BROOKLYN (CN) — Newly extradited from Colombia, accused cartel leader Dairo Antonio Úsuga David appeared in Brooklyn Federal Court on Thursday and made no effort to seek his freedom while fighting U.S. charges.
“Otoniel,” as the defendant is nicknamed, was captured in Colombia about seven months ago following a manhunt that lasted seven years. Federal officials say he was the “supreme leader” of the violent Clan del Golfo since 2012, using a “veritable army” of some 6,000 members to control parts of the country and earn billions of dollars from drug trafficking.
“He had more employees than the Boston and Miami Police Departments combined,” U.S. Attorney Breon Peace said at a press conference where he called the Clan del Golfo the “most powerful paramilitary and drug trafficking cartel in Colombia.”
Úsuga David was “one of the most dangerous, most wanted drug kingpins in the world,” Peace said, “to whom murder was meaningless and violence the ultimate currency.”
The government says it seized tons of cocaine linked to the cartel from boats off the coast of Panama in 2021, as well as from a boat within a jungle region of Colombia. In addition to directly exporting cocaine, the cartel allegedly made money by taxing other drug traffickers per kilogram for substances made, stored and transported through areas under its control.
Weapons seizures also turned up M4, AK-47 and Remington rifles; rocket-propelled grenades; handguns; and ammunition.
Investigators say the cartel kept control with a network of sicarios, or hitmen, who were employed 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.
Officials say Úsuga-David avoided capture for years with the help of a network of safe houses, and by avoiding cellphones in favor of couriers.
Úsuga David, 50, did not challenge the government’s bid to keep him in custody on three counts of continuing a criminal enterprise; international cocaine manufacturing and distribution conspiracy; and use of firearms to traffick drugs. The first count carries a mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison, while the second has a minimum 10 years.
“Until his capture this past October, the defendant had a veritable army of thousands of men at his disposal,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Gillian Kassner said at the hearing before a U.S. magistrate judge. “For years, he treated human lives like they were disposable; just another commodity that he and the Clan del Golfo controlled.”
Miami-based attorney Arturo Virgilio Hernandez entered a not-guilty plea on behalf of Úsuga-David, who appeared in court without handcuffs, wearing a short-sleeved orange jumpsuit. He used an interpreter during the proceedings.
Though agreeing to pretrial detention, “we certainly don’t agree with that summation,” Hernandez said of Kassner’s comments.
Anne Milgram, administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, joined Peace and other officials at the U.S. attorney’s office in downtown Brooklyn to announce Úsuga-David’s extradition.
Milgram said 95% of the cocaine in the United States comes from Colombia — and may then travel through other cartels, like the infamous El Chapo-run Sinaloa Cartel, where cocaine is mixed with powdered fentanyl, creating a deadly combination that substance users may not be aware they’re even receiving.
Pointing to unprecedented overdose rates as part of the agency’s motivation, Milgram said, the DEA has made 115 arrests and confiscated hundreds of weapons and tens of thousands of kilograms of cocaine as part of its work to dismantle the Clan del Golfo.
“If you traffic deadly poison, if you use violence and fear to gain power, if you target law enforcement, if you destabilize countries for your profit and if you run a cartel that harms the safety health and security of the American people, then the DEA will stop at nothing to bring you to justice,” she said.
Officials said they couldn’t quantify what portion of the cartel’s cocaine shipments ended up in New York City.
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