Griselda Blanco. Pablo Escobar. Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela. Dairo Antonio Úsuga.
To those who follow the war on drugs, the names embody roughly four generations of Colombian drug traffickers. Blanco symbolizes the wild “cocaine cowboys” era of the late 1970s when rival Colombian drug traffickers killed each other in the streets of Miami. Escobar, a Medellín Cartel leader, became Colombia’s first full-fledged drug lord in the 1980s. Rodríguez Orejuela, with his brother Miguel, then led the Cali Cartel into the 1990s.
Now, in 2015, Úsuga is the latest face of narco-trafficking as head of the Úsuga Clan — allegedly Colombia’s most dangerous criminal organization, part of the so-called bandas criminales or bacrim for short that the United States and Colombia are jointly targeting. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and several high-ranking U.S. officials, including Miami U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer, met in Bogotá last month to announce the new joint efforts against the bacrim.
On June 23, Ferrer traveled to the Colombian capital to disclose — together with Santos — the indictments and arrests of 17 members of the Úsuga Clan. At least 12 individuals are now in custody in Miami, Colombia and Spain — but some are still at large, including Úsuga himself, the indicted clan leader for whose capture the State Department is offering a $5million reward.
“The goal is to dismantle these criminal organizations and to eliminate the security threat that these groups pose to our region and the international community,” Ferrer said in an interview from Bogotá on the day of the announcement.
Úsuga has thus emerged as the embodiment of the latest effort by U.S. and Colombian authorities to go after a major Colombian drug-trafficking lord and his organization — an effort reminiscent of prior operations targeting previous major drug traffickers.
A review of prior U.S. and Colombian actions against drug lords and their organizations suggest that the joint effort is an endless task. Drug traffickers are arrested or killed, but soon others emerge to take their place. It’s a war that now has spanned almost half a century.
This all began to emerge as an issue in the United States in the mid-1970s, when Blanco — a pioneer member of the Medellín Cartel — settled in New York City. There, she launched a drug-trafficking ring, importing cocaine from Colombia and then distributing in Manhattan, Brooklyn and other New York boroughs.
When authorities indicted Blanco, by then known as the “Godmother of Cocaine,” she fled to Colombia but by the late 1970s sneaked back into the United States — resettling in Miami. She rebuilt her drug-trafficking business in Miami amid the chaos of the “cocaine cowboys” shootings. Investigators eventually linked her to murders and mayhem including a 1979 shooting at Dadeland Mall where assassins who arrived in a van shot and killed two rival drug traffickers.
She was finally arrested in 1985 and ultimately was sentenced to three concurrent 20-year sentences — but served only 13 years before she was released and deported to Colombia in 2004. In 2012, an assassin on a motorcycle shot and killed Blanco in Medellín. She was 69.
As Blanco’s name faded from memory, Escobar rose to notoriety. By the mid-1980s, Escobar had helped build the Medellín Cartel into a powerful cocaine-exporting machine, and he came to be known as the “King of Cocaine.”
Tons of cocaine were shipped into the United States through his transportation system consisting of planes and boats. Worried about extradition, Escobar surrendered to Colombian authorities in 1991 but continued running his empire from jail. A year later, in 1992, Escobar escaped from prison. A manhunt ensued and within a year Escobar was located and killed. He was 44.
After Escobar was killed, Colombian authorities went after Cali Cartel’s leaders including the Orejuela brothers. Gilberto was captured in 1995 but was freed and went on the lam in 2002. He was recaptured a year later and then extradited to the United States where he is still serving a 30-year sentence. He is 76.
Gilberto’s younger brother, Miguel, was also captured and extradited to the United States where he is serving a sentence scheduled to end in 2030. He is 71.
As the Cali and Medellín Cartels crumbled, along with the demobilization of paramilitary forces in the mid-2000s, the bandas criminals or bacrim — as they are known — began to emerge.
By 2011, the bacrim had become a major threat, and U.S. authorities announced a joint initiative with Colombia to take down the groups.
On Feb. 9, 2011, Ferrer in Miami announced the creation of a unit within the narcotics section of his office dedicated to dismantling the bacrim.
“This is the first such unit in the nation specifically designed to target the emerging bacrims,” according to a statement from Ferrer’s office.
“The Southern District of Florida is the first and best line of defense against the importation of mass quantities of cocaine into our borders,” Ferrer said in a statement at the time. “The United States government will not rest until we eradicate the bacrims and destroy their ability to ply their trade, as we did with the former drug cartels.”
Ferrer and other U.S. officials stepped up the fight against the bacrims last month when they traveled to Bogotá to make the joint announcement with Santos of additional indictments against suspects.
The principal suspect indicted in Miami and Brooklyn was Úsuga, also known as Otoniel. He is a former member of the Colombian armed forces and a paramilitary unit. He is 43.
Follow Alfonso Chardy on Twitter @AlfonsoChardy