting the country, to intercede on their behalf. But Operation Agamemnon II was now in full swing and the senior leadership within Clan del Golfo was being knocked down one by one, including Otoniel’s own family members. The net was closing in.

In October 2021, UK and US intelligence joined their Colombian counterparts to track down the location of Otoniel in his jungle hideout using satellite imagery. More than 500 Colombian special forces and soldiers entered the jungle and surrounded the hideout, meticulously bypassing the eight rings of security and capturing the infamous drug lord. President Ivan Duque, with similar zeal to that of his predecessor after the capture of Daniel ‘El Loco’ Barerra, playing to the global media, proclaimed the capture of Otoniel was ‘only comparable to the fall of Pablo Escobar’.

Otoniel now faces extradition to the United States. But what will happen to Clan del Golfo is the bigger concern. Is there a new leader to take control? Or will fragmentation and inevitable violence follow? Either way, it will be the Colombian people who will suffer.

1. "He's an animal"

2. "Don't text or call me"

3. "You beat me"