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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

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.

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