Once Colombia's most-wanted drug lord, kingpin known as Otoniel sentenced to 45 years in prison

FILE-Dairo Antonio Usuga, known as Otoniel, was seized after a joint operation by the Army, Air Force, and police on a rural hideout in Antioquia province in north-western Colombia, close to the border with Panama on October 23, 2021. (Photo by Colom

For years, the man known as Otoniel was seen as one of the world's most dangerous drug lords, the elusive boss of a cartel and paramilitary group with a blood-drenched grip on much of northern Colombia.

On Tuesday, Dairo Antonio Úsuga was sentenced to 45 years in prison in the U.S. after saying he accepted responsibility for his deeds.

"I apologize to the governments of the United States and of Colombia and to the victims of the crimes that I have committed," Úsuga, 51, said through a court interpreter.

He had pleaded guilty in January to high-level drug trafficking charges, admitting he oversaw the smuggling of tons of U.S.-bound cocaine and acknowledging "there was a lot of violence with the guerillas and the criminal gangs." The U.S. agreed not to seek a life sentence in order to get him extradited from Colombia.

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Úsuga and his lawyers sought to cast him as a product of his homeland's woes — a man born into remote rural poverty, surrounded by guerilla warfare, recruited into it at age 16 and hardened by decades of losing friends, fellow soldiers and loved ones to violence.

"Having been born into a region of great conflict, I grew up within this conflict," he 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 U.S. District Judge Dora Irizarry, invoking her own childhood in a South Bronx housing complex that she said was wracked with drug dealing and violence, told the kingpin that environment was no excuse.

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"People growing up in these communities who have the will and have the desire work their way out of it," she said, adding that Úsuga had chances "to leave this life behind — and you didn't."

For decades, nearly every Colombian's life has been touched by the country's many-sided conflict. A mish-mash of leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary groups, narcotraffickers and other bands of criminals have warred for control of mountainous swaths of the country.

The violence has claimed the lives of more than 1 million people, and left millions more forcibly displaced, disappeared and otherwise harmed, according to data from the country’s Victim’s Unit. The government has sought to sign peace accords with the armed groups but has struggled to consolidate peace in a complex conflict rooted in rural poverty and lack of opportunities.

Úsuga allied at points with left- and right-wing combatants and eventually joined the Gulf Clan, known as one of Colombia's most powerful and brutal forces. He was Colombia's most-wanted kingpin before his arrest in 2021, and he had been under indictment in the U.S. since 2009.

The Gulf Clan, also known as the Gaitanist Self Defense Forces of Colombia, holds sway in an area rich with smuggling routes for drugs, weapons and migrants. Boasting military-grade weaponry and thousands of members, the group has fought rival gangs, paramilitary groups and Colombian authorities. It financed its rule by imposing "taxes" on cocaine produced, stored or transported through its territory. (As part of his plea deal, he agreed to forfeit $216 million.)

"In military work, homicides were committed," Úsuga said, through a court interpreter, when pleading guilty.

Úsuga ordered killings of perceived enemies — one of whom was tortured, buried alive and beheaded — and terrorized the public at large, prosecutors say. They say the kingpin ordered up a dayslong, stay-home-or-die "strike" after his brother was killed in a police raid, and he offered bounties for the lives of police and soldiers.

"The damage that this man named Otoniel has caused to our family is unfathomable," relatives of slain police officer Milton Eliecer Flores Arcila wrote to the court. The widow of Officer John Gelber Rojas Colmenares, killed in 2017, said Úsuga "took away the chance I had of growing old with the love of my life."

"All I am asking for is justice for my daughter, for myself, for John’s family, for his friends and in honor of my husband, that his death not go unpunished," she wrote. All the relatives' names were redacted in court filings.

Despite manhunts and U.S. and Colombian reward offers topping $5 million in total, Úsuga long evaded capture, partly by rotating through a network of rural safe houses.

After his arrest, Gulf Clan members attempted a cyanide poisoning of a potential witness against him and tried to kill the witness’ lawyer, according to prosecutors.