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COLUMN ONE

The man who took down Cali

A member of the drug cartel's inner sanctum risked his life to lead U.S. agents to the kingpins. Today he's in hiding, a marked man.

February 24, 2007|William C. Rempel | Times Staff Writer

Miami — 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.

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