A daring betrayal helped wipe out Cali cocaine cartel

By William C. Rempel / Los Angeles Times /
The official end of the notorious Cali cocaine cartel came in 2006 in Miami with little more than the rap of a judge’s gavel. Colombian drug lords Miguel…
MIAMI — The official end of the notorious Cali cocaine cartel came in 2006 in Miami with little more than the rap of a judge’s gavel. Colombian drug lords Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, 63, and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, 67, entered guilty pleas and were ushered to federal prison for the next 30 years.

But behind the fall of the ruthless Orejuela brothers and collapse of their $7 billion-a-year empire lies a story of daring and betrayal.

Aiding the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) unexpectedly and at great risk was a senior Cali cartel official, the head of security for the cocaine syndicate.

For years he had protected the bosses, their wives and children. Then, he double-crossed them.

«It was very risky, but I was trapped in a nightmare, in a totally corrupt environment. I had to escape,» the former cartel official explained.

Federal prosecutor Edward Ryan called the defection «a very personal betrayal» to the Cali bosses, leaving the man marked for death. He is still «No. 1 to be killed,» Ryan said.

The cartel official has lost his home, his country, his past, even his name. From deep inside the U.S. witness-protection program, the official has shared his story in conversations with the Los Angeles Times.

Unlikely recruit

The soft-spoken family man once known as Jorge Salcedo was an unlikely drug-gang recruit. He held degrees in mechanical engineering and industrial economics. He started his career designing forklifts and other machinery.

His father was a retired Colombian army general and diplomatic figure. The son was an officer in the army reserves, but he regarded himself more an engineer than a soldier. He became proficient in electronic surveillance, which drew him into counterterrorism assignments.

Salcedo’s military service in the late 1980s coincided with one of Colombia’s bloodiest periods. Anti-government guerrilla groups unleashed waves of kidnappings that terrorized the nation. Some targeted rich drug lords.

At the same time, rival cocaine cartels were warring, killing police, judges, politicians and bystanders. Military leaders grew restless with the impotent and corrupt government and tried to fill the vacuum, taking military actions without approval from Bogotá.

Enter Salcedo.

He was secretly dispatched to Europe by military leaders to assemble a team of mercenaries. Financed by Medellin cartel bosses, he was to organize a paramilitary operation for an assault on a guerrilla mountain fortress called Casa Verde.

It was aborted at the last minute. However, word of Salcedo’s role reached Cali, 185 miles southwest of Bogota. The drug bosses there, engaged in a feud with drug lord Pablo Escobar and the Medellin cartel, summoned the 41-year-old engineer in 1989.

«I had to go. It was not an invitation I could refuse,» he said. «In Colombia, even honest people have to deal with the cartels.»

The compound of drug lord Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela filled a city block and contained a swimming pool, tennis court and half a soccer field.

Salcedo was escorted to Miguel’s offices and four cartel dons. They got right to the point. Pablo Escobar of Medellin was «a bandit … a criminal … a crazy guy» who was threatening their wives and children.

Miguel, the younger of the two Orejuela brothers, was more direct: He wanted Escobar, the most powerful criminal in the world, dead.

The Orejuela brothers earlier had dispatched a hit squad to Medellin, 155 miles northwest of the capital. But the six assassins ended up dead. Another attempt with a car bomb succeeded only in injuring one of Escobar’s children.

The dons said Salcedo’s skills were required to end Escobar’s reign of terror and protect them and their families.

Thus was Salcedo drafted into the Cali cartel.

«I did not feel I was a criminal,» Salcedo recalled. «I had been fighting against the guerrillas. Now I was against Pablo Escobar.»

Targeting Escobar

Salcedo immediately helped devise an assault on Escobar’s Medellin compound. Two armed helicopters flew a team of Salcedo’s mercenaries to a mountain staging area. But descending through clouds, one chopper hit a mountaintop. The pilot was killed. The attack was abandoned.

A second assault was planned from Panama. But the British mercenaries, waiting months for orders to attack, got bored and rowdy. Salcedo scrapped the mission.

Meanwhile, he beefed up security for the Orejuela brothers and their families. «The families were huge. We had about 150 persons dedicated to caring for the safety of these people,» Salcedo recalled.

Local police helped. Some were on the cartel payroll.

Finally, Escobar was sent to prison. Salcedo was ordered to arrange an aerial bomb attack on the prison.

«It was an absurd idea. I told them it was unlikely to succeed. But Miguel said, ‘Do your job,’ » Salcedo recalled.

He traveled to El Salvador and, through military contacts, purchased four 500-pound bombs for about a half-million dollars.

Waiting at a rural airstrip for the cargo plane from Cali to pick up the illicit munitions, Salcedo saw an executive jet swoop out of the clouds. Its limited cargo space wasn’t designed for bombs. Only three fit, stacked in the passenger cabin.

Local authorities closed in. The fourth bomb was abandoned and Salcedo barely escaped El Salvador and arrest.

Caught in the middle

The Colombian government now knew he worked for the Cali cartel. The Medellin gangs knew he was plotting to kill Escobar.

In Cali, Salcedo found personal safety managing security for the Orejuela family. «I had nothing to do with drugs,» he said. «I told myself I was not one of them.»

Salcedo arrived in Cali in time for a business boom. The early 1990s were the golden years for the cartel.

Business improved noticeably after December 1993. Escobar had escaped from prison, only to be tracked down by national police 15 months later. He and his bodyguard were gunned down as they fled.

The Orejuela brothers promptly absorbed the Medellin cartel and ultimately controlled 80 percent of the international cocaine market. At its peak, the family ran what one U.S. Justice Department official told Congress was «the most prolific and successful criminal enterprise in history.»

Then came the crackdown.

In Miami, DEA agents targeted the Cali cartel’s distribution organizations. Smuggling routes from Florida to Texas were compromised. Operatives were arrested. Shipments of drugs and money were lost.

In Bogotá, the Clinton administration pressed Colombian political leaders to arrest major traffickers.

«Miguel was getting paranoid,» Salcedo said. «He saw traitors everywhere.»

Desperate for protection from what they feared most — extradition to the U.S. — the cartel bosses poured millions of dollars into the bank accounts of Colombian politicians. The new constitution included a no-extradition provision for native Colombians.

Then, said U.S. prosecutor Ryan, «the bodies began to show up.»

The global cartel was directed by Cali-based Colombians, but its operatives included many non-Colombians susceptible to extradition. The «extraditables» were seen as security risks.

In 1994, Salcedo was sent with the cartel’s chief enforcer to a farmhouse outside Cali. The Orejuela brothers wanted four Panamanian operatives questioned.

«There were suspicions of a leak,» Salcedo said.

The four, three men and a woman, were held in different rooms, each tied to a chair.

Salcedo realized it was more than interrogation. He made an excuse and tried to leave. The enforcer insisted Salcedo stay.

«I had to watch him strangle them,» Salcedo said.

Switching sides

That was a turning point.

«I wanted to go to someone, but I didn’t even know on what door to knock,» he said.

Salcedo waited for the chance to use a public phone at a Cali telecommunications building. He dialed the CIA in Virginia.

«They treated him like a crackpot — I confirmed that,» DEA agent Edward Kacerosky testified later.

Cartel bosses launched an internal bloodbath targeting other extraditables.

Meanwhile, U.S. pressure on the Bogotá government was forcing Colombian authorities to crack down on the violent cartels. The Orejuela brothers unsuccessfully tried to negotiate a voluntary surrender.

Threatened with arrest, the billionaire brothers fled their palatial homes and managed the syndicate while moving from one safe house to another.

One of the few who knew where to find them was Salcedo. He also knew who was marked for assassination. In 1995, some hits were Salcedo’s responsibility, including cartel chief accountant Guillermo Pallomari, a Chilean.

Faced with orders to kill a colleague and friend, Salcedo grew desperate. This time he contacted a Miami lawyer who could make the connections.

Within days, Salcedo and Kacerosky were on the phone and Kacerosky landed one of the most remarkable confidential informants in international crime.

Within a week, Salcedo faced his first life-threatening decision. He had been summoned to the cartel hideout to give Miguel a report on the pending assassination of Pallomari.

Instead, Salcedo called federal police.

The raiding party that hit Miguel’s door the next morning included two DEA agents and a search team under Gen. Jose Serrano, chief of the Colombian national police. Inside the apartment they found no one.

Many safe houses conceal vaults in the walls for escapes. The Bogotá team listened, tapped on cement walls and floors, then pulled out power drills and bored into suspicious areas.

Across town, Salcedo’s pager went off. No sign of Miguel, the agents told him.

Salcedo insisted the drug lord was there. He directed the raiding party to a desk. The thick top concealed a secret compartment.

Searchers dismantled the desk. Its secret chamber gave up a trove of records that delighted Serrano — «30,000 checks, cartel payments to police, 150 politicians, reporters, everyone,» Salcedo said.

The evidence was rushed back to Bogotá.

But cartel-friendly police arrived. They saw the broken desk and holes in the walls and found the search team lacked a proper warrant. Furthermore, the U.S. drug agents were armed, a violation of Colombian law.

Under threat of arrest, the U.S. agents and Serrano’s team abandoned their search for Miguel Orejuela.

«I am dead»

On a cartel radiophone, Salcedo overheard a call between Miguel and his son, William. The drug boss had just been rescued from an escape vault with the help of a local police captain. He had emerged bleeding, injured by a power drill. Listening in on the phone conversation, Salcedo’s only thought: «What a nightmare. I am dead.»

Salcedo was a prime suspect, one of only five to 10 people who knew where Miguel was hiding.

The U.S. DEA agents insisted on taking him into protective custody immediately. But Salcedo refused, knowing more time was needed to evacuate his family from Colombia.

«I decided to play on the fact that I might not be discovered,» Salcedo said. «I immediately started investigating the leak.»

The ploy deflected suspicion. It bought time. Salcedo used it to steer Pallomari toward the DEA. He also helped agents raid a cartel bomb-making site and a weapons warehouse.

From mid-July into August 1995, Salcedo played a dual role: the man in charge of security for Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, and his secret betrayer.

He stayed close to Miguel and his family, sharing car rides and meeting with them alone to let his vulnerability erode suspicions.

The family was concerned about Pallomari, the accountant. In the wrong hands, his records of bribes and business dealings posed a greater threat to cartel operations than confinement in a Colombian jail. Salcedo feigned progress toward setting up an assassination.

One night, a police raid was scheduled to arrest Pallomari at a hiding place. It was arranged he would die in custody.

Salcedo arrived ahead of the police. He told Pallomari he would be arrested and die in jail. Pallomari did not trust the cartel’s chief of security, but he went to another hideout.

Four weeks after the failed raid that left Miguel wounded, another police team arrived outside an apartment building in Cali. With two U.S. agents, the team of Colombian national police poured silently into the building.

Miguel heard them too late. He was arrested as he scurried for a vault in the wall.

Protective custody

Again, people began to disappear — Salcedo and his family, and Pallomari — this time into the custody and protection of U.S. authorities.

In the days after, the entire Cali cocaine cartel infrastructure was exposed. Within a few months, about 130 people were indicted.

Salcedo pleaded guilty in Miami to a single count of racketeering. At a sentencing hearing, he was praised by agents and prosecutors who recommended leniency. U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler agreed, noting Salcedo’s «service rendered to this country» and actions that «saved the lives of a number of people.»

But it was not the end of the Cali cartel.

As Colombian citizens, the Orejuela brothers could not be extradited to the United States. Though that law was repealed after the politicians behind it were exposed for taking bribes, the brothers remained in Bogotá’s La Picota prison, beyond the reach of U.S. authorities.

Federal drug agents had to prove the cartel leaders continued to operate their empire from prison, after the extradition ban was lifted.

They did just that.

Thanks to Salcedo, the entire Cali cartel hierarchy was extradited. For his service, the relocated Colombian received rewards of about $1.7 million. But more than a decade after betraying his bosses, Salcedo’s life remains in jeopardy.

Miguel was extradited to Florida in 2005, a year after Gilberto. Today, the Orejuela brothers are in U.S. federal prison.

The former Jorge Salcedo remains in hiding — his location unknown even to his lawyer — in the United States.

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