After the Detention of Otoniel: the End of the Gulf Clan?

by Paul Flores
Image: Daniel Stuben. / Unsplash

On October 24th, 2021, the Gulf Clan’s leader, Dairo Antonio Úsuga David— also known as “Otoniel”—was detained by the police and the Colombian army. Frequently compared to Pablo Escobar, Otoniel is the most-searched drug dealer in the country and the leader of the Gulf Clan, a criminal group that controls 250 of the 1122 villages in Colombia. As Colombian President Ivan Duque said: “Otoniel’s capture is comparable only to the fall of Pablo Escobar”. But can we compare Otoniel to Pablo Escobar? Is this the end of the Gulf Clan?

The Gulf Clan is the most powerful criminal group in Colombia. For years, their main economic activity was the transportation of cocaine from Colombia through the Gulf of Mexico.  Nowadays, the quantity of cocaine produced is even higher than during Pablo Escobar’s era. However, according to Hernando Zuleta, a political analyst of the University of the Andes: “although more cocaine is produced than in Escobar’s time, the power of Colombian drug traffickers has been reduced”.

One of the main differences between the two groups is their territorial control. While Pablo Escobar’s group or the Cali cartel had control over the main cities in Colombia, the Gulf Clan dominates mainly rural areas. As a result, their political influence is lower, and they focus more on production. But can we really anticipate the end of the Gulf Clan?

Otoniel’s death does not mean the end of the clan’s activity, or at least not immediately. Furthermore, it could be accompanied by a spread of violence throughout the country. The clan has to re-establish its power and influence in the region after the death of its leader, and violence is one of the best ways to reach the goal.

The key to taking down the clan is Government strategy. For years, the Colombian government has focused on burning crops and fumigating, but such methods did not succeed in putting an end to the drug business. Supply and demand continue to exist, and that allows for the survival of any kind of business. Changing restrictions on drug production is a sensitive debate. But is drug depenalization a viable solution for Colombia? 

Other Latin American countries, like Bolivia, have already de-penalized the cultivation of coca plants (in a delimited area) or decriminalized the use of cocaine’s leaves for traditional uses, like Peru. The Bolivian case is interesting. By allowing limited production of cocaine in Chapare, a major coca cultivating region, the violent conflict was reduced, and the farming earnings were boosted. It has also encouraged collaboration with the government to establish a sort of “social control”. Additionally, drug legalization was successful in some US states, where the crime rate dropped. The major problem of cocaine prohibition is the livelihood of a vast number of farmers, who are cultivating this drug to survive. Governments should have more alternatives to avoid such repercussions. 

We have clearly seen that fighting the cartels with armed forces is not the best way to end their activities. Other solutions should be sought, especially the integration of the most impoverished rural population into the economy or the review of restrictions on drug production. If this is not achieved, the criminal activity of the Gulf clan will remain part of the Colombian landscape.

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