By Luz María Sierra, EL COLOMBANIO, May 7, 2022
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
When Pablo Escobar was killed a little less than 30 years ago, the story of the hunt for his location is told with a luxury of detail, and the world learned even the most minimal details about his life. In contrast, Colombians know very little about the life of “Otoniel” and the saga that was his capture, in spite of the way that his predecessor managed the greatest coca cartel in Colombia.
“The capture of Otoniel can only be compared with the fall of Pablo Escobar,” said President Iván Duque at the time. And how times have changed—a lot of people contradicted him. Both parties may be partly right. It’s true that Otoniel can’t be compared with Pablo Escobar, because he never had that murderous megalomania, nor his terrifying modus operandi of using bombs. That’s why Otoniel was much less well known. It’s also true that he was indeed like Escobar, in that he was the leader of the biggest illegal war machine in this country.
Another substantial difference is that Pablo Escobar operated like a mafia: a closed group that pulled the trigger or set off a bomb whenever they felt like it. While Otoniel created an “Army” that was present in more than 200 municipalities in the country.
The Clan del Golfo was born 16 years ago—at first it was called Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces, later Héroes de Castaño, also Clan Úsuga, and also Urabeños—and it’s an evil mixture of guerrillas and paramilitaries, all doing a drug trafficking business under the same franchise.
They extradited Otoniel on Wednesday, and in the next 48 hours, an Armed Stoppage that was unprecedented in Colombia was set off. As of now, more than 100 vehicles have been burned up, and there have been 93 attacks in 61 municipalities in six departments, which has demonstrated to this country what kind of personage we are talking about.
EL COLOMBIANO talked with Natalia Rendón, Director of Prosecution in Antioquia, who had participated for several years in the operation against Otoniel. She relates new details about the search and, in passing, paints a picture of the criminal emporium that took the government almost ten years, with the leadership of the Police, to take down.
Our talk took place weeks before the capo’s extradition and the Armed Stoppage. EL COLOMBIANO publishes it now because it could shed some light on how to understand what’s behind the Armed Stoppage.
How many years was Otoniel being hunted?
“We started in 2015. The Police started with the Agamenón operation, and, as I had been investigating the Carlos Vásquez Front of the Clan del Golfo, they asked me to take part in it. There were five Generals from the Police and, with them, we started to analyze what we had.”
In other words, the top brass . . .
“The Director of Intelligence came in; that was General Jorge Luis Vargas, now Director of the Police. At that time, that was General Palomino. Then General Restrepo from Antinarcotics; General Martínez de Dicar; General Rodríguez Peralta, who I think was from Citizen Security. We changed our shifts every eight days. It was a seven-days-a-week job, and almost 24 hours a day. And thanks to Agamenón, we got to places that up to then had been impenetrable.”
All Clan del Golfo territory?
“Let’s say there were places in Urabá where it was difficult to work. The base was in Necoclí, but we got to Unguía, to Titumate, to all of the Darién that’s in Chocó, which had been impenetrable. We got in through San Pedro de Urabá. We started doing some searches, collecting evidence, seizing devices, capturing some people and, above all, getting sources of information.”
What was the first important hit?
“The Clan del Golfo is made up of Blocs and the most important one is the Central Bloc, which belonged to Otoniel. That Bloc at the same time has several different Fronts, including the Carlos Vásquez Front, which was key because it had more than 600 members and was practically financing the whole organization with the drug traffic coming through Urabá. As my investigation was focused on alias “Inglaterra”, the head man of Carlos Vásquez, we started out by focusing around there.”
Who was paying those 600 members?
“Yes, they were all on the payroll. A patrolman, who was in charge at the lowest level, was worth 800,000 pesos (roughly USD $195 at today’s exchange rates). From there on it went up. The Commander of the Front earned something like 15 million pesos (roughly USD $3,650 at today’s exchange rates). We were able to document that.”
And why did they call the Front Carlos Vásquez?
“The Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (now Clan del Golfo) started in 2006 almost simultaneously with the demobilization (of the paramilitaries), and they named one of the first Fronts for Carlos Vásquez, a paramilitary who died in a traffic accident in Urabá. Alias “Inglaterra”, who commanded that Front, stayed in the Piedras Blancas sector between Carepa and Chigorodó, in Urabá.”
And what was the hit?
“The fall of ‘Inglaterra’. We did a lot of operations but it was incredibly difficult; we had so many accidents and a lot of Police officers were injured. For a long time, ‘Inglaterra’ didn’t leave the rural area, but eventually we started to see people going to Norte de Santander.”
(Prosecutor Rendón doesn’t give the details, but she’s referring to cases like what happened on August 4, 2015, when 16 Police from the elite corps known as Jungle Commandos died in a Black Hawk helicopter accident when they were following alias “Inglaterra” between Carepa and Chigorodó).
The Clan del Golfo wanted to go from Urabá to Norte de Santander?
“At least they sent alias ‘Inglaterra’. Los Pelusos and Los Rastrojos didn’t want to let them in there, but they wanted to go in and take what they call the trails to Venezuela. By that time, we already knew the common thread to all this, and their communications.”
You were always listening.
And they knew you were listening to them?
“Of course. At first it was easy, but then it got more difficult. They started using methods of communication that we did not have access to. But OK, ‘Inglaterra’ was very cocksure about Norte de Santander.
How did you finally catch up with him?
“When ‘Inglaterra’ left the rural area of Urabá and got to see the city, he got sloppy.”
Hadn’t he ever been in the city before?
“No. people close to him said that ‘Inglaterra’ was sitting at a ranch one night looking down at the city and he became very quiet and was fascinated by the lights. So by a lucky break, before he left for Norte de Santander, we got him at a luxurious ranch where he was celebrating his birthday. There he discovered a corrupt Police Major who took charge of taking him around here in Medellín; He even took him to get weight loss surgery.”
He got weight loss surgery and all that?
“Yes. ‘Inglaterra’ had started to see the wonder of everything that he was losing after being in uniform in the bush all the time and with the troops. So he started doing things to excess at ranches, in Jericó, in Sopetrán, and we started following him.”
This Police Major, what’s his name?
“Héctor Murillo. All of this is documented.”
(Major Héctor Fabio Murillo Rojas had 17 years of service in the Police, and according to the investigation, he was in charge of the linkage for furnishing weapons to the Clan del Golfo. They moved in high-end cars, including a BMW, and had two farms and three apartments in their name. When the schemes of the operation were discovered, we decided to let this run its course in order to get key information about the criminal network that was serving “Inglaterra”. And that’s what happened. The Major was captured two days after “Inglaterra” was killed.
And if he was having such a good time, why did he head for Cúcuta?
“He had to follow orders. Medellín was just a transfer point.”
Who gave the order?
“Otoniel” was the boss of bosses?
“He was always the maximum chief of the organization.”
After alias Don Mario?
“Yes, Don Mario is the one that brought him in to collaborate with the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces.”
(Don Mario, Daniel Rendón, was head of the Centauros Bloc of the Self-Defense Forces, and after the demobilization, he founded the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC), which today is known as the Clan del Golfo. He was captured in 2009 and “Otoniel”, his pupil, took over. Don Mario is now in prison in Brooklyn, New York, sentenced to 20 years (the same place where “Otoniel” arrived this week for his trial). Don Mario is also the brother of Fredy Rendón, known as El Alemán, the right hand of the man who was the top boss of the Self-Defense Forces, Carlos Castaño.”
At any point did the investigation find a relationship with the Castaño brothers?
What I can say is that the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia emerged by the order of Vicente Castaño.”
Did they emerge when they were in the middle of negotiations with the government?
“Yes. He said, come on, cousin (referring to ‘Don Mario’), here they’ve captured all of our people, we can’t stay here like this without any protection, we have to rebuild again. And there is where they started their strategy of locating, getting hold of weapons, and calling their people back in.”
Let’s go back to “Inglaterra.” How did they capture him?
“Everything was all ready for the operation, very close to Cúcuta, but ‘Inglaterra’ was meeting with eighty of his men because he wanted to deliver their pay and they were all there with their weapons. If we would have acted at that moment, everybody would have been killed, because the Police were a small group. When our reinforcements arrived, ‘Inglaterra’ had already fled, and his ring of security repelled the authorities. The result was twelve captures, some of the organization were killed, and also an Army captain. Finally, some two months later, on November 23, 2017, ‘Inglaterra” was killed in an operation in Chinácota (Norte de Santander).”
(The death of “Inglaterra” had a great impact in Urabá. Some of the media talked about 5,000 people being at his burial. They covered it like this, “The caravan of motorcycles and the prohibited bull fights with which they received the body of the dead alias ‘Inglaterra’ in Carepa generated indignation, but the printed tee shirts alluding to the criminal that people were wearing this Monday in the Urabá part of Antioquia bordered on extravagance.”)
So “Inglaterra” died and you already had an opening in the organization?
“We were already in the heart of it, because we had got hold of some of their methods of stockpiling; we found 600 resumes, 600 people identified who were possibly part of this organization. That was a very important component for filing charges.”
They were that organized? With resumes?
“Their accounting system was down to the millimeter, who you are, where you live, who’s your family, what’s your alias, who recommended you, who are you going to work for, how many children you have. A control so that if the person flees, they know where to find him.”
And you were following all of that?
“We didn’t have time, there were so many lines. I think I was able to intercept some 500 lines simultaneously.”
How many people do you need to listen to 500 lines?
“A lot of people.”
How did the hunt for “Otoniel” proceed?
“That turned into something so big that we had to bring in several prosecutors, and each one of them took a particular investigative issue. Agamenón served to do other operations simultaneously, in Bajo Cauca, in Cauca. And every one adopted a name. Now Agamenón has gone down in history, now it’s called Operation Cóndor, because the objective of Agamenón was ‘Otoniel’.”
What were you able to learn about “Otoniel”? Who was “Otoniel”?
“Otoniel” was a man that was formed by war. I could even say that was true before he reached the age of majority. He had the capacity to survive or subsist for days walking with just a pound of panela (raw cane sugar) and a can of tuna, and drinking water from the creeks. He never slept more than one night in the same place. He left stealthily in the small hours of the morning. He also knew how to coopt the communities so that when he arrived there, they would kill a chicken or a pig, he could rest, and they would be all around him, as if they were his circle of protection and his escape route.
How did he get the people to help him? With fear or with presents?
“Sometimes they cherished him because he was a neighbor, somebody from the area, or because if they had a need, he would supply it. Or also it happened that if he liked a young girl, he would build a house for her family. Situations like that. On the other hand, he would lecture them about complying with the statutes, how he demanded that his commanders stay close to the troops, not go to parties; he was careful to see that his people had what they needed, because he knew that a hungry soldier could desert.”
But did he give political speeches?
“His talks were about dominating the territory, about managing the troops and the finances. His political teachings, quotation marks there, were for the people.”
But what did he say to them? Why they were there?
In his communiques, he would say they were protecting the campesinos from the alleged abuses by the Armed Forces, but in reality, with that kind of talk, he was trying to discredit their operations because they searched so many houses.”
What role is the Clan del Golfo playing in the drug trafficking business now?
“They have control of the route they are charging for. If, for example, the southern segment would want to go out through Urabá, they would have to pay the Clan del Golfo.
And did “Otoniel” manage the drug shipments directly?
“Yes, everybody was managing them. There was a war tax, to put it that way, for the organization, and the system of imposing a war tax is so that they could also participate in the exportation of narcotics.
“Otoniel” was not a man for luxuries, according to what you’ve said . . .
“What luxuries can a person have when he’s been on the run his whole life? A person that feels hunted to the point that if he eats a mango, he buries the pit, because he thinks they can use it to read his DNA, or that thinks he has to talk softly so they don’t hear him from their helicopters.”
“Otoniel” thought they would find his DNA from the pit of a mango?
“He thought that in his imagination, that they were watching him from helicopters.”
Did “Otoniel” think that they would find him with a GPS device in his boots like they did with “Mono Jojoy”. . .
“Otoniel” demanded that anybody coming to visit him go through a scanner to detect a device of any kind.
So if it beeped, he killed them?
“It couldn’t have beeped for anyone because before they could approach ‘Otoniel’, they would even change their clothes. After turning them around again and again so they were so messed up they wouldn’t know which way they were going.”
“Otoniel” was more crafty than many of the FARC that they were able to catch more quickly. No?
“Yes, but nothing is impossible. Justice may come late, but it comes. Nothing is impossible.”
When exactly did they start surrounding him?
“At the start of the operation in 2015, we had him located. It failed that time because there was an accident with one of the special commandos who fell and broke a bone. In those inhospitable areas, every member is important, and they couldn’t go ahead. It’s a beautiful brotherhood.”
And later were there other chances to capture him?
“Yes, there were a lot of other operations, some unsuccessful like the day when he went by in a launch and even though we saw him, we weren’t able to capture him because of his security circles. His men also started getting hunting dogs to detect infiltrations. We created a new strategy out of every frustrated operation.”
It was said that they knew of practically every single movement because they even had people watching the airport. . .
“That’s right. If anybody was to land at the airport, in their communications you would hear about at least twenty captures.
When did he start to be more vulnerable? Did it have to do with his illness?
“He had always had chronic diabetes and hepatitis, but I think what weakened him the most was when they captured the ones who managed the money, as was the case of alias ‘Falcón’, who was captured here in the east, or ‘Plastico’ in some condominiums at a party in Barú. Also alias ‘Messi’ or ‘Candado’. So some people that were strategic for him started to be caught. And ‘Otoniel’ stayed in the jungle without anybody to handle his businesses. That started to weaken his capacity.”
(On May 7, 2021, they captured ‘Falcón’, who lived in a luxurious mansion of 9,000 square meters, in Llanogrande. It had a movie theater, a bowling alley, football field, target range, chapel, riding school, guest houses, and a location for his antique cars. He had 30 high-end cars and SUV’s. All in all, the Attorney General’s Office seized 62 pieces of property, valued at 232,000 million pesos, (roughly USD $ 56,800,000 at today’s exchange rate).
Didn’t he have any way to pay bills?
“He could have had the money but he had nobody he could trust that could pay for using a route, or do any business. His trusted team was gone, except for his security circles.”
But “Otoniel” had money, didn’t he? Where is it?
“That’s what our Financial Crimes Unit is working on.”
In the pursuit of “Otoniel”, whatever happened to “money talks”?
“What I can say about that, and it’s documented legally, is that in a week or so he might have had income or profits of 20,000 million pesos (roughly USD $ 5,000,000 at today’s exchange rate) just for one shipment of cocaine.”
And they send it out from the seaports?
“Everywhere. Clandestine airstrips, fast launches, every method you could imagine. Another very important blow we struck was discovering who supplied them with provisions, and there we were able to make a very interesting case of financing terrorism, against a chain of supermarkets in Urabá. They are being prosecuted right now.
They sold it to them knowing it would be used for criminal activities?
“Presumably. I can’t confirm that because it’s being prosecuted now, but the material elements of proof indicate that they really were aware of who it was they were selling to. We captured twelve people, and we are working to seizing control of the supermarkets, their poultry farms, and everything they own.”
Did he have a wife and family or a girlfriend?
He did have a wife, and more recently, he had a girlfriend, who was a girl much younger. Well, that’s his life.”
“Yes . . . I think he even had a baby around there for four or five years.”
And his children didn’t leave the country?
“No. He’s a man of the backwoods. A wandering Jew.”
And why, when he had so much money?
“For the power, for the ego. For a lot of things. I think they started the organization in 2006 at first to gain domination of the territory, to not let anything else go through there, and that was being expanded very strategically.”
“Otoniel” ended up the same way as the guerrillas did, without understanding what it was for . . .
“Without ideals, without understanding what it was. It was a game of cat and mouse, I flee, you can’t catch me, I kill you, I will catch you, I can see you, you can’t see me, etc., etc., until finally the opportunity is there, and the objective of capture is achieved.”
Is he intelligent, or cunning, how would you define him?
“Disciplined first. I would define him as a man shaped in war. I think that for a person to be at war, you have to have discipline and endurance. The difficulties in accomplishing his capture are a product of that, and as I was saying, he never spent a night or at most two nights in one single site. You have to have a lot of discipline to be on the run for ten years without any comforts.”
Where did he learn that?
“He was trained in the EPL.”
But unlike the guerrillas, he didn’t have the habit of setting off car bombs?
“He was unusual, but he did throw a cylinder bomb at a police station in El Tomate.”
And in the end, what was the key to his capture?
“The unity and articulation of all of the forces, the unity of information, the homework of intelligence, the efforts that went into execution by all of the operating groups, in any of the specialties, because while some were focused here, others were doing searches at other places, prosecuting people. That was a joint operation, pinpointed, and planned for a long time.”
And where was it that he was captured?
“In El Yoki, between Necoclí and Cerro Yoki, exactly where alias Don Mario was also captured.”
 Los Pelusos and Los Rastrojos were smaller rival gangs.
 Popular Liberation Army, a guerrilla group.