The man who took down Cali

Times Staff Writer

THE official end of the notorious Cali cocaine cartel came late last year here with little more commotion than the rap of a judge's gavel.

The Colombian drug lords Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, 63, and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, 67, entered guilty pleas and were ushered off to federal prison for the next 30 years -- no Miami Vice-like dramatics, no bodies riddled with gunfire in the manner of Medellin rival Pablo Escobar.

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

Aiding U.S. drug agents unexpectedly and at great risk was a senior cartel official, the head of security and intelligence for the syndicate. For years he had protected the bosses, their wives and children. Then, he crossed them.

"It was very risky, but I was trapped in a nightmare, in a totally corrupt environment. I had to escape," he explained.

Federal prosecutor Edward R. Ryan called the defection a shock and "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 man has lost much of what he once took for granted: his home, his country, his name, even his past.

From somewhere deep inside the federal witness protection program that harbors him and his family, he has shared pieces of his story in sporadic telephone conversations with a reporter.

"Obviously, I'm not looking for celebrity -- it would jeopardize our safety," he told The Times. "But people should know what I know now. My story should start by saying, if you are invited into such an organization, stop -- stop and run away.

"Don't think you can ever fully escape."

He used to be Jorge Salcedo.

THE wonkish, soft-spoken family man was an unlikely drug gang recruit. He held university degrees in mechanical engineering and industrial economics. He started his career designing forklifts and other machinery. Later he ran an oil recovery business.

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

His 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 the rich drug lords. At the same time, rival cocaine cartels were warring with one another, killing scores of police, judges, politicians and innocent bystanders.

Military leaders grew restless because of the security failings of an impotent and corrupt government and tried to fill the vacuum, sometimes taking military actions without approval from officials in Bogota, the capital.

Enter Salcedo. He was secretly dispatched to Europe by military leaders to assemble a team of mercenaries. In an unusual move largely financed by Medellin cartel bosses, he was to organize an off-the-books, paramilitary operation -- an armed 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 at the time in a vicious feud with Escobar and the Medellin, summoned the 41-year-old engineer to visit.

"Some people in Cali want a word with you," Salcedo was told in a phone call in January 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 next morning, he caught the first Avianca flight to Cali.

THE compound of Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela filled a city block. In addition to living quarters, it contained a large swimming pool, a tennis court and half of a soccer field.

Salcedo was escorted to a wing of the residence that contained Miguel's offices -- with marble floors, wood paneling, leather furniture, fine porcelain and four cartel dons who were waiting to see him.

Jose Santacruz Londono got right to the point. Pablo Escobar of Medellin was "a bandit ... a criminal ... a crazy guy" who was threatening to kill their wives and children. Miguel, the younger of the two Orejuela brothers, was even more direct: He wanted Escobar dead.

Escobar was the most powerful criminal in the world. The Cali brothers earlier had dispatched an unsuccessful hit squad to Medellin, 155 miles northwest of the capital. But it was the would-be assassins who ended up dead. All six of them. Another attempt with a massive car bomb succeeded only in injuring one of Escobar's

children.

The Cali dons knew Salcedo had ties to mercenaries. They knew he helped plan the aborted raid on the guerrillas. They told him his skills were required to end Escobar's reign of terror and to help 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."

ALMOST immediately, Salcedo helped devise an assault on

Escobar's Medellin compound.

Two heavily armed Hughes 500 helicopters, painted in the olive green of Colombia's national police, flew a 12-man team of Salcedo's mercenaries to a mountain staging area.

But descending through a cloud bank, one of the choppers hit a mountaintop. The pilot was killed. The attack had to be abandoned.

A second assault was planned, this time from a base in Panama. The mostly British mercenaries were in hotels for nearly two months awaiting orders to attack. Salcedo said they got bored and rowdy.

"It was difficult to keep these wild people quiet," he said. "They fought, they drank, they wanted women every day -- they were like mad dogs."

Finally the raucous strangers attracted so much attention, including television news coverage, that Salcedo was forced to scrap yet another mission.

Meanwhile, Salcedo beefed up security for the Orejuela brothers and their extended families -- a mother, four sisters, in-laws, wives and children.

"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. Some regularly shared information with Salcedo.

"Miguel and Gilberto were able to corrupt anyone," he said.

Finally, Escobar went to prison, where he continued to run his cartel and menace rivals from his cell. Salcedo was ordered to arrange an aerial bomb attack on Escobar's wing of 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 a military contact, purchased four 500-pound bombs for about half a million dollars.

Waiting at a rural airstrip for the dawn arrival of a cargo plane from Cali to retrieve the illicit munitions, Salcedo was distressed to see 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 leftover bomb was abandoned. Salcedo barely escaped El Salvador and arrest before the botched pickup was exposed.

The episode drew international attention, and another assault plan was junked.

There was no turning back for Salcedo. The Colombian government now knew he had worked for the Cali cartel. And the Medellin gangs knew he was plotting to kill Escobar.

But in Cali, Salcedo found personal safety as he settled in to managing security for the Orejuela family.

"I had nothing to do with drugs. I told myself I was not one of them," he said.

SALCEDO had arrived in Cali just in time for a business boom. The early 1990s were, he said, the golden years for the cartel.

Business improved even more after December 1993, when Escobar died in a blaze of gunfire. The Medellin boss had escaped from prison, and from continuing Cali assassination plots, in 1992 only to be tracked down by national police 15 months later. Police were guided to his hide-out by radiophone signals. He and his bodyguard were gunned down as they tried to flee across the rooftops.

The Orejuela brothers promptly absorbed much of the Medellin cartel and ultimately controlled 80% 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, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents targeted the Cali cartel's distribution organizations. Smuggling routes from Florida to Texas were compromised and had to be replaced. Key operatives were arrested and had to be bribed, or killed, to keep silent. Shipments of dope and money were lost.

In Bogota, 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 United States -- 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.

As U.S. prosecutor Ryan later would note, then "the bodies began to show up."

THE far-flung cartel was directed by Cali-based Colombians, but its operatives included many non-

Colombians susceptible to extradition. The "extraditables" came to be seen as security risks.

One day in the summer of 1994, Salcedo was dispatched along 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.

He found the four held in different rooms of the house, each bound and tied to a chair -- three men and a woman.

Salcedo realized that this was to be more than an interrogation session. He made an excuse and tried to leave the house. The enforcer insisted that Salcedo accompany him.

"I had to watch him strangle them," Salcedo said. The chilling episode was a turning point for him. "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 main switchboard of the CIA in Langley, Va.

"Listen, this may sound unusual," he said he told the duty officer who answered. "I'm calling from Cali, Colombia, and I have important information on how to locate the heads of the cartel."

"I'm sorry. I don't know where to direct your call," the voice in Langley responded, according to Salcedo.

"They treated him like a crackpot -- I confirmed that," drug enforcement agent Edward J. Kacerosky testified years later.

No one took up Salcedo's offer of assistance. Meanwhile, the cartel bosses launched an internal blood bath targeting other extraditables.

"Miguel literally tried to wipe out all non-Colombian nationals operating in Colombia," said Ryan.

THE Orejuela brothers saw that U.S. pressure on the Bogota government was forcing Colombian authorities to crack down on the cartels. They tried to negotiate a voluntary surrender.

The entire cartel brain trust would go to jail in exchange for a limited five-year sentence to be served at a prison built, or substantially remodeled, at cartel expense.

No deal.

Finally, threatened with arrest, the brothers fled their palatial homes. The billionaire fugitives continued to manage the syndicate while moving from one safe house to another.

One of the few who consistently knew where to find them was Salcedo.

He also knew who was on the cartel's growing list of security risks marked for assassination. In the summer of 1995, some of those hits were Salcedo's responsibility to carry out -- including cartel chief accountant Guillermo Pallomari, a Chilean.

Faced with orders to kill a colleague and friend, Salcedo grew desperate. He tried again to signal U.S. authorities. This time he contacted a Miami lawyer he trusted who could make the connections. Still, Salcedo used great care -- calling from a public phone and leaving only a vague message offering "to be helpful."

Within days, Salcedo and Agent Kacerosky were on the phone together. Though wary of cartel and Colombian government wiretaps, Kacerosky landed one of the most remarkable confidential informants in all of international crime.

But that was the easy part.

WITHIN a week of his first conversation with a U.S. agent, Salcedo faced his first life-threatening decision. He knew where Miguel would be in the morning. He had been summoned to the hide-out to give an impatient Miguel a detailed report.

"He wanted to know what I was doing" to complete the assassination of Pallomari. Instead of preparing his report, Salcedo called in federal police.

The raiding party that hit Miguel's door about dawn the next morning included two DEA agents and an elite search team under Gen. Jose Serrano, chief of the Colombian national police.

Inside the apartment they found ... no one.

Many safe houses were known to conceal vaults built into the walls for magician-like escapes. The Bogota 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. Still no sign of Miguel, the agents told him. He sensed doubts about his information.

Salcedo insisted that the drug lord was there. He also directed the raiding party to a desk in one of the rooms. It had a thick top, he said, that 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 sensational evidence was rushed back to Bogota.

About that time, however, cartel-friendly police arrived at the search site. They noted the physical damage -- broken desk and holes in the walls -- and found that the search team lacked a proper warrant. Furthermore, the American 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.

Salcedo soon learned of "the horrible situation."

On a cartel radiophone he 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, an angry, wounded bear, apparently injured by one of the power drills.

Listening in on the phone conversation as Miguel reported to his son the details of his ordeal, 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 had been hiding.

The American DEA agents insisted on taking him into protective custody immediately. But Salcedo refused, knowing that more time was needed to evacuate his extended 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 seemed to deflect suspicion. It bought time. Salcedo used it to help steer accountant Pallomari toward the DEA. He also helped agents raid a cartel bomb-making site and a weapons storage warehouse with hundreds of machine guns.

"The risk was so incredible," Agent Kacerosky said in testimony. "I had to advise him to be [more] careful."

Salcedo and his U.S. handlers arranged to meet in a rural area outside Cali.

"If I was seen talking to an American, I would be killed," he said. "So we always arranged our meetings in the woods. This time it was near a sugar cane plantation."

It was nearly dark. Salcedo in his silver Mazda sedan was joined on an isolated dirt road by two U.S. agents crammed into a small, rented car.

"It should have been the perfect lonely place," Salcedo said. But suddenly police surrounded them. By unnerving coincidence, they were looking for the killer of a taxi driver.

The police demanded identity papers and prepared to search their cars. Salcedo knew that if the DEA agents were identified, their case would be blown and his life would be in even more jeopardy.

He took the police aside and pulled out 500 pesos.

"What are you doing in the middle of a cane field?" one officer inquired. Salcedo said he responded:

"Don't ask -- just take this and go."

When they pressed for information, Salcedo told them: "We are homosexuals. They are foreigners and will be very embarrassed by any questions."

The policemen took the 500 pesos and drove off.

FROM mid-July into August 1995, Salcedo continued to play 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, at every opportunity sharing car rides and meeting with them alone to let his vulnerability erode suspicions.

The family became most concerned about accountant Pallomari. In the wrong hands, his extensive records of bribes and business dealings posed a greater threat to operations than the inconvenience of the brothers spending a few years of lavish confinement in a Colombian jail. Salcedo feigned progress toward setting up an assassination.

A police raid was scheduled one night to arrest Pallomari at a hiding place. An incident also was arranged so he would inexplicably die in custody.

That night, Salcedo arrived just ahead of the police. He told Pallomari he was about to be arrested and would die in jail. Though Pallomari did not trust Cali's chief of security, the fearful accountant went along to another hide-out.

"How did you know where to find me?" Pallomari asked the next day.

"I said, 'Guillermo, I've been taking care of you a lot.' "

But Salcedo's ability to protect Pallomari and himself was nearly exhausted. Then he got another opportunity and called his DEA contacts in Bogota.

AT dawn on a Sunday in August, four weeks after the failed raid that left Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela wounded, another police strike team arrived outside an apartment building in Cali.

Accompanied by two U.S. agents, the 15-man team of Colombian national police poured silently into the building.

Miguel heard them too late. He was arrested without incident in his underwear, scurrying for a vault in the wall.

Almost immediately, people began to disappear -- Salcedo and his family, Pallomari -- but this time it was into the custody and protection of U.S. authorities.

In the days that followed, the entire Cali cartel infrastructure was exposed. Within a few months, about 130 people were indicted. It was, Agent Kacerosky later would observe tersely, "historical."

Salcedo pleaded guilty in Miami to a single count of racketeering and, at an unusual sentencing hearing, was universally praised by agents and prosecutors who recommended unprecedented 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 from the cartels, the brothers remained in Bogota's La Picota prison, beyond the reach of U.S. authorities.

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

They did just that. Since then, the entire Cali cartel hierarchy has been extradited, thanks to Salcedo. 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.

"He has done an inestimable service to the U.S. and Colombia," said his lawyer, Robert F. Dunlap of Miami.

Ryan, the federal prosecutor, in a recent interview called Salcedo one of the country's "least-known heroes," one of the people most responsible "for bringing down the most powerful criminals in the world."

Ryan still marvels at Salcedo's contribution, saying he and federal agents thought at the time that the effort had no more than "a 1% chance to succeed."

He recalled: "You can't imagine just how alone this guy was -- talking on phones that he knew were bugged ... knowing so well how easily he could be compromised. He must have brass balls this big."

Miguel Orejuela was extradited to Florida in 2005, a year after Gilberto. Today, the brothers are serving what probably will be life terms in U.S. federal prison.

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

william.rempel@latimes.com

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About this story

Jorge Salcedo's contacts with The Times began with a handshake in Miami during a brief court appearance in October 1998. In the years since, he has made sporadic telephone calls to a Times reporter from undisclosed locations.

In telephone interviews ranging from a few minutes to more than an hour, he shared details of his role in the cartel and occasional frustrations with life in U.S. exile. Years passed between some of his calls.

The Times has no information about his whereabouts and no way to reach him. All contacts were by phone and were initiated by Salcedo.

This account is based on those interviews, corroborated by court records, sworn testimony and additional interviews with federal agents involved in the case.

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