The Cali Cartel or The Cali KGB


During the 1980s until the 1990s the international cocaine trade was dominated by the Medellin Cartel found in the city with the same name in Columbia. The drug lords of this Colombian Cartel, Jose Rodriguez-Gacha, the Ochoa Family, and the infamous Pablo Escobar, were depicted as being the “Kings of Cocaine”. After the deaths of Rodriguez-Gacha in 1989 and Escobar in 1993, the cartel fragmented itself and lost their grasp on the international cocaine market. And so, someone else had to become the “Kings of cocaine,” and the brothers Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez-Orejuela made their move. Their story actually started by founding the “Los Chemas,”a small criminal group in the city of Cali Columbia, in the early 1970’s. The ones who founded it were Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela, the older brother, and Jose Santacruz-Londono. They began their business by kidnapping and counterfeiting, and in the 80’s they saw a bigger opportunity in business by helping Escobar. Here is where their success slowly started to flourish. Together with the younger brother Miguel the trio was living a good social life and while sensing that Escobar was going to exit the market very soon, they decided that it would be for the best to work together.

They continued the extortion and kidnapping, and on one occasion they abducted a Swiss diplomat and a Swiss student demanding 700.000$ in ransom. They got the money, which many thought that the sum become the funding for the Cali Cartel we know today. Soon they moved on to smuggling marijuana, but it proved to not be lucrative and worth the costs. Then what? Cocaine was the answer. They bought the base from Bolivia and Peru, and brought it to their country were they would convert it into cocaine hydrochloride. And just like that they entered business and they were making a good profit. They were able to hire Helmer Herrerra, or “Pacho” another important name in the history of the Cali Cartel, to establish a distribution center in New York. Needless to say, he was the perfect sadist needed for the job, and he became extremely successful. The reason for his success was unfortunately the DEA which did not pay close attention to cocaine trafficking at the time because of heroin trafficking, which was flourishing in the US. This together with Herrerra’s connections growing, and the acts of violence done by the Cartel back in Columbia, brought the Cali Cartel infamy. Such acts of violence include the war started by them on their rivals including Escobar’s Medellin Cartel. What they did to win over those in authority was through bribes and not assassinate them, moving away from Escobar’s policy of “Bribe or Bullet”, and at the same time they took good care of their social life. With this simple plan they became even more dangerous than Escobar himself, and slowly thanks to their leadership the Rodriguez-Orejuela Brothers and Santacruz-Londono were running not only running a Cartel, but also the operations of their respective international drug trafficking organizations.

Their business and organizations were based in many different countries around the world. Some of those organizations were based in countries such as: Columbia, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Bahamas, Spain, British Virgin Islands, Mexico, and the United States to name a few. The companies and organizations from those countries were used for Laboratories, Supplying and Distribution, Financial Services and Money Laundering affairs. The network created by the Rodriguez-Orejuela brothers was so complex that some of those companies were still being discovered and investigated in 2003, 8 years after the brothers were captured and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Another very interesting part of their operations is represented by the methods they used for smuggling the cocaine in different countries. For example, cocaine was placed in the false bottoms and walls of containers, mixed with in with perishable cargo(such as sea food, frozen vegetables, and cut flowers), and hidden inside commercial products(including concrete fence posts and ceramic tiles). In general, the methods used to conceal the cocaine were limited only by the ingenuity, and of course, the resources of the traffickers. Some member groups of the Cali Cartel have tried to use submarine-like “semi-submersible” vessels to smuggle quantities of hundred-kilograms of cocaine from Colombia’s North Coast to Puerto Rico. Other groups used private aircrafts to airdrop bales of cocaine into the waters of the Caribbean Islands, Puerto Rico, and other neighboring territories, for retrieval by boats which then transported the bales into the US.

Where did the name of “The Cali KGB” come from? They received this name after the DEA uncovered their methods of spying on interested objectives, including telephone conversations and the arrivals or exits within the city of Cali. The Cali Cartel actually cooperated with the DEA in the capture and weakening of Escobar’s capabilities, and simultaneously they were trying to target Escobar. After his death, the DEA changed their attention onto the Cali Cartel. They soon found out that the Cartel had counter-intelligence capabilities to protect personnel and assets, and those only continued to grow until Jorge Salcedo, a senior cartel official, who was the head of security and intelligence for the syndicate, became an informant of the DEA. With this, their counter-intelligence capabilities proved to not be good methods against the vulnerabilities from within.

The Cali cartel was structured into five divisions, each of which is responsible for money, drug trafficking, legal issues, political issues, and military issues. The military division was in charge of gathering intelligence, which was later used to block Escobar or the DEA from seizing the DTO in Cali. Unlike the Medellin Cartel, the Cali Cartel was focusing more on maintaining a low-profile and whitewashing the drug trade, bribery, extortion and gaining near-total control over Cali companies and entities through informants. Yes, this explains the KGB branch within the Cartel, but it also leaves room for many risks as cooperation became more and more complex. So the Cali Cartel’s intelligence can be described as being high quality, but in comparison their executive structure was lacking attention. The 4 leaders we talked about at the begging of this article divided the activities within the cartel, but they did not have no capability to centralize their analysis and apply intelligence towards trafficking, security, or political matters. The picture below shows the International Network of the Cali Cartel as of October 2003.

Depending on the timeline the collection methods and intelligence obtained were directed towards strengthening the Cartel’s defense against different external threats. So yes, while their techniques of obtaining the information they needed were somewhat brilliant, to say that they were at the level of the Soviet KGB would be misleading. An example of such techniques would be when the Cali KGB used its intelligence powers to track down Escobar. A Cessna 270M was equipped with four antennae and radio-intercept gear to follow the Medellin leader’s telephone during an attempt to attack him using British paramilitaries and Cartel-produced information. Following this in order to prevent an Escobar-funded attack, telephone firms owned by the Cali Cartel created different levels within workplaces for conversation surveillance. All Colombian police agencies, as well as airport security and taxi drivers in Santiago de Cali, established networks of informants from various sectors. Most likely, the takedown of the Cartel was caused by the organizer of the Cali KGB, which indicates the failure to detect internal threats.

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