Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, reputed head of the multibillion-dollar Cali drug cartel and one of the world’s most-wanted men, was captured Friday by a special Colombian anti-narcotics police squad.
Rodriguez, a 56-year-old former bank president, was arrested at 3:30 p.m. when police raided a luxury apartment in the swank Santa Monica neighborhood in the northern suburbs of Cali, about 170 miles southwest of the capital, Bogota.
Colombian and U.S. officials portrayed the capture as the most important blow to Colombian drug traffickers since police killed Pablo Escobar in December, 1993, all but destroying the Medellin cartel.
“This is the beginning of the end for the Cali cartel. We will not let up until this [drug] problem is completely eliminated from Colombia,” a jubilant President Ernesto Samper said.
Police officials said Rodriguez was found crouching in a hidden compartment built into a bedroom. He offered no resistance, the officials said, and put up his hands and pleaded that “he not be harmed.”
“Easy boys. Don’t kill me. I am a man of peace,” police quoted him as saying.
He was flown immediately by military plane to the capital, where he was put under guard at National Police Headquarters.
Rodriguez and his brother Miguel are believed to be the two most powerful leaders of the Cali cartel, made up of several groups of drug dealers responsible for worldwide trade worth more than $7 billion. The Cali cartel, under the alleged leadership of the Rodriguez brothers, grew from relatively small-time status in the late 1980s to controlling an estimated 80% to 90% of the world’s cocaine trade.
In the past year or two, U.S. experts say, the Cali cartel has moved into second place in producing heroin for the world drug trade.
Witnesses said Rodriguez, a onetime bank president and drugstore chain owner, looked tired but was “impeccably dressed” in a cream-colored windbreaker and striped shirt.
Although details of the raid were sketchy, police said it was led by Gen. Rosso Jose Serrano, head of the Colombia National Police Force and a favorite of U.S. officials. Police said Rodriguez’s hiding place was protected by four armed bodyguards, who did not resist and were arrested.
Colombian Foreign Relations Minister Rodrigo Pardo said in a telephone interview that the arrest came as a result of cooperation between Serrano’s forces, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and other U.S. agencies. He could not provide details of the cooperation but claimed that the arrest showed his government is eager to fight traffickers. “The facts speak for themselves,” he said. “Nothing is more important than the facts.”
In Washington, President Clinton issued a statement saying, “This arrest should send a signal to other narco-traffickers that their insidious crimes will not be allowed to destroy the fabric of our people.”
As for the Rodriguezes, the brothers have been in hiding since 1992, when Colombia, under intense pressure from the United States, indicted them for drug trafficking, illegal enrichment and terrorism.
Gilberto Rodriguez is also under federal indictment in the United States for drug trafficking.
Unlike the Medellin operation--run by the violent, nearly psychopathic Escobar--the Cali cartel has cultivated a reputation as a rational, business-like operation, depending more on sophisticated distribution and technology than on murder and terror. However, Cali leaders have used violence as an effective weapon, with the Cali area alone accounting for at least one drug-related killing a day.
But their main tactic has been the corruption of much of Colombian society, including high-ranking government officials, business people, police and army personnel, journalists, artists and entertainers.
U.S. officials, particularly, have charged that the Rodriguezes buy influence at the highest levels. Some U.S. officials say the corruption reaches to Samper.
According to verified tape recordings, a presidential campaign official discussed millions of dollars in contributions last year for Samper’s successful bid. Samper has denied that he or his campaign knowingly took any money from narcotics traders, but the Clinton Administration has yet to be convinced of the truth of his claims.
Clinton has certified Colombia as uncooperative in the anti-narcotics war and has warned that anything less than elimination of the Cali operation, particularly the arrests and prosecution of the Rodriguez brothers, would endanger U.S. aid and trade preferences.
According to Michael Skol, a ranking State Department official, Gilberto Rodriguez “is a biggie” in the global drug trade, and his capture goes a long way to allaying U.S. concerns over Colombia’s commitment to fighting the narcotics trade.
But another U.S. drug enforcement source said the arrest, “while an important step, leaves a lot to be done.”
He noted that Gilberto Rodriguez, even if convicted, faces no more than 12 years in prison. “Besides, even though Gilberto was the main man, his brother remains free and is capable of running things.”
Times special correspondent Ambrus reported from Bogota; Times staff writer Freed, who recently was on assignment in Colombia, reported from Miami.