The Cartel War Years
Six and a Half Years Earlier
Jorge Salcedo stowed his carry-on bag in an overhead compartment and dropped into a window seat of the aging Boeing 727. It was an early morning flight out of Bogotá to Cali, Colombia, and he was a reluctant traveler. Besides the inconvenient hour, the forty-one-year-old businessman really could not afford to take time away from his latest venture, a small refinery he was developing to reprocess used motor oil. The project was behind schedule, and here he was flying off on a mystery trip. He had no idea why he was going to Cali. In fact, until arriving at Bogotá's El Dorado International Airport an hour earlier, he didn't even know his destination.
"Jorge, you need to come with me. Some people want to meet you," his friend Mario had said on the phone. He was emphatic. He told Jorge to pack an overnight bag-then hung up. Now they were on the plane together.
"What's the deal, Mario?" Jorge couldn't hide a tone of impatience as he turned to his friend settling into the aisle seat. "What are we doing here?"
Like Jorge, Mario was in his early forties-fit, trim, and exuding confidence. Even in casual civilian clothes, he looked military, like someone out of Central Casting. But the recently retired major Mario del Basto was the real thing, a highly decorated soldier.
"After takeoff," he assured Jorge, "we'll talk." He gave a nod toward strangers still standing in the aisle.
Jorge had always trusted Mario. The two had been good friends since soon after Jorge joined the Colombian army reserves in 1984. Mario, an officer in the regular army, became commanding officer of Jorge's Cali- based reserve unit. The major relied on Jorge as an intelligence officer with valuable skills in weaponry, electronic surveillance, radio technologies, and photography.
The army reserve was an unpaid, volunteer position, but it gave Jorge the taste of a military career like that of his father, General Jorge Salcedo. The senior Salcedo had been a contender for chief of Colombia's armed forces, and he remained a prominent public figure nearly twenty-five years after his retirement in the mid-1960s.
Jorge saw reflections of his father in Major del Basto. Both were career army officers. Both wore uniforms with chests full of medals for valor. Both had extensive experience fighting antigovernment guerrillas.
Growing up the son of a general provided Jorge with many advantages, from financial security and social respect to opportunities for travel- including an extended stay in the United States while his father was on assignment in Kansas. It also influenced his views on groups like FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), against whom his father waged war. At home and in the reserves, Jorge saw the guerrillas as irredeemable terrorists, and he came to share frustrations widely held in the military that government-sanctioned peace talks simply allowed guerrillas to regroup and resupply.
"We're trying to talk them to death," Mario complained to Jorge.
Even for a military hero like Major del Basto, such criticism of the civilian leadership was dangerous. He shared his opinions only with close friends until his rage could be contained no longer. At the close of 1988, del Basto rejected a promotion to colonel and quit the army. He blasted President Virgilio Barco for coddling FARC. Then he disappeared. Jorge hadn't heard from Mario for days-not until the mysterious phone call that led him aboard this Avianca airlines flight.
"We're going to see some Cali guys," Mario began moments after they were airborne. He was leaning across the empty middle seat between them. Engine noise protected their privacy.
"Do I know them?"
"It's possible. They're important local businessmen."
Jorge had lived in Cali as a boy, when his father was the army brigade commander there. Again in the early 1980s, he resided there while working as a partner and engineer at a battery-manufacturing plant just outside Colombia's third-largest city.
"What I can tell you," Mario went on, "is that these people have a serious problem with Pablo Escobar. He's bombing their businesses, threatening their families-it's a terrible situation."
Jorge's expression abruptly hardened to a glare. "Don't tell me-we're going to see the Cali cartel guys?"
By January 1989, everyone in Colombia knew about the raging feud between Escobar's Medellín cartel and his rivals in Cali. For nearly a year, headlines carried gruesome accounts of bombings, dismemberments, and shootings. The number of innocent-bystander deaths mounted. Like most of his friends and cohorts, Jorge feared and loathed Pablo Escobar. The drug boss had declared war on the Colombian government in a campaign to overturn Bogotá's extradition treaty with Washington. His paid assassins targeted national officials, local police, criminal investigators, and judges. A Medellín hit team struck especially close to home when it gunned down one of Jorge's boyhood friends, a popular minister of justice named Rodrigo Lara Bonilla.
Jorge didn't know much about Escobar's rivals in Cali, except by reputation. They were regarded as less violent-at least they did not kill public figures. In fact, the southern bosses were widely known as "the Gentlemen of Cali." Nonetheless, Jorge never considered taking sides. The war between the cartels was none of his business.
"You should have told me," Jorge said. "Maybe I don't want to meet them."
Mario shrugged. "But they want to meet you."
Jorge shook his head in wonder. A big organized crime outfit wanted to see him. Why? Mario looked around to see that no one was listening and continued.
Soon after leaving the army, Mario said, he had been called to Cali and offered a position managing security for the Rodríguez Orejuela family. Jorge recognized the name. They were owners of a national chain of discount pharmacies and a professional soccer team, among many other legitimate interests. But it was common knowledge that they were also big-time traffickers. Like Escobar, they denied any drug ties. Unlike Escobar, they kept a low profile.
"These guys are afraid for their lives and for their families," Mario said. "Pablo is trying to kill them-men, women, children, everyone." He said it was especially unfair to the Rodríguez Orejuela clan because "they are not violent people." Mario described his new job as keeping innocent women and children safe from Escobar's hired killers.
"And they think you can help, too."
"So, it's not the cartel drug business," Jorge said with obvious relief.
"No, of course not." Mario dropped his voice so that even Jorge could barely hear him: "But don't talk about cartels. They hate the word. There is no Cali cartel, you understand? They're businessmen."
"I see. All right, but-why me?"
Jorge considered himself a businessman who recycled motor oil and an engineer who designed manufacturing systems or tinkered with cameras and radios. In the army reserves he specialized in surveillance and intelligence, a relatively new area of personal interest. Still, he saw no obvious reasons for a summons to Cali.
He asked again: "Why?"
Mario smiled, sat back, and said nothing.
Jorge wasn't looking for a job that morning in January. He already had business deals brewing on several fronts-including potentially lucrative negotiations with the Colombian military. Jorge had recently begun representing some European companies interested in landing defense contracts in Colombia and other Latin American countries, clients he picked up during the previous year while attending an international exhibition of military suppliers in London. He returned with samples of night-vision gear, encrypted radios, and surveillance devices he hoped to sell to army procurement officials in Bogotá.
But what most intrigued one of the Bogotá generals was the business card of David Tomkins, a colorful arms dealer based near London. Tomkins and a group of retired British special forces soldiers offered to instruct the Colombian army in guerrilla-fighting techniques. Jorge relayed their proposal.
"These trainers, they are also mercenaries?" asked the general. He had once served as an aide to Jorge's father. He knew he could trust the old general's son. "Would your contacts consider a clandestine mission against the FARC?"
Within a few days, Jorge was flying back to England. There, he presented Tomkins with a proposed assignment: attack and destroy FARC's showcase mountain headquarters known as Casa Verde. The Colombian military would secretly support the raid-providing arms, explosives, and transportation-but it had to be done in such a way that the army could deny involvement.
The British mercenaries had flexible ideologies that could accommodate a wide array of customers, but they tended to be staunchly anticommunist. To clinch the deal, Jorge pointed out FARC's long- standing support from Fidel Castro. The Brits eagerly signed on. Their field leader was a Scotsman named Peter McAleese, a tough former Special Air Service (SAS) sergeant and paratrooper who once survived a jump with a failed parachute.
FARC had many enemies. Guerrilla bands had attacked remote villages, seized farmers, miners, and ranchers for ransom, and even dared to kidnap drug traffickers. When the British commandos arrived in Colombia, they were welcomed by an unlikely alliance of rich cattlemen, miners, and leaders of the Medellín cocaine cartel. Primary funding for the mission came from José Rodríguez-Gacha, a major landowner and a trafficking partner of Pablo Escobar's. With dissident military officials providing arms and munitions, the Brits were backed by a Faustian ensemble-what Colombians called la mesa del Diablo . . . "the Devil's table." And Jorge served as maître d'.
Through the summer of 1988, Jorge-code-named Richard-was the secret liaison between the commandos and their Colombian supporters. If the mission were exposed, the army would disavow any knowledge. Jorge was responsible for keeping the Brits fed, housed, supplied, and out of public view. One of the few with whom he shared details of the operation was Mario del Basto. Jorge took him to jungle training sites and introduced the major to Tomkins and McAleese.
Preparations for the attack dragged on for months. The Brits were ready, but the dissident military officers hesitated. They were fearful of a political backlash and ultimately unwilling to risk their military careers. In the end, the same cabal of military officials who had launched the secret plan called it off.
Nonetheless, the commandos left happy and well paid, thanks to the wealthy Medellín ranchers and traffickers who reimbursed the Brits for training ragtag elements of their private armies. One drug boss had even sent his son for jungle combat training. In November 1988, Tomkins and McAleese were the last to fly home. In a farewell meeting with Jorge, they embraced and said they were eager for future assignments. "Until next time," McAleese said.
Jorge immediately returned to his neglected business interests, but now-eight weeks later-he was flying to Cali and wondering why.
A car from the InterContinental hotel was waiting for them at Cali's Alfonso Bonilla Aragón International Airport. Luxury hotel suites were also waiting, stocked with fresh fruits and flowers-compliments of the Rodríguez Orejuela family. A message said that their afternoon appointment with "the gentlemen" was delayed. A car would pick them up around ten o'clock that night.
The timing was not coincidental. In light nighttime traffic, anyone trying to follow the car would be more easily detected. Jorge knew Cali well and realized immediately that they were doubling back, circling, and watching to be sure that no one was tailing them. Jorge felt his first twinge of anxiety. Since childhood, he had been prone to mild attacks of claustrophobia. In the backseat of the Cali cartel car, his throat tightened. He took a deep breath and wiped a sweaty palm on his slacks. He didn't want Mario to notice. But he also couldn't help feeling that his friend had put him in a difficult spot.
The winding drive finally ended at a high-walled compound. Their car entered through a large gate that shut behind them. Jorge glanced around as he stepped out. He saw security lapses everywhere. Dozens of bodyguards milled about, bristling with firearms, but they seemed most intent on swatting mosquitoes. No one inspected the car. Curiously to Jorge, all sentries were inside the walls. He saw no one posted outside.
Even in the dark, Jorge could see that the auto court was full of cars- mostly Mazda sedans and midsized SUVs-parked at haphazard angles. A handful of smaller cars effectively blocked all the others. In an emergency, all but a few would be trapped.
A cartel security man greeted them just outside the door to the main house. José Estrada was about forty, a retired army sergeant. He escorted Jorge and Mario through a seemingly empty house. The floors were polished white marble. The white walls and ceilings were freshly painted. The furniture was luxurious white leather. Jorge saw no books, no toys, no children, none of the clutter of family life. It looked like a showcase for interior designers or a furniture showroom. The style gave Jorge his first clue to the manners and tastes of the drug lords: practical, efficient, and businesslike.
The visitors were ushered into a spacious office where four men were waiting. So, these were the Cali cartel godfathers, Jorge thought-men who could play God with human lives, dictate government policies, and influence the national economy. They were not particularly imposing physically. At nearly six feet two, Jorge was taller than anyone in the room. As Mario made the introductions, Jorge greeted each boss with a smile and a handshake. They seemed pleased to meet him-and completely harmless, almost benign.
Pacho Herrera, thirty-seven, was the youngest of the four. This was one of his houses-his white palette, his sterile rooms. He looked as if he had just stepped off the pages of a gentleman's fashion magazine. Pacho was the only unmarried godfather. He was homosexual. Jorge thought that Pacho had the empathetic, easygoing manner of a young priest. What he didn't know was that the gay gangster ran the most brutal wing of enforcers in the cartel.
Chepe Santacruz, forty-five, was in denim and cotton and looked the part of a farmer or rancher who had just come in from the stables. He seemed jovial and self-deprecating, even a bit mischievous. But he sometimes took his penchant for teasing too far. His rough edges showed in the coarseness of his conversation. Chepe was proudly unsophisticated. He also was a street fighter. And in brawls, as in practical jokes, overkill was his trademark.
Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela, almost fifty, was the talker, an often charming raconteur who had the look of a well-fed professor. He immediately put Jorge at ease and seemed to be the official host, the presiding officer of the meeting. Throughout the evening, Jorge recognized Gilberto's unspoken authority as others in the room deferred to him.
Gilberto's younger brother Miguel, forty-five, was a stern-faced man who seemed endlessly weary. He said little, but missed nothing. In deference to his place in the cartel, he was known as Don Miguel or simply El Señor. Chepe liked to call him Limón, or "Lemon," for his pinched expression and sour disposition. No one else dared use the nickname to the don's face. Miguel ran daily operations of the cartel, making him the boss of bosses. But he and Gilberto were close partners, and all important cartel matters came before the four-member brain trust that greeted Jorge and Mario.
The two visitors took seats in white leather chairs. A white-uniformed maid offered cold fruit juices. The Gentlemen of Cali moved right into the night's agenda. First, they wanted help with personal security.
Pablo is "a bandit . . . a criminal . . . a crazy guy," Chepe declared. He told Jorge that Escobar was threatening to kill everyone with ties to the Cali bosses-wives, children, friends. "No one is safe," Chepe said.
"Yes, I understand," responded Jorge, thinking of his former classmate, the assassinated justice minister. "Escobar killed my friend Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, a very good man."
Jorge felt a surge of emotion. He had rarely talked about his friend's murder, but here in the company of Escobar's enemies he had rediscovered his deep-seated anger. He felt no need to suppress it. It was clear they all shared a powerful sentiment-hatred.
Gilberto seemed both surprised and delighted to hear of Jorge's personal loss at Escobar's hand. "It was a terrible tragedy," he sympathized. "It was also stupid. Sometimes, Pablo ignores his own best interests. He goes to war and expects to win friends. He's a fool. A dangerous fool."
Talk turned to the current state of cartel defenses. Estrada, the man they met at the door, had his hands full protecting the bosses. The other security chief was a retired Colombian army officer referred to in impatient tones as "Major Gómez." Clearly, his performance was not measuring up. His intelligence network was woeful. He wasn't aggressive. The no-confidence vote was unanimous, and his absence that night was telling. Jorge still wasn't sure exactly what the Cali drug lords wanted until-
"We want Pablo Escobar dead," said Miguel.
"And we want you and your British commandos to kill him," added Gilberto.
Jorge looked around the room. Everyone was waiting for his response. Mario had obviously told them about his secret contacts with the Brits. Now Jorge understood the summons to Cali. It didn't bother him that the secret had been shared. He felt more flattered than alarmed.
Until that moment, Jorge had never given any thought to avenging the murder of his friend. Law enforcement was a job for police and the courts. Unfortunately, officials who tried to bring formal charges against Escobar all ended up dead. The case remained officially unsolved. If Gilberto's invitation caught Jorge by surprise, it also intrigued him. Maybe justice could be done after all.
Jorge could almost hear the theme from his favorite movie, The Magnificent Seven. The notion of riding into town with a crew of foreign gunfighters to rout the great villain Escobar stirred fantasies of patriotic heroics. It also appealed to the same passions that had prompted his enlistment in the army reserves-a yearning for action and adventure . . . all in the service of God and country. He wanted to hear more about the godfathers' plan.
They had already selected the target-Hacienda Nápoles, Escobar's seventy-four-hundred-acre tropical estate along the Magdalena River. It was a fantasyland with man-made lakes for water sports, huge swimming pools, its own airport, and a zoo with elephants, lions, zebras, and rapidly procreating hippopotamuses. It was also Escobar's first choice for serious wining, dining, and partying. Gilberto, who had been a guest there, said that when Pablo was at Nápoles, it could be assumed he would be drunk every day.
Jorge asked about transport. He would need helicopters. "You will have them," Gilberto said. Jorge asked about pilots. "We have pilots who know the area," Gilberto said. Jorge raised the importance of good intelligence and top-quality communications gear-radios reliable even in remote, rugged terrain. "Whatever is necessary will be done-and you can count on the eternal gratitude of everyone in this room."
It was obvious that cost was not a consideration. Jorge was struck by the contrast: the Colombian army sometimes had no fuel for its helicopters, but the Cali cartel could fund an armed invasion. And he was struck by another contrast: with all their money, the four billionaires in the room were terrified of Pablo Escobar.
It was a heady moment for Jorge. He felt important-handpicked for a big job, a great adventure . . . and a public service. He also welcomed a chance to be reunited with his British commando friends. As for prospects that four of the nation's richest men might be indebted to him-that was priceless. Yet he hesitated.
Another extended delay could jeopardize his nascent motor oil recovery business. He was hoping to start construction on a small refinery early in the new year. And what about Lena Duque? She was Jorge's love, his companion, and his fiancée. The Escobar mission could delay their wedding.
The godfathers assured him that preparing the assault would take no more than a few months. After Escobar was dead, Jorge could return to Bogotá "with more money than you will ever need," as Gilberto put it.
The meeting ran well past midnight. Jorge knew he would have to declare his intentions. He would be working for major crime figures- returning to the Devil's table. But he reasoned that it would be brief and he would have nothing to do with the drug trade. He considered that he might lose his refinery business-but the trade-off could be new and powerful friends and even better business opportunities in the future. Then Jorge considered his family. Maybe working so closely with cartel godfathers wasn't worth the risk to his reputation. That's when Jorge thought about declining.
At various times that evening, the bosses shared stories about their families, their wives and ex-wives and multiple households, and their fears for everyone's safety. The personal information wasn't so detailed that Jorge could, say, track down Miguel's third wife, but it was provided in an atmosphere of trust that would make it uncomfortable for Jorge to back away now.
For a moment he fantasized about making his apologies, about saying, Thanks, but no thanks. What then? Would he be seen as a security risk? He had, after all, worked closely with Escobar's partners, financiers of the Brits' Casa Verde plot. No doubt the Cali godfathers knew about that part of the mercenary project, too. If he said no, would they take it as personal rejection . . . or worse, as a sign of loyalty to the Medellín bosses? Would Jorge end up in the trunk of one of those parked cars? He stifled a shudder.
Jorge realized that he was afraid to say no. And thank God for that. Because, deep down, Jorge also knew that he really didn't want to refuse. He felt relief when he announced, "Yes, I'll do it."
Excerpted from At the Devil's Table by William C. Rempel. Copyright © 2011 by William C. Rempel. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.