Rivals muscle in on Escobar drug empire: Phil Davison reports from Cali, Colombia's new cocaine capital

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The Independent Online
WHETHER THE Medellin cocaine cartel boss Pablo Escobar is captured, killed or surrenders, Colombia's drug -trafficking problem is far from over.

While Escobar's Medellin empire has been breaking up and the manhunt for him has provided the perfect diversion, the 'invisible men' of the rival Cali cartel have quietly taken over majority control of the world cocaine trade. Their income? An estimated pounds 16bn a year, or pounds 44m a day, according to Western anti-narcotics agents. That is reckoned to be five times the Medellin cartel's earnings.

While Escobar has challenged the state through undisguised terrorism, the more sophisticated 'businessmen' from Cali have subtly infiltrated Colombia's infrastructure up to and including the national government, the narcotics agents say. They have added heroin to their portfolio of drugs and are using new routes via Cuba to Galicia in Spain, say the agents. They warn that the Cali drug lords now pose a threat to Europe far greater than the Medellin cartel ever did.

'Cali to me is the biggest problem Colombia has right now,' one frontline agent told me. 'Cali is a monster. The Cali men are much smarter than Escobar. They may not be as dangerous but they're perfectly prepared to use violence when necessary. The difference is that Pablo doesn't mind leaving his fingerprints behind. The Cali men don't leave their calling card.'

The director of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Robert Bonner, left no doubt he had the Cali cartel mainly in mind when he said recently Colombia was in danger of becoming a 'narco-democracy'. The cartel's recent introduction of opium poppy fields for the production of heroin, with potential street values 10 times that of cocaine, threatens not only the world's youth but the Colombian environment, the anti-drugs agents say. For every hectare of poppy fields sown, farmers on the cartel's payroll are destroying 2.5 hectares of forest.

Escobar, who does not deny his multi-billion dollar wealth comes from cocaine, accuses the authorities of picking on him while ignoring the activities of his rivals in this city 80 miles from the Pacific coast. He complains that his 'wanted' poster - with a dollars 6.2m ( pounds 4.2m) reward - is shown repeatedly on television while the Cali cocaine barons remain untouched and unnoticed. Diplomats in Bogota concede he has a point, but say Escobar's terrorist activities earned him the spotlight. There are strong suspicions that the Cali cartel is helping finance the so-called Pepes (People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar), a vigilante group dedicated to terminating Escobar's business career, if not his heartbeat.

The Cali bosses have never forgiven their Medellin rival for blowing up an Avianca airlines shuttle flight between Bogota and Cali in 1989, killing all 107 people on board. For Colombian businessmen, that was the equivalent of blowing up the London-Glasgow shuttle. Escobar's men said they had targeted the plane because two Cali cartel members were on board.

Now, the reports of Cali involvement in the manhunt for Escobar have led to widespread fears of a new 'super cartel', with Cali in control and taking over the fragments of Escobar's organisation.

The Cali bosses earned the 'invisible' tag because, although they insist they are legitimate businessmen and have widespread interests throughout the city, they now live behind the high walls of luxury villas in or around Cali's luxury 'Garden City' compound and are rarely seen in public. Their 'lieutenants' are a different kettle of fish, easily recognisable by their solid gold chains, rings and Rolexes, their favoured four-wheel- drive vehicles and disregard for traffic laws. And they like to think they run the town. As I waited for a taxi in the city centre, I was photographed several times from a vehicle in a circling convoy of three.

According to the DEA, the Cali cartel is run by the two Rodriguez Orejuela brothers, Gilberto and Miguel, in partnership with Jose Santacruz and Francisco Herrera. Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, 52, is known as 'The Chess Player' for his skill in outwitting prosecutors in the past. He and his brother deny they are cocaine barons and insist they are respectable businessmen. The DEA calls that 'The Big Lie', and notes that the brothers have been indicted in the US on a series of trafficking charges. They also face charges at home.

Their 'cover', however, is good. They own, directly or indirectly, businesses from a chain of 400 chemists to the local first-division football side, America Cali.

The brothers' narcotics profits, according to the DEA, are laundered through property purchases, mostly office or apartment blocks whose gaudy Miami Beach-style architecture stands out like a sore thumb in the sprawling south of this former Spanish colonial town.

For security, the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers had the idea of providing powerful radios to the city's taxi cabs. In return, anyone suspicious is quickly reported, an almost-ideal surveillance network. Almost, but not quite. Escobar's hit men managed to plant several bombs in the city during the inter-cartel wars of recent years.

A publicised threat by Escobar to send one of the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers the head of his wife - a former beauty queen - on a plate is still taken seriously here. The woman has managed to keep her head but has escaped at least one assassination attempt and rarely surfaces in public.

Anyone who thought the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers were paranoid about Escobar's intentions were put right last year after the latter's escape from prison outside Medellin. In a safe in his cell, police found 'confidential' documents about the brothers, sent by the DEA to the Colombian government in an effort to bring them to justice. Escobar must have 'bought' them from police or army officers the way he bought just about everything else he needed in his luxury 'prison'.

Like Escobar in Medellin, the Cali cartel bosses have never been accepted among the city's 'upper class' of nobility, wealthy landowners and traditional businessmen. It is something that irks them. 'Nobody likes them. They're crude, flashy, uneducated and don't fit in. Just look at the houses they build, for goodness sake. You can tell a mafia house a mile away,' one member of the traditional upper crust told me.

After being rejected for membership of the elite Club Colombia in the city centre, for example, a furious Mr Santacruz proceeded to build a replica as his home on the outskirts. The alleged drug lords have also been barred from the coveted Club Campestre (Country Club) south of the city.

(Photograph omitted)