Cali cocaine cartel boss arrested

Published Aug. 7, 1995|Updated Oct. 4, 2005

After more than two decades at the head of Colombia's most sophisticated drug cartel, Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela was arrested Sunday in a safe house in Cali.

His capture brought to an end the most successful manhunt in Colombian history. In two months, an elite police search squad has rounded up six of the seven alleged "kingpins" of the Cali cartel, the world's largest drug syndicate thatdistributed an estimated 80 percent of cocaine supplies to the United States.

His arrest comes amid a scandal concerning allegations that leaders of the Cali cartel contributed at least $6-million _ maybe as much as $16-million _ to the 1994 election campaign of President Ernesto Samper.

According to Colombian officials, the 51-year-old cartel boss _ known to fellow traffickers as El Senor (The Master) _ was arrested without resistance after 500 troops and police cornered him in a spacious 19th-floor apartment in the city center. He was accompanied by an ex-wife, a bodyguard, chauffeur and maid.

"It was a peaceful arrest and none of them resisted," said attorney general Alfonso Valdivieso, who is leading the judicial effort to prosecute the traffickers as well as investigating the infiltration of drug money throughout Colombian government and society.

Officials said the raid was carried out by 18 officers who broke down the door to the apartment about 4:30 a.m. Sunday, after a week of police surveillance.

"We got him practically in his sleep," Police Chief Gen. Rosso Serrano told reporters.

Police said Rodriguez Orejuela was caught in his underwear as he was trying to slip into a hidden compartment under a wash basin in the bathroom. "He had one foot in the hiding space and one foot out," said Serrano. "We caught him cold. He didn't think we would get him this way."

The tiny space was equipped with an oxygen tank and breathing mask. Two weeks ago, Rodriguez Orejuela used a similar hiding place to evade detection while police searched another safe house for eight hours.

"You won. Congratulations on a job well done," Rodriguez Orejuela reportedly told officers.

The cartel capo was at the top of Colombia's most-wanted list with a $2.5-million reward offered by the government for information leading to his arrest. His identity was confirmed by a fingerprint check before he was flown 200 miles to police headquarters in the capital, Bogota.

When a pale and handcuffed Rodriguez Orejuela was presented to reporters in Bogota, he sat solemnly as photographers snapped his picture. As he was taken away he yelled, "I have not given money to anyone. President Samper is an honest man."

But in the current climate of political scandal, Rodriguez Orejuela's judgment of what makes an honest man is unlikely to be taken seriously.

Reports of illicit drug money being used in the election led to the arrest last month of Samper's campaign treasurer, Santiago Medina. In a confession, he said several top government officials, including the president, were directly involved in soliciting cartel money.

That prompted the sudden resignation last week of Defense Minister Fernando Botero, who is a close friend of Samper and served as his election campaign manager.

The respected Colombian news magazine Semana also raised new questions over a taped conversation between Samper and the wife of an alleged trafficker. Colombia's first lady, Jacquin de Samper, has not escaped suspicion after allegations that she used donations to an environmental fund that she heads to hide illegal contributions to her husband's campaign.

Conspiracy theorists are having a field day as experts analyze the significance of Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela's arrest.

Police officials say his capture was the result of solid detective work and is unrelated to the political storm in Bogota. Some reports say the 51-year-old cartel chief was arrested with documents that could further implicate government officials in cocaine corruption.

Officers involved in the manhunt said the Rodriguez Orejuela family had been pressuring the cartel boss to surrender. The family feared that government officials wanted him dead because of what he knew about cartel payments to the Samper campaign.

Some analysts speculate that the arrest may have been staged by the government as part of a deal with the cartel to lift the pressure on Samper. According to this version, the cartel bosses will exculpate Samper, saying they made no campaign contributions. In return, Samper would try to secure reduced jail sentences for the cartel leaders.

If they admit donations were made, they could still leave Samper in the clear by arguing that they dealt only with his subordinates.

Samper has repeatedly denied any involvement, saying that if any money was taken it was "behind my back." During a speech Friday night the president accused Medina of slander, saying the Cali cartel was trying to get off the hook by smearing enemies.

"Rumors are defeating the evidence . . . and criminals are accusing the innocent," he said.

Police anti-drug experts say Rodriguez Orejuela ran the cartel's day-to-day affairs, in partnership with his elder brother and the organization's chief strategist, Gilberto "The Chess Player" Rodriguez Orejuela. After Gilberto's arrest in June, the younger Rodriguez Orejuela took complete control.

That information is corroborated by American agents who led an investigation of the Cali cartel drug distribution network in the United States, which culminated in June with charges brought in Miami against 59 cartel members and associates.

According to the Miami indictment, Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela ran the cartel's global operations from a network of cellular phones and Cali safe houses, ordering drug shipments, payment of cartel employees, security measures and legal strategies.

Washington has chosen not to comment about the allegations swirling around the Samper government. But the Clinton administration congratulated Colombian authorities Sunday in a statement issued by Lee Brown, the White House National Drug Policy director.

"Unfortunately, the threat is not over as others try to take the place of the removed leaders," Brown said. "But make no mistake about today's development: This is a very real disruption of one of the most serious national security threats to our country."


With the capture of Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, all but one of the seven Cali cartel leaders identified on wanted posters are in custody. Here is a chronology of their arrests and surrenders:

June 9: Police arrest Rodriguez's brother, Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, in a home in a wealthy Cali neighborhood. Nicknamed "The Chess Player" for his shrewd business sense, he is one of the founders of the cartel.

June 19: Henry Loaiza surrenders in Bogota. Nicknamed "The Scorpion," he is considered a hard-liner who wanted to respond to police pressure with attacks. He's suspected in a June 10 bombing in Medellin that killed 29.

June 24: Victor Patino surrenders at a military base in Bogota. A former police officer, Patino is thought to have headed the cartel's team of assassins.

July 4: Jose Santacruz Londono is arrested in a Bogota restaurant. U.S. officials say he headed the cartel's distribution network in the United States. He is thought responsible for the 1992 assassination in New York of a leading Spanish-language journalist who had reported on the cartel.

July 8: Phanor Arizabaleta surrenders to police in Bogota. He is considered one of the most violent members of the cartel.

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Helmer Herrera remains at large, although his lawyers reportedly are negotiating his surrender. The alleged head of the cartel's military wing, Herrera comes from a family long involved in smuggling.