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Colombia drug boss who led ‘veritable army’ pleads guilty to US charges

The man at the helm of thousands of cartel members claimed through a lawyer that he was roped into the illicit business as a 16-year-old child soldier.

BROOKLYN (CN) — A federal judge in New York presided over a guilty plea Wednesday in which the leader of a massive Colombia-based drug operation admitted to trafficking nearly 107 tons of cocaine, much of it into the United States, over a 12-year period. 

Dairo Antonio Úsuga David was extradited to the United States last year and accused of ruling over the Clan Del Golfo, a “veritable army” of some 6,000 members to control parts of Colombia and earn billions of dollars from drug trafficking. 

From 2009 to 2021, Úsuga David, also known as “Otoniel,” oversaw operations pushing 96,856 kilos of cocaine into Panama, Costa Rica and Mexico, and ultimately into the United States, he told the court. 

“I agreed to and directed others to provide security to narcotics traffickers,” Úsuga David said, noting that the Clan del Golfo “charged a set fee for every kilogram that was moved, stored or transported in areas controlled by the group.” 

Before accepting the plea, Assistant U.S. Attorney Francisco Navarro asked Úsuga David to confirm that members of the group were responsible for killings as a result of those crimes. 

“Homicides were committed, yes,” Úsuga David responded through a translator. 

Prosecutors will not seek a life sentence for the 51-year-old defendant under an agreement with the Colombian government, but Úsuga David faces decades in prison and a possible $216 million forfeiture, plus millions more in fines. 

The plea agreement covers three drug counts, two out of federal districts in New York and one in Florida. Charges were first unsealed in the Eastern District of New York in May 2022, following a seven-year manhunt that ended with Úsuga David’s October 2021 capture. 

Úsuga David’s attorney Paul Nalven said that while his client doesn’t make excuses for his actions, he was first involved in cartel activity as a “child soldier,” roped in at the age of 16 along with his brother. 

“Our client is really a child of the culture of violence in Colombia,” Nalven said following the hearing. “It was kind of the law of the jungle. Be inducted … or be killed.”

This April 2021 photo taken in Panama shows some of the tons of cocaine seized from the Colombia-based Clan del Golfo cartel. (Justice Department via Courthouse News)

Úsuga David evaded with the help of a network of safe houses, and by avoiding cellphones in favor of couriers. The cartel held onto power with the help of hired sicarios, or hitmen, used to kidnap, murder, assault or torture competitors, traitors and their family members. Cartel members also targeted Colombian law enforcement and military personnel with Plan Pistolas, campaigns involving grenades, explosives and assault rifles. 

“He had more employees than the Boston and Miami Police Departments combined,” U.S. Attorney Breon Peace said at a 2022 press conference in which he called the Clan del Golfo the “most powerful paramilitary and drug trafficking cartel in Colombia.”

While Úsuga David offered his plea, another court proceeding targeting cocaine trafficking carried on a few floors above in the same Brooklyn court building. Genaro García Luna, Mexico’s former public security secretary, is charged with taking millions of dollars in bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel, run by the notorious kingpin “El Chapo,” and helping it grow into a billion-dollar operation. His trial began Monday. 

The vast majority of the cocaine in the United States comes from Colombia, officials say, and may flow through groups like the Sinaloa cartel, where it is mixed with powdered fentanyl, creating a deadly combination that substance users may not be aware they’re even receiving. 

Fentanyl is responsible for a growing number of deaths in the United States. The drug accounts for most of the synthetic opioid category that caused more than 70,000 overdose deaths in 2021, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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