Bomb kills 30 after cocaine baron's arrest


Latin America Correspondent

"Take it easy, boys. Don't kill me. I'm a man of peace." The man who controlled 80 per cent of the world's cocaine trade, nicknamed "the Chess Player'' for his shrewdness and ability to evade arrest, gave up with a whimper when police found him cowering in a secret cupboard. He made no move for the three pistols beside him.

"Checkmate," said a headline in the Colombian daily El Tiempo, reporting Friday's arrest of the Cali cartel boss, Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela. But was it? A day after the 56-year-old drug baron was arrested in Cali, a devastating cluster bomb ripped through revellers at a music festival in the city of Medellin, killing at least 30 and wounding hundreds.

Saturday night's bomb stunned Colombia, even as President Ernesto Samper was wallowing in national and international acclaim over what he called "the beginning of the end of the Cali cartel''.

No one could be sure who was behind the bombing in Medellin, the city whose cocaine cartel once controlled most of the world trade in the drug but had recently been surpassed by its Cali rivals. Marxist guerrillas are still active and have killed or kidnapped many people recently.

But the style and timing of the bomb, packed with nuts, bolts and nails, suggested it may have been a warning from the remaining leaders of the Cali cartel, including Mr Rodriguez Orejuela's brother, Miguel.

It was left at the foot of a sculpture of a bird by Fernando Botero, the Colombian sculptor renowned for his bronze statues of fat ladies and limbless torsos. The sculptor's son, of the same name, is Colombia's Defence Minister and that may have led the bombers to choose the site, a theory which could point equally to drug gangs or left-wing guerrillas, according to police.

The fact that the bomb was in Medellin, Columbia's second city, was also a setback for the government's efforts to convince the world, notably tourists and investors, that the city is back to normal 18 months after the local cartel chief, Pablo Escobar, was shot dead during an army raid on his hide-out.

Escobar's cartel was ruthless in its efforts to control the multi-billion cocaine trade to the US and Europe and was widely held responsible for countless bomb attacks, including one which destroyed a Bogota-Cali shuttle flight, killing more than 100.

Its Cali rivals, notably Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, however, were more subtle. The brothers, one a lawyer, the other a banker, built up a network of legal businesses, from property to a first division football team. These were allegedly used to launder their massive cocaine profits.

An indictment announced in Miami last week, in which a former US Justice Department official and two former US prosecutors were among 60 people charged, suggested the Cali cartel operated like a well-oiled multinational corporation.

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