Heavily armed paramilitaries in balaclavas from the Clan del Golfo have cordoned off towns and villages in the northern regions of Colombia in retaliation for the extradition to the United States of its former leader, Dairo Antonio Úsuga, also known as “Otoniel” (50). Roads have also been blocked, vehicles set on fire, businesses forced to close and residents held hostage in their homes.
Otoniel was extradited to the United States on Wednesday after being arrested in Colombia in October 2021. He is considered the greatest drug baron in the South American country. As the leader of the Clan del Golfo, Otoniel in the United States is suspected of having carried out large-scale shipments of cocaine to this country as well as murder. In Colombia, there are 120 charges against him, including charges of murder, illegal recruitment, kidnapping for ransom, sexual abuse of minors, terrorism, illegal possession of weapons and drug trafficking.
Thousands of minions
But even as prosecutors in New York blew up the tower for which the Colombian royal stick was to be convicted, Colombians in part of the country remained hostage to the terror unleashed by his thousands of accomplices. For example, paramilitaries from the powerful Clan del Golfo have blocked highways and banned anyone from going outside, not even to buy food. Any vehicle they find on the roads would be set on fire.
‘Void quickly filled’
Experts talk of “total terror” among the population and tell The Guardian that “nothing will change”. “The void left by the Colombian cartel boss is quickly being filled.”
A resident of Apartadó, a town of 200,000 people in the Urabá region where the Clan del Golfo still reigns, says everything has been closed down since Thursday afternoon, and virtually all shops have been closed. “We do not know how long it will take. The water and the current keep going out, there is no transport and the food is running out.”
Videos shared by residents with The Guardian show that streets that would normally be teeming with commerce are now completely deserted. The lack of state control in the northern regions means that armed groups can create problems at any time and destabilize the entire region. They do this by shutting down entire municipalities, setting fire to buses and making sure no one leaves their homes.
A threatening flyer in the name of the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC) – the name Clan del Golfo uses for itself – has been distributed in several cities. It states that the armed attack will last four days and that the cartel will not be held responsible for “consequences that may be adverse”. Shops, schools and public buildings have been tarnished with AGC graffiti marks.
Otoniel’s arrest was hailed by US and Colombian authorities as a major blow to drug traffickers, but police say two of his lieutenants, known as Gonzalito and Chiquito Malo, were given command of the militia, which reportedly had as many as 2,000 fighters. In addition to drug trafficking, this right-wing extremist paramilitary organization is also involved in human trafficking, extortion, kidnapping for ransom and forced recruitment of children.
Colombian authorities have responded to the violence by launching an “anti-terror” policy, mainly aimed at removing roadblocks.
Analysts say the terror in northern Colombia is a predictable consequence of the country’s repression of the ‘war on drugs’, which often ignores the civilian population living among the criminals. “The daily reality in regions they control or contest is still accompanied by a high degree of social control, forced recruitment, coercion and extortion.”
The unrest in the northern Colombian regions following the extradition of Otoñiel to the United States is somewhat reminiscent of the actions against the extradition of members of the Medellin cartel in the 1980s.