NEW YORK (AP) — A Colombian man who was once one of the world’s most-wanted drug lords pleaded guilty Wednesday to U.S. smuggling charges, admitting that he led a cartel and paramilitary group that trafficked in cocaine and deadly violence.
“Tons of cocaine were moved with my permission or at my direction,” Dairo Antonio Úsuga, better known as Otoniel, told a Brooklyn federal court.
“There was a lot of violence with the guerillas and the criminal gangs,” he added, and acknowledged that “in military work, homicides were committed.”
Úsuga, 51, could face decades in prison when he is sentenced. Federal sentencing guidelines call for a life term, but the U.S. government agreed not to seek one in order to secure his extradition from Colombia earlier this year, according to U.S. District Judge Dora Irizarry.
As part of his plea deal, he agreed to forfeit $216 million.
Úsuga presided over the Gulf Clan, which terrorized much of northern Colombia to control major cocaine-smuggling routes. U.S. authorities have called him one of the most dangerous drug traffickers on the planet, and he was Colombia’s most-wanted kingpin. Former Colombian President Iván Duque compared him to the infamous 1980s-era kingpin Pablo Escobar.
Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Breon Peace said last year that the gang’s thousands of enforcers carried out attacks, kidnappings, torture, assassinations and organized campaigns against Colombian law enforcement and military troops. Úsuga sometimes personally ordered the killing and torture of perceived enemies and flexed his power by declaring “strikes” in which businesses had to shut down and people had to stay home throughout the cartel’s turf, Peace said.
Úsuga was named in a series of U.S. indictments going back to 2009. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his arrest, and the Colombian government offered $800,000. Over the years, Colombian authorities arrested or killed hundreds of cartel members, deployed over 1,000 police officers to hunt for the kingpin and publicized the U.S. reward .
But Úsuga through a combination of corruption, alliances with both left- and right-wing combatants in the internal conflict that has wracked Colombia for over half a century, and living off the grid in the countryside. He purportedly used a different safe house every night.
When he was apprehended, Duque said Úsuga was “not only the most dangerous drug trafficker in the world, but he is murderer of social leaders, abuser of boys, girls and adolescents, a murderer of policemen.”
Úsuga was . He pleaded guilty Wednesday to leading a continuing criminal enterprise and various drug trafficking charges that involve nearly 97,000 kg (107 tons) of cocaine.