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

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)

Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
Life and Style

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

Stephanie first after her public appearance as a woman at Rad Fest 2014

Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
peopleJust weeks after he created dress for Alamuddin-Clooney wedding
Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
Arts and Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio talks during the press conference for the film

Film follows park rangers in the Congo

Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
Adel Taraabt in action for QPR against West Ham earlier this month
footballQPR boss says midfielder is 'not fit to play football'
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

English Teacher

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Group: English as an Additional Langua...

Nursery assistants required in Cambridgeshire

£10000 - £15000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Nursery assistants re...

History Teacher

£60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Seconda...

** Female PE Teacher Urgently Required In Liverpool **

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Secon...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album