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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

"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.

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