Alleged Colombian cartel head due in New York court after extradition

The accused head of Colombia’s Gulf Clan cartel is due to appear in a federal court in New York on Thursday, as victims in his home country call for guarantees that he will come clean on atrocities committed by the feared paramilitary fighters he once commanded.

Dairo Antonio Úsuga, who is Colombia’s most wanted drug suspect for nearly a decade, was extradited from Colombia late on Wednesday on cocaine and weapons charges.

In images shared by local media during his extradition, the former warlord better known by his alias Otoniel, was seen handcuffed and with a wan smile, surrounded by officers.

Otoniel’s capture in October was described at the time by President Iván Duque as the biggest blow to the country’s drug trade since the death of Pablo Escobar in 1993.

But victims of the country’s decades-long civil war are calling for the 50-year-old trafficker to reveal all he knows about atrocities he oversaw or was privy to. Otoniel’s forces are widely believed to have operated with at least the tacit approval of some local politicians and security forces.

Otoniel already faces over 120 charges in Colombia on allegations of murder, illegal recruitment, kidnapping for ransom, sexual abuse of minors, terrorism, illegal possession of weapons and drug trafficking.

“As victims we already know who Otoniel is – and we don’t care. What we most need to know is who supported and sponsored him, and that includes the politicians,” said José David Ortega, a spokesperson from a campesino organisation in Córdoba, the northern province where the Clan del Golfo still terrorises communities and assassinates local leaders. “So we are worried that he won’t tell the truth in the US, but will remain silent on what he knows.”

The warlord’s long career played out in the shadows of the interwoven political and drug violence which have dogged Colombia for decades.

Otoniel and his brother – who was killed in 2012 – were once members of a now-defunct Maoist rebel faction, the Popular Liberation Army, before switching sides to join their far-right paramilitary enemies, the Córdoba and Urabá Peasant Defense Forces (ACCU). When Colombia’s paramilitary groups disbanded in 2006, Otoniel refused to turn in his rifle and remained in the criminal underworld.

“The extradition creates obstacles in learning the truth about the armed conflict, and the relationship between armed groups, business people and politicians,” said Pedro Piedrahíta Bustamante, a professor of political science at the University of Medellín. “So, while an alleged drug war win in Colombia is celebrated, the conflict rumbles on and the victims are forgotten.”

Gustavo Petro, the leftist frontrunner in Colombia’s presidential election campaign, expressed support for Otoniel’s victims. “Extradition proceedings should prioritize the confessions that victims need,” tweeted Petro. “There is no interest that can be above the victims of violence in Colombia.”

Authorities in Colombia said that Otoniel – who is currently being held at the same Manhattan jail that once held the Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, oversaw the shipment of 200 tonnes of cocaine a year.

But for those that live in territory once controlled by Otoniel little is expected to change.

“They can take down Otoniel but the criminal organisation will remain,” said Ortega. “As we like to say ‘the king is dead – long live the king.’”