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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.

A series of photographs showing the faces of four men.
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.