A Mexican Crime Lord’s Christmas Nightmare

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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.