BOGOTA, Colombia – Colombia's top drug fugitive has shown his face for the first time on occasion of the pope's visit to the country, publishing a video Wednesday in which he asks for prayers that his group be allowed to lay down its weapons as part of the country's peace process.
In the 90-second video published on social media, Dairo Usuga, for whose capture the U.S. has offered a $5 million bounty, describes himself as a peace-loving, God-fearing peasant who was "forced for 30 years to carry weapons in his defense."
"I'm convinced that the only way out of the conflict is dialogue," said Usuga, dressed in camouflaged fatigues and sitting on a stool in a dirt-floored, jungle hideout.
Reading a statement he said was penned from the "mountains of Colombia" in August, Usuaga said "the Catholic Church is a moral reference and we believe that with its prayers we can move forward in our goal of abandoning our weapons."
Usuga, better known by his alias Otoniel, is the alleged head of the much-feared Gulf Clan, whose army of assassins has terrorized much of northern Colombia to gain control of major cocaine smuggling routes through thick jungles north to Central America and onto the U.S.
Usuga himself and many of his gunmen cycled through the ranks of leftist rebel groups and right-wing paramilitaries during decades of armed conflict in Colombia. But authorities consider the group devoid of any political ideology and have rejected its attempts to latch onto the peace process with leftist rebels as a self-serving ploy similar to Pablo Esobar's offer of a peace treaty for his Medellin drug cartel during the height of Colombia's drug-fueled violence three decades ago.
In a second short video, Usuga says his group, which he calls the Gaitanist Self Defense Forces of Colombia, after a mid-20th century Colombian leftist firebrand, said he and his men are willing to lay down their weapons in exchange for legal protection and a "dignified" demobilization.
On Tuesday, President Juan Manuel Santos shocked Colombians with news that Usuga had reached out with an offer to surrender. The offer came a few days after security forces killed a man believed to be his top lieutenant — one of hundreds of Gulf Clan members killed or taken captive in more than two years of concerted military pressure on the group.
Santos said any individual from the Gulf Clan surrendering would be given the same guarantees and benefits in terms of reduced sentences as any other criminal, but that the group as a whole would not be afforded any special negotiating status.
While photos of Usuga have circulated for years, and his reputation for ruthless killings and abuse of women well-known in the Gulf Clan's area of influence, he's never taken on such a high profile before.
He and his brother, who was killed in a raid in 2012, got their start as gunmen for the now-defunct leftist guerrilla group known as the Popular Liberation Army and then later switched sides and joined the rebels' battlefield enemies, a right-wing paramilitary group. He refused to disarm when that militia signed a peace treaty with the government in 2006, instead delving deeper into Colombia's criminal underworld and setting up operations in the strategic Gulf of Uraba region in northern Colombia, a major drug corridor surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean sea on either side.
The campaign against the Gulf Clan comes at a time of flux in Colombia's drug war.
Coca production in the country surged 18 percent last year to levels unseen in nearly two decades of U.S. eradication efforts, according to a White House report.
Authorities have stepped up their pursuit of drug traffickers even as they chase a goal of destroying 100,000 hectares (245,000 acres) of coca crops this year through a combination of manual eradication and voluntary crop-substitution agreements with farmers.