Drug war: One cartel falls, another rises

William C. Rempel is the author of "At the Devil's Table: The Untold Story of the Insider Who Brought Down the Cali Cartel."

Forty years after President Nixon declared war on drugs, the soaring body count from narco-violence in Mexico seems to mock the very notion of progress in that effort. But what is most discouraging about the rampant brutality across our border is that it’s largely a consequence of one of the drug war’s greatest triumphs.

Colombia’s Cali cocaine cartel, once the richest and most powerful crime syndicate in the world, fell as a direct result of U.S.-led law enforcement and diplomatic pressure about a decade ago. Its toppling remains one of the most significant blows inflicted on modern organized crime.

But the giant cartel’s collapse left a power vacuum, and Mexican drug gangs are still fighting, with often grisly methods, to determine who will fill it.

The Cali cartel could be as ruthless as any other, but it preferred bribery to violence in the normal course of business. The vertically integrated corporate-style enterprise was run by four billionaires who reigned over a global monopoly that controlled every aspect of the drug trade, from jungle coca production to New York street sales.


In its prime, the cartel was a $7-billion-a-year criminal masterpiece that had bought off an entire country. Colombia was the original “narco-democracy” and a haven for narco-gangsters.

During the 1990s, Cali cartel lawyers rewrote portions of the national constitution outlawing extradition. Drug bosses picked who ran the Cali telephone utility and secretly donated $6 million to elect presidential underdog Ernesto Samper.

Millions of cartel dollars were spent building community police stations. The bosses financed a hospital and a law library. They owned and operated Cali’s professional soccer team. In a nod to civic sensibilities, they refrained from carrying out most contract killings within the city limits. Over time, they came to be known as “the gentlemen of Cali.”

But the gentlemen were deadly serious about removing impediments to their business. The cartel had its own intelligence force and the capacity to tap any telephone in Cali. Its paid sources included street cops, senators and members of the elite anti-narcotics task force. American drug enforcement agents complained that the cartel seemed always to be a step ahead of them. They called its intelligence wing “the Cali KGB.”


Besides a staff of local lawyers, the bosses hired top U.S. defense lawyers, including several former federal prosecutors in Florida and a onetime Justice Department official from Washington, who was later convicted of racketeering.

The cartel accounting department tracked and processed massive volumes of cash. Paper currency from sales around the world was shipped by the ton, often aboard disposable aircraft. Old jetliners, typically stripped-down Boeing 727s, were bought for a few hundred thousand dollars and abandoned on airfields from Bogota to the Amazon jungle after discharging multimillion-dollar loads of $10’s, $20’s and $100 bills.

A revolving door of former legislators, governors and mayors formed the cartel’s lobbying division. They were paid to arrange meetings for the bosses with politicians and to spread the word that the gentlemen of Cali would be generous to friends. Elected officials were constantly wooed with cash, cars, women and luxury vacations.

And the cartel had its own war department. The bosses once paid more than $1 million to hire a team of British mercenaries to hunt down rival drug lord Pablo Escobar, outfitting the commandos with better arms than those of most Colombian military units. They also employed about 150 bodyguards to protect the godfathers and their families.


Armed employees included a small team of sicarios, or assassins, paid to enforce cartel discipline and eliminate security risks. Whenever possible their victims were to “disappear.” Unlike beheaded Mexican corpses, often left on prominent display, victims of the Cali cartel typically went into the Cauca River, never to be seen again.

What made the Cali cartel most dangerous, and the greatest menace to U.S. interests, was the way it bought off the Colombian government.

Imagine a country in which its president sends an emissary to apologize to drug lords when American diplomatic pressure forces him to crack down on traffickers. Or where police hotlines for anonymous crime tips are monitored 24/7 by the traffickers themselves. That was Colombia in the 1990s.

So far, there is no evidence that Mexican drug gangs are financing presidential elections. Traffickers are not picking who runs the national telephone company. And gangland lawyers aren’t drafting legislation to block extradition of their bosses. Mexico is not the sanctuary that Colombia once was.


But Mexico remains in jeopardy. So does much of Latin America. Unless cocaine demand and its enormous trafficking profits fall, drug war successes are likely to generate similar patterns: simply forcing major narco-operations from one country to another.

And after Mexico, who’s next?