Drug baron tries to strike prison deal

Cali cartel: 'world's most dangerous man' hopes to cut a possible 24-year sentence to nine years by confessing to all charges

PHIL DAVISON

Bogota

Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, alias the "Chess Player" and alleged head of Colombia's Cali cocaine cartel, has agreed to confess to all charges against him in the hope of reducing his prison term, says Colombia's Director of Prosecutions.

Armando Sarmiento said Mr Rodriguez Orejuela might spend less than nine years in jail, despite being called the world's most dangerous man.

"If he collaborates by confessing, it saves the state two or three years of trial. He can get time off for that. Then there's an automatic one- third reduction if he studies or works in jail. And when he's 65 [he is 56 now], a judge can decide whether there is no danger in releasing him," Mr Sarmiento said, in an interview with the Independent and Spain's El Pais. He will also get his wish to be held in a new jail at Palmira, near Cali, although "we won't make the cathedral mistake again", the prosecutor said. He was referring to the luxury ranch-like prison, nicknamed The Cathedral, in which Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellin cartel, was held. The jail had a Jacuzzi, fax, cellular phones, champagne and women visitors.

Escobar walked out in July 1992 and was later shot dead in December 1993, after troops discovered his hide-out.

Mr Rodriguez Orejuela's legendary wealth, however, has already assured him perks. "There was a rush to ensure 'Don Gilberto' had enough pillows," one prison guard admitted.

Gilberto's brother, Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, and five other Cali cartel druglords are still at large and raking in profits estimated at pounds 44m a day from cocaine exports.

Despite his reputation for being shrewd and ruthless, the Chess Player appeared to be having problems adapting to his new pre-trial surroundings, Bogota's La Picota prison.

"They left me alone. I'm afraid to be left alone," he told Mr Sarmiento, after asking to see the Director of Prosecutions at dawn on Monday. He had been transferred to the Regional Prosecutor's office in Bogota in an armoured personnel carrier, to hear the charges read by four "faceless judges" hidden behind a one-way glass screen.

"He's in an individual cell at La Picota and the other nine cells had been kept empty. But the prison director has agreed to fill them to keep him company," Mr Sarmiento said.

"We weren't keeping you isolated to mortify you," the prosecutor told him. "It's for your own security."

"But I have no enemies," Mr Rodriguez Orejuela replied. "Everybody's got enemies," Mr Sarmiento responded.

Mr Sarmiento, 52, a father of two who works for the Prosecutor-General, Alfonso Valdivieso, handpicked the "faceless judges" - all men, aged 25 to 35, three of them married - to prosecute Mr Rodriguez Orejuela and other captured members of the Cali cartel. "They had to be brave and what we call verraco. That means they've got balls."

As the "faceless judges" read the charges, they could see Mr Rodriguez Orejuela and his lawyer but the defendants could see only themselves in a mirror.

The judges spoke into microphones fitted with a voice-distorting device. "They press buttons and can change to, say, a woman's voice, or to sound hoarse, anything to disguise their identity," said Mr Sarmiento. "But I know for a fact that Rodriguez Orejuela has already found out who one of them is." He did not say how.

Mr Sarmiento said the chief prosecutor in Cali had been found to be in the cartel's pay.

"We couldn't prove it. But we know it. He's been removed, of course," he said. "In February, he [Mr Rodriguez Orejuela] tried to bribe me. He sent a lawyer to see me, offering money if I would negotiate with him. I think it was 200 million pesos [about pounds 170,000] but I was so indignant I didn't recall the exact figure. I told them they were wasting their time; they'd have to kill me," he said.

Mr Sarmiento's identity is known.He fears for his life, has bodyguards, an armoured vehicle, and protection for his family. Returning to his meeting with Mr Rodriguez Orejuela, he said: "He spent a lot of time asking me not to go after his children, swearing they were not criminals." Three of the detainee's eight grown-up children, however, as well as his wife Mariela, are in hiding, wanted on illicit-enrichment charges linked to cocaine trafficking.

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