Killing Pablo Escobar in 1993 ended the Medellin drug gang’s reign of crime and terror, but it did not cure Colombia’s reputation as a haven for narco-traffickers. Pablo’s successors, the new “kings of cocaine,” were also Colombians – the equally ruthless but surprisingly unknown drug lords of the Cali cartel.
Through the 1990s, they built the biggest, richest crime syndicate in the history of crime. They became billionaires. Their bribes bought much of the Colombian government. But unlike Pablo, a rock star of the criminal class, Cali bosses were never on a first-name basis with fame. No one wrote ballads romanticizing their exploits.
Until recently few people outside of Colombia knew much about them, not even that there were four godfathers running the Cali cartel. They operated less like a committee and more like a four-headed CEO. All major cartel decisions required consensus, whether authorizing large bribes, buying a new computer, or sanctioning a murder. They rarely disagreed amongst themselves…and never in front of anyone else.
“At the Devil’s Table: The Untold Story of the Insider Who Brought Down the Cali Cartel” – about the cartel’s former chief of security Jorge Salcedo – offers unprecedented glimpses of the elusive crime bosses. This is a sampling:
Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela —
A micromanaging workaholic plagued with migraines
He handled daily management chores for the executive team and seemed to relish long days and late nights. Nonetheless, a grueling daily schedule of 200 phone calls and 50 meetings often made him irritable. He was also hypoglycemic and prone to migraines.
Behind his back, he was nicknamed “Lemon” for his sour disposition. In a rare display of happiness, he wept for joy when Pablo Escobar was killed.
Book Excerpt: Miguel “was not a patient man by nature. He could be plunged into a foul mood by any number of annoyances, then turn around and take out his frustrations on the first unsuspecting aide who crossed his path.” (Page 171)
Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela —
A charming raconteur and clever tactician known as The Chess Player
He had the harmless appearance of a well-fed university professor and was the cartel’s friendly front man with politicians and the media. His charm offensives were legendary, but his money also talked. He was a true believer that money could buy anyone. On major cartel projects, the other bosses – including younger brother Miguel – typically deferred to his unspoken authority.
He was once caught up in a police raid at a house party but escaped after posing as a vomiting drunk and urinating on an indignant military guard. He was summarily ejected…to safety. Threats to his family brought out his more ruthless side.
Book Excerpt: “Gilberto jumped to his feet… “Get me a fork!” the drug boss bellowed. “I’ll take out the goddamn liar’s eyeballs myself.” (Page 86)
Jose “Chepe” Santacruz Londoño –
A prankster who could be deadly serious
He often dressed in the work clothes of a simple farmer and sometimes seemed a bit of a bumbler when it came to business matters. His adolescent pranks could test everyone’s patience. But he was the wrong man to underestimate …or to threaten. When a Spanish-language journalist in New York wrote bad things about him, Chepe sent killers to gun down the man at a restaurant in Queens.
When a Cali country club refused him a membership, Chepe ordered an exact replica of its clubhouse built on his own property.
Book Excerpt: “He seemed jovial and self-deprecating, even a bit mischievous. But he sometimes took his penchant for teasing too far… Chepe was proudly unsophisticated. He also was a street fighter. And in brawls, as in practical jokes, overkill was his trademark.” (Page 10)
Hélmer “Pacho” Herrera –
Gay and a gangster
He was the youngest and most physically fit of the four godfathers, unmarried, and openly homosexual. He also fit certain gay stereotypes. He was noted for a wardrobe of fashionable sportswear and for stylishly decorated homes. Pacho had the empathetic manner of a priest, but he also ran the cartel’s most brutal wing of hired guns (called sicarios). His greatest passion, however, was soccer. He built professional-quality fields with stadium lighting for his own personal use.
Book Excerpt: “Pacho’s security detail was made up entirely of sicarios… They looked and acted differently than other cartel security operatives. They wore jewelry, drove big fast motorcycles, and stood out in any crowd. They were flashy thugs and made no effort to soften their gangster image. ‘I’m just glad they’re on our side,’ Jorge said.” (Page 60)