The country where drug lord Pablo Escobar once wielded more power than many elected officials made a staggering announcement over the weekend.
Colombian authorities trumpeted what they said was their biggest cocaine bust ever.
Police seized more than eight metric tons (more than 17,500 pounds) of cocaine from a gang in a series of operations.
The hefty haul weighs more than an African elephant and could have a street value of hundreds of millions of dollars.
But there’s an even bigger question looming: Is the massive drug bust a sign that Colombia is closing in on its most wanted criminal?
Drugs found on banana farm
One site of the country’s largest drug seizure, according to police, was a banana farm near the mouth of a river.
Colombian police, backed by two Blackhawk helicopters, raided the farm in the pre-dawn darkness Sunday morning, homing in on a dilapidated structure. Inside, they found hundreds of hidden bricks of cocaine.
Pictures released by police showed rows of pre-packaged bricks of drugs laid out on the ground as armed officers stood guard.
Wanted capo draws Escobar comparisons
Colombian authorities plastered images of the drug seizures on their social media accounts over the weekend. On Twitter, President Juan Manuel Santos congratulated police for carrying out the operation. Colombia’s defense ministry described it as a significant hit to the finances of a drug trafficking organization.
It was a major victory in a high-profile battle they’ve been waging for more than a year against a Colombian crime syndicate.
The target: Clan Úsuga.
The drug gang isn’t as well known outside Colombia as some of its infamous predecessors, like Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel.
But like Escobar, Clan Úsuga’s ruthless leader is now the target of a government “search squad.”
A team of police special forces is hunting for Dario Antonio Úsuga David, who’s also known by his alias, Otoniel.
More than 2,000 officers are involved in the search, police said as they announced the operation last month. And authorities are offering a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to his capture.
And like Escobar, Úsuga has been fighting back. According to Colombian officials, he’s placed bounties on the heads of police, ordering his hit men to kill them in revenge for the operation.
The U.S. Justice Department calls Clan Úsuga Colombia’s “largest and most influential drug trafficking group” and has charged Úsuga and several other leaders of the group with related crimes.
Authorities also sometimes refer to the organization as Los Urabeños, named for the Colombian region where they’re based, Uraba.
The U.S. State Department has described Los Urabeños as “a heavily armed, extremely violent criminal organization comprised of former members of terrorist organizations that did not demobilize as part of the Colombian government’s justice and peace process.”
Colombian authorities didn’t release details about how they found the massive stash of cocaine seized in recent days. But they said it had been hidden on the banana farm by Clan Úsuga’s second-in-command, Roberto Vargas Gutiérrez, who’s also known by his alias, Gavilán.
The drugs would have a street value of about $250 million in New York, Colombian National Police chief Gen. Jorge Nieto said.
“All we’re doing,” he told reporters, “is closing in on these criminals.”