At the Devil’s Table

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Still Hiding from Drug Lords — But Now in the Spotlight of a Spanish TV Series

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

Fame in Witness Protection? It’s Complicated

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.

Later this 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) — its title for Spanish television.

The dramatic series is backed by Sony-Teleset. Filming began in October 2013, mostly on location in Cali and Bogota.  No air date has been set, but the  program is expected to debut late this summer. It will be broadcast over the Colombian television network RCN, and later throughout Latin America and the U.S. over Univision.

Salcedo has rarely stepped forward publicly since arriving in the United States in 1995. 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 by 2015.

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.

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

 

The Cali Cartel: Crime and Civic Pride

Updated August 19, 2015

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.

News accounts that Cali 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 ruling 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. 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.

cali godfathers
Top: Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela; Bottom: Jose “Chepe” Santacruz and Helmer “Pacho” Herrera

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, by generous bribes – produced many 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. Such reliable support at home enabled them to concentrate on projecting their formidable business interests abroad, eventually making them unrivaled 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 the same kind of political clout once held by their far more disciplined…and therefore more dangerous…forefathers.