Author: William C. Rempel

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For Drug War Fugitives: A Panic Room

For Drug War Fugitives: A Panic Room

U.S. DEA agent stands in small doorway of the caleta, exposed when the drawers were removed.
U.S drug agent stands in small doorway of the caleta, exposed when closet drawers were removed.

Updated August 18, 2015

Colombian drug lords always hated surprises. For years they invested heavily in bribes to avoid them, specifically to reduce risks of unexpected raids by rivals or narco agents.

The richest of all crime organizations, the Cali cocaine cartel, secretly supplemented the government pay of police and military officials by a total of nearly $100,000 every month. In exchange, the bosses expected timely insider information about which cartel phones were being tapped… which cars in their fleet were being followed… when police raids were scheduled and where.

The bosses liked to know, for example, if they had time to shower, shave and disappear before guys in flack jackets hit their doors.

But the wily godfathers didn’t rely solely on alerts from crooked cops. They also had a back-up plan. Cartel engineers and craftsmen built secret “panic rooms.” These were ingenious, closet-like escape chambers installed in the walls of homes and hideouts. One room fit one man, no more, and typically was stocked with water and snacks. Also an oxygen tank and mask were intended to counter tear gas and claustrophobia.

In Colombia such chambers are called caletas. They can be concealed in ways that make them almost impossible to detect without a full set of blueprints.

Once, while drilling through concrete walls trying to locate a suspected hiding space, American DEA agents believed that their drill bit bored into a cartel fugitive’s flesh. They couldn’t be sure, because they didn’t find him. Later, however, they found the bloody shirt he left behind.

Here are photos taken by crime investigators at the scene of a 1995 raid in Cali. A Colombian navy commando had just intercepted one of the cartel godfathers trying to escape into the chamber concealed behind drawers in a closet. The caleta craftsmanship stunned American agents who had assisted on the raid.

“It was a beautiful piece of work,” recalled U.S. drug agent Chris Feistl. “No way we would have found him. If he’d actually made it inside, we’d still be looking for him.”

Behind the vertical stack of drawers (marked in green) is a door to the hidden chamber.
The view when drawers were removed
Looking straight up inside a 3.5-foot square caleta, with a/c vent.

Terror in Mexico and the Ghost of Pablo Escobar

100804-A-0193C-013It has come to this in Mexico – a gang of gunmen firebombs a casino crowded mostly with women and elderly bingo and slot machine players. More than 50 die. President Felipe Calderon immediately blames unnamed drug traffickers. That’s a good guess, and security video may soon prove him right. But what’s the motive for such an act of terror? Was it gang rivalry…some sort of mob shakedown for protection money…a botched heist? Most urgently, was it an isolated atrocity? Or, was that the ghost of Pablo Escobar in Casino Royale’s hellish flames? Remember Pablo, the archetypal Colombian drug lord? He was once the world’s biggest outlaw, the FBI’s most wanted man, The Terror of Colombia. The Medellin cartel boss was behind the bomb plot that downed an Avianca jetliner with more than 100 passengers. He targeted the Bogota headquarters building of Colombia’s Administrative Department of Security (DAS), killing another 50-plus and injuring at least 1,000. Then there were police killings, ambushed judges, political assassinations and prominent kidnappings. Pablo certainly didn’t invent terrorism, but he adopted it enthusiastically into his arsenal of organized crime. Looking back on Colombia, where Escobar’s campaign of indiscriminate violence helped strike down extradition laws, terrorism seemed to pay off – but only for a while. Mexican drug gangs would do well to heed that caveat. In the long run, terrorism has proven to be bad business. Again, consider Pablo. Escobar’s terror tactics roused such public resentment and political heat that even fellow drug traffickers wanted him stopped. They hired assassins to kill Pablo’s friends and associates. Escobar also became an especially high-value target for international intelligence and law enforcement agencies that loaned manpower and sophisticated surveillance technology to the Bogota government. In 1989, when Pablo went to war against Colombian authorities, he was worth billions and listed as one of Forbes Magazine’s richest men. Four years later he was alone. Finally, with no money, no allies and a single bodyguard, the once-feared drug lord was gunned running barefooted across a Medellin rooftop fleeing police. Terrorism had generated too many enemies. Escobar died the victim of his own violent excesses — terror that backfired. Which ever Mexican cartel sent the firebombs should be haunted by Pablo’s ghost.

Cartel Drug Bosses Helped U.S. Convict Noriega

Cartel Drug Bosses Helped U.S. Convict Noriega

Recent reports out of France that former dictator Manuel Noriega is going home to Panama – as an extradited prisoner – come at a time when his U.S. drug trafficking conviction from 20 years ago is getting fresh attention.

Remember, this was a criminal case that followed the U.S. military invasion of Panama in 1989. Noriega was seized and charged with drug violations — but the prosecution was no slam-dunk. New details from a cartel insider confirm that Colombian drug lords secretly helped unwitting Justice Department officials bolster their case.

Months before the politically sensitive trial opened in Miami, cartel bosses in Cali arranged for one of the dictator’s former trafficking partners to surrender and cooperate with the Americans, a stunning break at the time for the government case.

But what U.S. officials didn’t know until years later was that their star witness only came forward after the drug cartel promised him $1.25 million.

An account of the covert transaction is disclosed in detail for the first time in the new book, “At the Devil’s Table: The Untold Story of the Insider Who Brought Down the Cali Cartel.” These are some of the highlights:

Jose “Chepe” Santacruz Londono, one of the four Cali cartel godfathers, was desperate to help his recently imprisoned brother Lucho Santacruz Echeverri negotiate a reduced sentence. Lucho faced a 23-year prison term after a trafficking conviction in Florida.

Ricardo Bilonick was a financially strapped former trafficker in Panama City with long and lucrative ties to Noriega. His defunct air cargo company had moved tons of cocaine through Panama for Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cartel and paid millions of dollars in protection money to the dictator. Bilonick wanted his own plea deal, so he was already weighing how best to come forward.

A Cali emissary advised that every one would benefit if Bilonick surrendered through Lucho’s American legal defense team. That emissary, a cartel chief of security named Jorge Salcedo, said the gentlemen of Cali would be very grateful. Bilonick asked for $2 million.

Negotiations had begun.

But the cartel godfathers didn’t get to be billionaires making rash investments. For starters, they didn’t like the price tag. More importantly, they wanted assurances they would get their money’s worth.

Understandably, Bilonick wanted his money up front – before going into U.S. custody. His testimony against Noriega, however, would not be required until months later. Salcedo came up with the perfect solution for that occasion.

As detailed in “At the Devil’s Table,” Salcedo first delivered a black leather briefcase stuffed with U.S. currency totaling $250,000. It was the cartel’s down payment. But the key to the deal was a $1 million certificate of deposit that would not mature for several months. In the meantime, it was placed in a safe deposit box at the Banco Vizcaya where access required two keys – one held by Bilonick’s wife, the other by the cartel’s Salcedo.

The CD would remain in the locked vault unless or until the bosses were satisfied with Bilonick’s performance on the witness stand.

They were delighted.

Months later, Noriega was convicted. Lucho’s prison sentence was trimmed by nine years. Bilonick received a reduced sentence for cooperating. And Salcedo returned to Panama with his key to turn over a matured million-dollar CD to Bilonick’s wife.

Postscript: In 1995, Salcedo turned against the Cali cartel and entered the U.S. witness protection program. Disclosure of his role in the Noriega case prompted a motion to reverse Noriega’s conviction. It was rejected. At the time, Bilonick called bribe allegations “idiotic.” He declined to be interviewed about Salcedo’s account.