Notorious Colombian drug trafficker Dairo Antonio Usuga David, known simply as Otoniel, has been sentenced to 45 years in prison by a federal judge in the United States.
Otoniel had previously pleaded guilty to charges of drug distribution and running a criminal enterprise in a court in Brooklyn, New York.
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During Tuesday’s sentencing, the 51-year-old admitted his responsibility in running a vast network of criminal operations and cocaine smuggling, as leader of the violent paramilitary group known as the Clan del Golfo or the Gulf Clan cartel.
“I apologise to the governments of the United States and of Colombia and to the victims of the crimes that I have committed,” Usuga said through a court interpreter.
The US Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn had requested the 45-year sentence, saying Usuga had led a “terrorist and paramilitary organisation” for nearly two decades and opted not to demobilise through a government-led peace process.
“He ordered the killing, kidnapping, and torture of rivals, as well as individuals he believed were cooperating with law enforcement,” the US Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn said in court papers. “The defendant’s desire for control and revenge simply cannot be overstated.”
Usuga’s defence, meanwhile, cast him as a former child soldier from a poverty-stricken background whose world view was forged amid nearly 60 years of conflict in Colombia. They had requested a prison term of no more than 25 years.
“Having been born into a region of great conflict, I grew up within this conflict,” Usuga said in court, advising young people “not to take the path that I have taken”.
“We should leave armed conflicts in the past,” he added.
But US District Judge Dora Irizarry shot back that environment was not an excuse, citing her own upbringing in public housing in the South Bronx. She told Usuga he had chances “to leave this life behind — and you didn’t”.
Otoniel had been one of the most wanted drug traffickers in the world when he was arrested by Colombian authorities in October 2021 after eluding capture for years. He was extradited to the US in May 2022 on the condition that he would not be given a life sentence.
Authorities said that under his leadership, the Gulf Clan had brought violence and exploitation to areas of northern Colombia, using brutal force to control major cocaine-smuggling routes.
Prosecutors further alleged Usuga ordered killings of perceived enemies — including a victim who was tortured, buried alive and beheaded. They say he put bounties on the heads of police and soldiers as well as members of rival gangs.
The US Attorney’s Office also accused Usaga of asserting brutality over the public at large, ordering a days-long “strike” after his brother was killed in a police raid. Those who refused to stay at home, prosecutors said, were threatened with death.
During his court hearings, Usaga admitted to perpetrating deadly violence. “In military work, homicides were committed,” he said, adding that there “was a lot of violence with the guerrillas and the criminal gangs”.
He also spoke about his role in the drug trade. “Tonnes of cocaine were moved with my permission or at my direction,” Usaga told the court in January.
The relatives of victims allegedly slain at his command also testified. “The damage that this man named Otoniel has caused to our family is unfathomable,” the family of late police officer Milton Eliecer Flores Arcila wrote to the court.
The widow of Officer John Gelber Rojas Colmenares, killed in 2017, also testified that Usuga “took away the chance I had of growing old with the love of my life”.
The Gulf Clan is among the collection of leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary groups, narco-traffickers and criminal gangs that have contributed to decades of violence in Colombia.
The government has recently sought to sign peace accords with many armed groups and reach terms for ceasefires with criminal gangs, but it has struggled to completely stem a complex conflict rooted in rural poverty and a lack of opportunities.
On August 3, a six-month ceasefire between the Colombian government and the country’s largest remaining armed rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), went into effect.