By Luis Jaime Acosta
BOGOTA (Reuters) -Colombia on Wednesday extradited Dairo Antonio Usaga, known as Otoniel, an accused drug trafficker and leader of the Clan del Golfo criminal group to the United States, President Ivan Duque said.
Extradition to its top ally is one of the main weapons in the Andean country’s arsenal for fighting drug trafficking, as well as one of the outcomes most feared by drug traffickers.
Otoniel, who according to Colombian authorities trafficked between 180 and 200 tonnes of cocaine a year with the Clan del Golfo, was detained last October in Antioquia province.
“This extradition shows nobody is above the Colombian state,” Duque said in a video message in which he compared Otoniel to deceased drug lord Pablo Escobar. The extradition was a triumph for the Andean country, he said.
The process of sending the accused drug trafficker to the United States began after Colombia’s top administrative tribunal lifted a provisional order suspending his extradition.
Wearing a bulletproof vest and helmet, Otoniel arrived at an air base in Colombia’s capital Bogota, where he was seen on to a plane by Colombian police.
Authorities say the 50-year-old is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of members of Colombia’s security forces.
He is wanted in the United States for crimes including drug trafficking, conspiracy and illegally possessing weapons.
Colombia abolished extradition to the United States in 1991 amid a terror campaign of killings and bombings by drug cartels, but the practice was restored by Congress in 1997.
Colombian authorities say Otoniel was captured during an operation by security forces involving hundreds of men and almost two dozen helicopters, although he later told the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) tribunal that he handed himself in.
The JEP was created under a 2016 peace deal with the now demobilized FARC rebel group to try former combatants and members of the military.
Otoniel’s lawyers argued against his extradition, saying he should be allowed to testify before the JEP, confess his role in Colombia’s nearly six decades of internal conflict and reveal links between the military and illegal armed groups.
The conflict has killed at least 260,000 people.
(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; writing by Oliver Griffin; editing by Richard Pullin)