Four years ago, an ambitious but low-key Cali businessman named Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela was acquitted here on drug smuggling charges and faded into obscurity, eclipsed by the ruthless cocaine lords terrorizing Colombia from the city of Medellin.
Then, as the government waged an all-out war against the Medellin Cartel and brought down its leaders one by one, Rodriguez and his associates quietly perfected what the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration now calls "the largest cocaine trafficking organization in the world."
With last week's surrender of Pablo Escobar, the last Medellin boss who was still at large, Rodriguez rose to the top of the DEA's most-wanted list. At the same time, Rodriguez, an astute 52-year-old executive known as "the Chess Player," came one move closer to checkmating the law.
Colombian authorities have a warrant for Rodriguez's arrest on 15 trafficking indictments in the United States. But the warrant will become useless in two weeks because an assembly rewriting Colombia's constitution voted last Wednesday, partly as an inducement for Escobar's surrender, to outlaw the extradition of Colombian criminals.
"There are no charges against Rodriguez Orejuela in Colombia," said a frustrated Colombian law enforcement official. "We can move against cocaine in Cali but not against him."
The idea of impunity for Rodriguez alarms U.S. officials. His organization, which they call the Cali Cartel, is "a major threat to the United States," says DEA Director Robert Bonner. Cali's share of the U.S. cocaine market has risen from 25% to 30% two years ago, when the harshest crackdown hit Escobar's men, to about 80% today, according to a DEA spokesman, William Ruzzamengi.
"The challenge for the Colombian government is to focus on Cali more and to go after them with the same energy they directed at Medellin," Ruzzamengi said.
Worried by that prospect, Rodriguez sent a letter to Bonner last week saying he had nothing to do with the Cali Cartel. He claimed that he is being persecuted by the United States for having laundered Medellin cocaine profits through a Panamanian bank that he owned until 1985, when such activity was legal in Panama.
"It would be ingenuous on my part to deny there is narcotrafico in this region," Rodriguez said in the letter, published Saturday by the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo. But "I am absolutely sure that your anti-drug department does not have one single piece of evidence (against me) different from what the American government already put forward" in the 1987 trial here.
That evidence, from drug cases in New York and Los Angeles, was dismissed by the Colombian trial judge. Rodriguez, who had been arrested in Spain and extradited to Colombia, went free after three years in prison.
Rodriguez, a short, overweight man with graying hair, has since secluded himself in his walled mansion in suburban Ciudad Jardin, reportedly more fearful of Escobar's hit men in a "war of the cartels" than the police.
He has encouraged speculation that he is now removed from the cocaine trade and devoted entirely to his legitimate businesses--a drugstore chain, a taxi fleet, a soccer club, a pharmaceutical lab and real estate and construction interests. Colombian and U.S. investigators discount that speculation.
Meanwhile, investigators say, the Cali Cartel has overtaken its Medellin rival thanks to a tighter chain of command, more advanced business methods and avoidance of violent conflict with the state.
The Cali Cartel, a cooperative of a dozen or so trafficking groups, has about 5,000 employees, compared to the 70,000 who worked for the looser-organized Medellin Cartel in its heyday, according to police estimates.
Instead of the small planes and speedboats favored by Medellin traffickers, Cali is said to prefer slower, safer delivery of cocaine hidden in coffee, chocolate, lumber and other commercial products shipped by ocean freighter. Distribution and sales organizations abroad are tightly controlled to avoid infiltration by informers, law enforcement officials say; prospective buyers must be cleared in person at the cartel's headquarters after posting an insurance bond.
"We don't have an organization chart of the Cali group but we envision a kind of triumvirate of Gilberto Rodriguez, his brother Miguel and Jose Santacruz Londono," said a U.S. narcotics official. "Gilberto has all the seniority. He's like an old Mafioso who can't get out. He can only try to give the impression he's out.
"The smaller groups work under the supervision of the Rodriguez-Santacruz gang, and the gang gets a cut on everything. They provide a lot of services, like transportation and distributors or buyers on the other end."
For all its success in the United States, Cali's growth owes more to its expansion in Spain and the Netherlands, entry ports to the higher-priced, fast-expanding European market. "Almost everything going on in Europe having to do with cocaine is involved with the Cali Cartel," said the DEA's Ruzzamengi.
In Colombia, the Cali bosses have thrived in the shadows of Medellin's violence.
"There are two kinds of narcotraffickers," said Alvaro Guzman, a sociologist at Valle University in Cali. "The savage capitalist represented by Pablo Escobar, who had his own army and thought he himself was the state. And the modern manager represented by the Cali people who seek an accommodation with political power, who work within the state the way the American Mafia does."
Local journalists say Rodriguez has worked hard to keep his name disassociated from the cartel, once sending a jeep-load of armed men to buy every copy of a Cali newspaper that identified him as a trafficker.
"Whenever they are associated with violence, it's always in relation to the war between cartels," the Colombian news magazine Semana wrote in a report on the Cali traffickers last February. "But they have never declared war on the state. And this has paid off because neither the government nor the Colombian people worry much about them."
Asked since Escobar's surrender what he intends to do about the Cali cartel, President Cesar Gaviria has insisted that his war on drugs applies to all traffickers. He pointed to stepped-up interdiction efforts in the Cali area, where police reported dismantling a laboratory last Tuesday and seizing 4,444 pounds of cocaine.
The police attention has coincided with an unexplained burst of violence among drug traffickers in this city of 1 million people. Police have counted a dozen massacres of four or more people in the past six months, leading Cali residents to comment that Medellin's "culture of death" is spreading here.
"I am pessimistic about Cali," said sociologist Guzman, a specialist in what Colombians call violentology. "If internationally it is said that Cali is now the center of the problem, Gaviria is going to have to do something about it. What will happen here? I think it's going to get more violent."
Free-lance journalist Stan Yarbro in Medellin, Colombia, contributed to this story.
The Cali Cartel
Cali's share of the U.S. cocaine market reportedly rose from 25% or 30% two years ago to about 80% today.