Fame in Witness Protection? It’s Complicated


A rare photo of Jorge Salcedo

From a rare published photo of secret witness Jorge Salcedo
circa 1984


For Jorge Salcedo, who made vengeful enemies of the most notorious crime bosses in the drug world, hiding has been a way of life for nearly two decades.

He was chief of security for Colombia’s Cali cocaine syndicate when he fled cartel assassins and corrupt police hit men for safety and a new life in the U.S. witness protection program. It was September 1995. Yet, after all these years, he still remains in danger.

That’s why, despite the fact that my book about his life has been a bestseller in his native Colombia,  Salcedo can not go home again. He still can’t appear openly in public or the media anywhere. It seems the drastic precautions that have kept him and his family safe — somewhere in the U.S. — may never be relaxed, not even as the book continues to make Salcedo something of a celebrity back home in Bogota.

Salcedo in disguise during a TV appearance

Salcedo in disguise during a TV appearance

And what is already a decidedly awkward sort of fame figures only to grow in the months ahead.

Next year, Salcedo’s incredible story is coming to Colombian television as a high-profile, 80-episode telenovela. It will be based on accounts of his cartel years as told in my book – At the Devil’s Table: The Untold Story of the Insider Who Brought Down the Cali Cartel.

The book was released in Spanish under the title: En la Boca del Lobo (In the Mouth of the Wolf). That is also the tentative title for television.

The dramatic series is backed by Sony-Teleset. Filming began earlier this week in Cali and Bogota.  No air date has been set, but the  program is expected to debut by the summer of 2014. It will be broadcast over the Colombian television network RCN.

Salcedo has rarely stepped forward publicly since arriving in the United States eighteen years ago. Even as the author of a book about his life, I don’t know his new name or where he lives. After At the Devil’s Table was released in the U.S. and U.K. in 2011, Salcedo agreed to an occasional radio interview, but only under tight security restrictions that he controlled.

His lone TV taping was in disguise on a news segment broadcast by Univision. He has made no other public appearances, except as a witness in U.S. federal courts.

Actor Luis Fernando Hoyos will play Jorge Salcedo

Actor Luis Fernando Hoyos will play Salcedo

Colombians curious about Salcedo will finally get the chance to see at least an actor’s version of the mystery man when the series appears sometime next summer.

Although the names will be changed to avoid legal complications in Colombia, the role of a character based on Salcedo will be played by an accomplished Latin American actor, Luis Fernando Hoyos.

Among other casting choices, the role of a Cali cartel financial adviser will be filled by  Cristobal Erruzuriz. The top cartel accountant in the book was the real-life Guillermo Pallomari who, like Salcedo, is tucked away somewhere in the U.S. witness protection program.

Meanwhile, Salcedo’s story also makes its debut in Brazil with publication this month of a Portuguese edition titled: A Mesa com O Diabo. Besides versions already in print in English, Spanish, and Dutch, a new Polish-language edition is planned for late 2014.

Coming soon to bookstores in Brazil

Portuguese version comes to Brazil

As for Jorge Salcedo, whose story is finding ever-widening audiences, hiding as a way of life keeps getting more and more complicated.

Posted in Cali cartel, Colombia, drug cartels, Drug War, Latin America, U.S. Witness Protection | 5 Comments

The Marcos Years: Sex, Spies, Lies and Delusions

Previously published in The Rappler

It was nearly 25 years ago that I got my first look at the diary of Ferdinand Marcos. I was an investigative reporter with the Los Angeles Times when about 3,000 pages of diary and other presidential papers were delivered to me in installments – on street corners, at a restaurant, in the lobby of an office building – all very cloak-and-dagger.

The documents were a journalist’s gold mine. I found bribery receipts and coded accounting reports recording official corruption. There were poems and love notes to First Lady Imelda and the Marcos children interspersed among Ferdinand’s plans for repression and dictatorship.

The diary itself contained the president’s private musings about power and his messianic calling to “save the Philippines” from an exaggerated threat of communist insurgency. Here, too, was compelling evidence of Marcos plots against political rivals, the press, and anyone who dared to criticize his administration.

But what caught me most by surprise were the lies – blatant, bald-faced, and occasionally comical. It turns out that while Ferdinand Marcos was lying to the world and to the Philippine people, he was also lying to his own diary.

As a writer trying to assess the news value and historic significance of the president’s journal I had to ask myself: what can be learned from a diary riddled with falsehoods and self-serving fictions?

Time has helped clarify the answer. Today I can see that his lies actually reveal a greater truth: Marcos was a dictator at heart long before he was a dictator at gunpoint.

For the rest of the story, read The Rappler

FM DIARY 10Nov1970SMclip

Posted in Democracy, Dictatorships, Election Fraud, Elections, Human Rights, Imelda Marcos, Marcos regime, martial law, The Philippines, U.S. foreign policy, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Imelda Marcos: Why Don’t You Love Me?


Imelda Marcos, the musical, has found a home on the New York stage.  Here Lies Love, her story set to a disco beat by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, is scheduled to run at the Public Theater from April 2 to May 19. News of its opening recently sent me back to boxes of old Reporters Notebooks rummaging for memories of the dictator’s wife.

I first met Imelda in Hawaii where we briefly stood together over the glass-covered coffin of her dead husband.

She was tall and elegant in black. The body beside her was waxy and pale, but it was also surprisingly small – barely recognizable as the corrupt and bigger-than-life dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, who had ruled the Philippines for nearly 20 years. It seemed to me that they had always made an odd couple.

She was the barefoot beauty from the provinces with royalty fantasies. She would become famous for her shoe collection and profligate spending on fine art including works by Van Gogh, expensive jewelry including a 37-carat diamond, and Manhattan real estate including the Crown Building on Fifth Avenue.

He was the populist champion of Philippine democracy with a messianic complex. He would resort to bribery and vote fraud to retain power, use red-baiting and trumped-up charges to imprison his more popular political rivals, and would finally impose martial law – shutting down democracy for the last 13 years of his presidency.

During the 1970s and 80s, Ferdinand and Imelda were partners in deceit and despotism. One Philippine biographer called the couple’s reign “a conjugal dictatorship.” They were both blamed for the never-solved assassination of leading Marcos critic and world-renowned human rights advocate Benigno (Ninoy) Aquino.Marcos Royalty

But that night in the hills of Honolulu it was a time only for selective memories. “My life was a beautiful fairy tale,” Imelda sniffled into her handkerchief. She had one hand resting on the glass cover shielding Ferdinand’s remains.

“I am sorry for your loss,” I said, searching for a meaningful question that fit the unusual circumstances for this meeting of newsman and news-maker.

The moment didn’t seem right to ask about a federal fraud and racketeering indictment pending against the couple in New York…or about the $5 billion-plus they had looted from the Philippine treasury…or about so many other alleged crimes against her own people. At that moment, the investigative reporter in me was too uncomfortable to push the matter.

“This must be a difficult time for you,” I finally added. She smiled silently through tearful eyes and the “interview” was over.

A year later, a federal jury of tough-minded New Yorkers also pulled their collective punch. Despite volumes of evidence documenting massive Marcos corruption, Imelda was acquitted on all felony counts. Jurors said they would have convicted Ferdinand had he lived to face trial.

“We couldn’t hold the wife responsible for the sins of her husband,” said one of them.

Today, even the Philippine nation is having a difficult time holding Imelda responsible for those painful “fairy tale” years of Marcos rule. There is talk of dropping efforts to recover the looted billions. Imelda has been acquitted of numerous graft charges (though some remain active). She ran for president unsuccessfully but has won election twice to congress. She currently serves as the congressional representative from Ilocos Norte, Ferdinand’s home province.

Two children of the couple also hold elected office. Imee Marcos is the governor of Ilocos Norte and Ferdinand Jr (known as Bongbong) is a senator widely touted as a future presidential candidate.  If he runs, it sets up a historic plot twist suitable for Shakespeare… or a soap opera — a second generation Marcos-Aquino power struggle.

Still on opposite sides politically are Ferdinand Jr. and President Benigno Aquino III, a son and namesake of the assassinated Marcos rival. The president’s mother, Ninoy’s widow Cory Aquino, was swept into the presidency in 1986 by the popular uprising that ousted Ferdinand Sr. and Imelda. Now, Marcos loyalists can dream again of a return to the presidential palace — maybe as early as 2016 when Aquino must step down.

Could the son of Ferdinand and Imelda succeed the son of Ninoy and Cory? Clearly, no dream is too far-fetched for anyone who still regards the Marcos years with fairy tale whimsy.

The last time I encountered Imelda was during her long-running trial in a Manhattan federal court. She was usually in the company of Stetson-wearing Wyoming defense attorney Gerry Spence.

It was much easier to ask difficult questions in the halls of a courthouse than over a coffin. Nonetheless, she deflected most of my inquiries with smiles or nods to her legal team – or with non-answers.

“Why don’t you like me?” she responded more than once.

It is very nearly the same question that the stage version of Imelda asks during performances of Here Lies Love. In a scene contemplating the end of her reign as First Lady, puzzled by the public outcry over years of Marcos tyranny, the Imelda character insists — as did the real Imelda — that whatever she did was always for the good of her people.

The hauntingly delusional moment emerges on stage with the song: “Why Don’t You Love Me?” It captures the dictator’s wife just as I remember her. The real Imelda never understood the outrage of her oppressed people, either.


Posted in Dictatorships, Ferdinand Marcos, fraud and racketeering, Human Rights, Imelda Marcos, Marcos regime, The Philippines | Leave a comment

El Chapo: Drug lord’s costly hole in the ground

Chris Feistl, one of the DEA agents featured in “At the Devil’s Table,” invited me to Yuma this week to see an amazing example of drug cartel ingenuity – an industrial-grade smuggler’s tunnel on the Mexico border that would impress any engineer.

Feistl, now the assistant special agent in charge of the DEA’s Phoenix field office, also saw it as a chance to credit his fellow American drug agents with giving cartel bosses a healthy dose of…heartburn.

Imagine drug lord El Chapo Guzman on Maalox.

Guzman or his people put up an estimated $1.5 million to $2 million to finance a year-long effort to build this tunnel between an ice manufacturing plant on the Mexico side and a small warehouse in San Luis, Arizona. It was supposed to be a secret autobahn for hard stuff – cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine – moving from Mexico to the U.S.

Instead, traffickers hit a roadblock with what appears to be the tunnel’s inaugural shipment. Drug couriers in a Ford pickup truck were barely five miles from the border when they were stopped by state police for tail-gating. Officers found 39 pounds of meth hidden in the truck, a relatively modest load valued at about $700,000 wholesale.

But that discovery led DEA agents to the suspected stash site, the small warehouse near the San Luis border-crossing station. And, voila! Access to the tunnel was uncovered. DEA agents out of Yuma found a 3-foot by 3-foot hole in the cement slab floor concealed under a 2,000-gallon water tank. They peered down into a black hole that descended about five floors underground.

When I entered the warehouse it was stacked with blue and green 55-gallon oil drums. A DEA official reached into one of them and grabbed a handful of sandy soil. That’s how the tunnel rats avoided drawing attention to their excavations. They kept the dirt on site. Similarly, on the Mexico side, it was stored in large seed bags.

And quite a lot of dirt had to be stashed away. The tunnel spans 755 feet – more than twice the length of a football field. Much of the passageway measures 6-feet-6-inches high and about four feet wide. It is lined with plywood and supported by wooden planks four feet wide and six inches thick. A recent 4.0 earthquake in the area caused no damage to the traffickers’ handiwork.

The tunnel burrows under the border fence, a public park and a canal. It has lights, fans and a ventilation system worthy of an OSHA certificate. An air quality monitor lowered into the tunnel confirmed perfect atmospheric conditions.

I stepped into a safety harness, donned goggles and gloves and went down for a closer look. The workmanship was remarkable.

The vertical shaft on the U.S. side drops 57 feet down a roughly 3-foot-square opening lined with 4-inch-by-6-inch planks. The planks are cut to fit perfectly. The four corners of the shaft are braced with heavy-duty steel brackets.

Pre-drilled boards installed down one side of the shaft hold rebar handles that are solidly secured and serve as grips or steps. Photos of the vertical shaft on the Mexico side show something more akin to a ladder built into the wall. But both vertical shafts lead to the same well-lighted main passage – and that fact is a tribute to someone’s engineering skills.

“If they were digging blind, how did they find their way to a shaft under the right building?” one investigator pondered. “Obviously, someone knew what they were doing.”

There is more to this investigation than Feistl or his fellow DEA agents are willing to discuss. But one thing is sure, says Feistl: “We really ruined somebody’s day.”

And in the drug world that’s an ominous truth. Whoever was responsible for the failure of such an important project is probably in serious danger. On the ride back to Yuma from the tunnel location, one of the DEA agents nodded as we passed a Yuma mortuary.

“Watch for business to be picking up over there soon,” he said. “Unfortunately, that’s just the way it is.”

View from ground level along Mexico border, above the tunnel


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The Cali Cartel: Lessons in Crime and Civic Pride


The new generation of Colombian drug thugs seems to have abandoned a commitment to civic responsibility pioneered by their forefathers in crime – the Cali cartel.

Recent news accounts reveal that Cali today is the most violent city in Colombia with a staggering murder rate of nearly 76 per 100,000 residents. Blame it on turf fights between small and medium-sized drug gangs, the scattered remnants of the dismantled cartel, says the website Colombia Reports.

How times have changed.

The four godfathers of the old Cali cartel were just as ruthless as the next drug lord, but they saw business value in keeping their neighborhoods crime-free. As disclosed in the pages of At the Devil’s Table, the so-called gentlemen of Cali went so far as to ban mob killings anywhere within the city limits without their prior and unanimous consent.

For years, such killings were rare. In one incident, however, a cartel lieutenant in a jealous rage shot and killed a man who danced with his girl friend. Police never charged him, but the bosses threatened to impose capital punishment. In a brief private hearing, the man apologized profusely for risking embarrassment to the godfathers and, after begging for his life, he was spared from his own out-of-town execution.

The cartel bosses’ reputations as good citizens – enhanced, of course, with generous bribes – led to friends in high places throughout their community: at city hall, the regional prosecutor’s office, the police and at public utilities like the phone company. Local support helped make them giants of international organized crime.

Cali’s new drug gangsters are clearly a menace to themselves and others, but they are not giants. And they are unlikely to accumulate political clout once held by their far more disciplined…and more dangerous…forefathers.



Posted in Cali cartel, Colombia, Corruption, Drug War, Latin America, murder rates | Leave a comment

Dire Results of a Drug War Victory


21-ton Cocaine Bust 1989/ Kevork Djansezian / AP Photo

In the U.S. drug war, even successes can have dangerous down sides. My commentary today in the Los Angeles Times describes one of those successes: the 1989 seizure of more than 21 tons of cocaine in a Southern California warehouse. It remains the single biggest cocaine bust in history.

That law enforcement coup led to high-level arrests, compromised smuggling routes and it cost Colombian and Mexican drug bosses billions in lost profits. However, it also had unexpected consequences. Most significantly, it changed the business model for traffickers. Mexican drug gangs that now control the U.S. cocaine market can trace their lucrative rise to power to that very same massive drug bust.

The game-changing series of events began as a pay dispute between Mexican smugglers and Colombian cartel bosses. In the end, Cali and Medellin crime bosses stepped aside, ceding the U.S. cocaine market to Mexican cartels. The frustrating result, years after the record-setting drug seizure, is still bigger, richer and more dangerous organized crime operations on our border.

Read all about it HERE.


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Drug Corruption: Jorge’s Rare Inside View


More from recent CNN.com opinion pieces…

By Jorge Salcedo, “the insider who brought down the Cali cartel”

Drug cartels cannot function without massive assistance from compromised officials at all levels. Corruption is the oxygen that keeps organized crime alive. I know something about corruption and organized crime. I spent more than six years in the biggest, richest syndicate in the history of crime — the Cali cartel. Mexico, like Colombia, can’t succeed against its drug gangs without choking off the bribery and intimidation that sustain them.

In the cartel, others were more directly involved in routine bribery. Still, I managed to deliver nearly a million dollars in payoffs. And I witnessed many, many millions more. Maybe my experience helps show the importance of fighting corruption as a way to fight the cartels.

I used to be Jorge Salcedo. I left my name in Colombia when I entered the U.S. witness protection program 16 years ago.



Posted in Cali cartel, Colombia, Corruption, Drug War, Latin America, Mexico | Leave a comment

Extradition: A Colombian Lesson for Mexico?


From my recent CNN.com opinion piece…

Gruesome accounts of violence in Mexico have obscured one notable bright spot in Latin America’s struggle with powerful drug gangs. In Colombia, once home to the world’s biggest cocaine cartels, new crime organizations are being picked apart with silent efficiency — aided by Bogota’s enthusiastic embrace of extradition.

In recent years, more than 1,300 of Colombia’s top crime bosses and their most dangerous enforcers have been sent north to face trafficking charges in the United States, a dramatic turnabout from the 1990s when extradition was outlawed under coercive pressure from the Medellin and Cali cartels.

The beauty of extradition is not its power to stop drug smuggling. There is scant evidence it has had much direct effect in that regard. But it continues to splinter the leadership of trafficking gangs, keeping them in a perpetual state of rebuilding. In short, extradition disorganizes organized crime.


Posted in Cali cartel, Colombia, Corruption, Drug War, Extradition, Latin America, Mexico, Terrorism | Leave a comment

Crime Pays…in Tourism for Vegas, Medellin


(Updated: February 11, 2012)

Colombian drug lords and American mobsters are about to have something more in common than lives of crime – their very own tourist attractions.


Next week, Las Vegas is scheduled to open a $42-million Mob Museum highlighting the gambling Mecca’s gangster past. It will come complete with a bullet-scarred wall from the Chicago warehouse where Al Capone’s gang committed the notorious St. Valentine’s Day massacre more than 80 years ago.


In Medellin, hometown of the late Colombian crime boss Pablo Escobar, at least two separate travel agencies this year are offering Escobar tours. Among the sights are Escobar’s grave and an apartment building where he was gunned down on the rooftop by national police.


And last week, developers disclosed plans to build a 6-star hotel and resort on a section of Escobar’s one-time country estate, Hacienda Napoles. The crime boss’s favorite hideaway, about 2.5-hours drive from Medellin, has already been turned into a series of tourist parks.  This hotel will be the fifth added to the sprawling property since Escobar’s compound and grounds were confiscated nearly two decades ago by Colombian authorities.

The 7,400-acre estate had become something of an international curiosity when Escobar first stocked it with exotic animals: elephants, lions, zebras and a rapidly propagating herd of hippopotamuses. And before he became the world’s most wanted outlaw, Escobar entertained openly and lavishly at the estate.

One site not far from Hacienda Napoles probably won’t make many tourist maps despite the fact that it represents one of the most intriguing, if little-known, episodes of Colombia’s cartel war years.

Hacienda Napoles, circa 1990

The setting was 1989, a time in Colombia that was much like today in Mexico with rival trafficking gangs vying to massacre and terrorize each other. Cali crime bosses secretly hired a team of British mercenaries to storm Escobar’s country retreat. A dozen heavily armed commandos, promised up to $5 million, were engaged to kill Pablo.

How close did they come?

The assault was launched from a jungle training camp in southwestern Colombia aboard two overloaded helicopters, but as they swooped down into the Magdalena River valley, one aircraft clipped a mountain ridge and crashed. The pilot was killed and the British team leader injured.

Wreckage in Plot to Kill Pablo

Little more than five minutes flying time from their objective, the commandos were forced to abort their mission.

Today, somewhere on the steep, wooded slopes of Cuchilla del Tigre (Tiger Ridge), the remnants of that helicopter still await discovery – presumably by the most intrepid of tourists. For those interested enough to try making the climb, versions of the story behind the ill-fated raid are featured in the new book, “At the Devil’s Table,” and described in memoirs by two of the Brits: “Dirty Combat” and “No Mean Soldier.”

Official response to the surge in gangster tour business varies.

Madelene Torres, Medellin’s deputy secretary of tourism, told the Wall Street Journal there was fear that the tours “would promote the very thing we’re trying to move away from – the connection people so often make between Colombia and cocaine.” But Medellin Secretary of Culture Luis Miguel Usuga told Colombia Reports that the tours also show “crime does not pay” and that the city “has managed to transform itself.”

Mobster Tony Spilotro with Oscar Goodman

In Las Vegas, on the other hand, Mayor Oscar Goodman led a campaign through much of his three terms in office promoting the idea of a mob museum. Some in town wanted “to hang me,” he told the Los Angeles Times.

Mayor Oscar Goodman

But the former defense lawyer for several prominent gangsters has always relished the city’s notorious past and shows no interest in changing its image – or his own. As the mayor once explained:

“I knock on doors, and little old ladies … say, ‘Hey, it’s the mafia lawyer! Come on in and have some cookies and milk!’ I love it!”


Posted in Cali cartel, Colombia, Corruption, Drug War, Latin America, Mexico | Leave a comment

A Mexican Crime Lord’s Christmas Nightmare


Mexican authorities have landed a potential prize in their campaign against organized crime, capturing a security chief for the richest and most powerful drug cartel in the country.

Felipe Cabrera, alias “The Engineer,” is a key insider described as the top security man of fugitive Sinaloa drug boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Cabrera was arrested Friday and marched before cameras in a bullet-proof vest this morning, escorted by masked and heavily armed military guards.

Whether or not Cabrera ends up cooperating with Mexican officials, there can be no doubt that – at least for the Sinaloa gang – this is an alarming development. Cabrera knows too much. The man who last week was the Sinaloa cartel’s security chief is suddenly its biggest security risk.

Also seized along with Cabrera were computers and other potential drug trafficking evidence, a potential investigative treasure trove reminiscent of another law enforcement coup involving another cartel security boss more than a decade ago in Colombia.

In 1995, the Cali drug cartel was the biggest, richest crime syndicate in the history of crime. It had helped the Bogota government knock off Pablo Escobar, its most dangerous rival, and Cali bosses were pulling in more than $7 billion a year. One day, the bosses ordered their security chief to help murder the cartel’s top accountant who was no longer trusted. Murder has long been the method of choice to protect the cartels’ deepest secrets.

So, it was at grave personal risk that Cali security chief Jorge Salcedo defied his orders to kill and instead turned to U.S. drug enforcement agents. Rather than arrange for a murder, he saved the account’s life. Vengeful Cali bosses immediately tried to find Salcedo, offering a $2-million reward for his whereabouts.

How Salcedo escaped is the heart of “At the Devil’s Table: The Untold Story of the Insider Who Brought Down the Cali Cartel.” The recently published book may also hold clues to what sort of damage a cooperative Cabrera could inflict on Mexican crime lords.

Salcedo’s cooperation with U.S. drug enforcement agents in the 1990s led to his boss’s capture and arrest, the discovery of vast amounts of cartel bribery evidence that forced crooked police and politicians from office, and investigative leads that helped authorities track cartel assets around the world and to recover billions of dollars in drug profits.

For El Chapo, such prospects have got to be the stuff of post-Christmas nightmares.

Posted in Cali cartel, Colombia, Corruption, Drug War, Latin America, Mexico | Leave a comment