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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

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.

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