US Marshals took custody of Dairo Antonio Úsuga last weekend, ending a longstanding manhunt for the Colombian “Gulf Clan” cartel leader, who is considered one of the most notorious Colombian drug kingpins since Pablo Escobar.

Úsuga was extradited to the US last Wednesday after Colombia’s military captured him in a rural hideout on October 24, 2021, in a special operation that involved 500 soldiers and 22 helicopters.

At the time, Colombian President Iván Duque said that Úsuga was “comparable only to Pablo Escobar,” according to CBS News.

“He is not only the most dangerous drug trafficker in the world, but he is a murderer of social leaders, abuser of boys, girls, and adolescents, a murderer of policemen,” Duque said at a press conference on May 4, announcing Usuga’s extradition to the US.

According to CNN, after his extradition, Úsuga – also known as “Otoniel” – pleaded not guilty to international cocaine manufacturing and distribution conspiracy among a laundry list of other charges in a New York City federal court.

In Colombia, Úsuga was facing at least 122 charges including drug trafficking and murder, and now in the US, Usuga faces indictments in three federal courts.

According to CBS, Úsuga’s extradition moved forward last week after Duque and the State Council endorsed the move, despite a petition submitted to a Colombian court from Úsuga’s victims, who argued that he needed to face his charges in Colombia first for reparation purposes. During his press conference, Duque reassured citizens that Úsuga would face justice in Colombia as well.

The Justice Department alleged that Úsuga called the shots for “Clan del Golfo,” or the “Gulf Clan,” a prominent cartel responsible for “exporting multi-ton shipments of cocaine from Colombia to Mexico and Central America for ultimate importation into the United States.”

The Colombian and US governments allege that as the head of the cartel, Usuga worked with right-wing and left-wing paramilitary groups to create a reign of terror and cocaine distribution empire in northwestern Colombia, lasting from 2003 until the present day.

As early as 2009, Úsuga was on the US Drug Enforcement Administration’s most-wanted list. That year, he was indicted on felony narcotics charges in a Manhattan federal court and also accused of aiding right-wing paramilitary groups in Colombia.

By 2014, Usuga faced new felony drug trafficking charges in New York and, a year later the kingpin faced fresh felony charges related to his cocaine empire in a Florida federal court.

The superseding indictment filed by the Department of Justice after his capture in November 2021 charged Usuga with three felony counts of “continuing criminal enterprise responsible for exporting multi-ton shipments of cocaine from Colombia to Mexico and Central America for ultimate importation into the United States. ”

Usuga rejected Colombia’s peace process, the Clan flourished

Until his capture, the Justice Department and Colombian authorities alleged that Úsuga and his cronies “did not demobilize as part of the Colombian government’s justice and peace process.”

In 2016, the Colombian government engaged in a peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest and most historic armed group in the country, which had been locked in a five-decade civil war with the country’s government.

Under then-President Juan Manuel Santos, parties negotiated for four years, and finally reached an agreement meant to disarm FARC and address the longstanding cycles of violence borne in vacuums of power across the country.

The agreement also sought to root out the presence of other paramilitary groups and illicit cocaine labs, and to return power and land to coca-leaf growers. The framework set up a truth and reconciliation commission to address and assign responsibilities for atrocities committed during Colombia’s civil war.

Colombia is just over a third of the way through its implementation of the goals set out in the peace process, according to human rights advocacy group Washington Office on Latin America.

According to the Guardian, the Gulf Clan thrived during this period of hopeful peace, taking advantage of other groups demobilizing and recruiting foot soldiers from cartels and armed groups to cement a ruthless empire across the country.

The Justice Department alleges that under Úsuga’s leadership, the Gulf Clan used “violence and intimidation to control the narcotics trafficking routes, cocaine processing laboratories, speedboat departure points, and clandestine landing strips,” operating in almost half of Colombia’s departments. In the indictment, prosecutors allege that Usuga’s group would regularly call for “strikes” and “curfews” in towns under his control, ordering his men to kill anyone seen out in the street rejecting the curfew.

According to CNN, following Úsuga’s extradition to the US, groups associated with him have issued armed curfews in territories under their control.

The State Department placed a $5 million bounty on Úsuga’s head and claimed that during a turf war over drug routes between the Gulf Clan and an opposing group, “homicides shot up 443% over two years.”

Building an empire

The Justice Department has claimed that as the group’s leader for a decade, Úsuga built one of the largest cocaine distributions in the world.

The latest indictment alleges that with close to 6,000 members, the Gulf Clan bullied their way to occupy prime drug trafficking real estate in Urabá, Colombia near the Colombia-Panama border and along the Pacific coast.

The DOJ alleged that the group routinely killed law enforcement, civilians, and rival drug traffickers who stood in their way. In 2015, Reuters reported that human traffickers recruited girls as young as 11 years old as sex slaves for the Urabenos – Úsuga’s previously dominant cartel.

“Plan Pistolas,” mentioned in the indictment, was a plan devised by the Gulf Clan “to kill Colombian law enforcement and military personnel using military-grade weapons, including grenades, explosives, and assault rifles.”

The Clan also funded their own operations by taxing other drug traffickers operating within their territories, “charging fees for every kilogram of cocaine manufactured, stored, or transported through areas controlled by the organization,” according to the indictment.

The operation, stemming from Colombia, transferred weekly and biweekly multi-ton shipments of cocaine through Central America and Mexico into the US, the indictment said.

Úsuga stayed on the move by hopping through a network of rural safe houses and staying off of the cellular grid, relaying his communications solely through a courier. Ultimately, he was caught in October in a hideout in Antioquia, near the Colombia-Panama border where his group operated.

If convicted on the felony charges, Usuga faces a maximum life sentence.