At the Devil's Table: The Untold Story of the Insider Who Brought Down the Cali Cartel

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9780307932358: At the Devil's Table: The Untold Story of the Insider Who Brought Down the Cali Cartel

In this riveting and relentless nonfiction thriller, award-winning investigative reporter William C. Rempel tells the harrowing story of former Cali cartel insider Jorge Salcedo, an ordinary man facing an extraordinary dilemma—a man forced to risk everything to escape the powerful and treacherous Cali crime syndicate.

Colombia in the 1990s is a country in chaos, as a weak government battles guerrilla movements and narco-traffickers, including the notorious Pablo Escobar and his rivals in the Cali cartel. Enter Jorge Salcedo, a part-time soldier, a gifted engineer, a respected businessman and family man—and a man who despises Pablo Escobar for patriotic and deeply personal reasons. He is introduced to the godfathers of the Cali cartel, who are at war with Escobar and desperately want their foe dead. With mixed feelings, Jorge agrees to help them.

Once inside, Jorge rises to become head of security for Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela, principal godfather of the $7-billion-a-year Cali drug cartel. Jorge tries to turn a blind eye to the violence, corruption, and brutality that surround him, and he struggles privately to preserve his integrity even as he is drawn deeper into the web of cartel operations. Then comes an order from the godfathers that he can’t obey—but can’t refuse. Jorge realizes that his only way out is to bring down the biggest, richest crime syndicate of all time.

Thus begins a heart-pumping roller-coaster ride of intensifying peril. Secretly aided by a pair of young American DEA agents, Jorge races time and cartel assassins to extract damaging evidence, help capture the fugitive godfather, and save the life of a witness targeted for murder. Through it all, death lurks a single misstep away.

William C. Rempel is the only reporter with access to this story and to Jorge, who remains in hiding somewhere in the United States—even the author doesn’t know where—but has revealed his experience in gripping detail. Salcedo’s is the story of one extraordinary ordinary man forced to risk everything to end a nightmare of his own making.

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About the Author:

William C. Rempel spent thirty-six years as an investigative reporter and editor at the Los Angeles Times. Rempel has been recognized with numerous journalism honors, including an Overseas Press Club Award and a Gerald Loeb Award, and he was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

PART ONE

The Cartel War Years

1989-1993

Six and a Half Years Earlier

Bogotá, Colombia

Mid-January 1989

Jorge Salcedo stowed his carry-on bag in an overhead compartment and dropped into a window seat of the aging Boeing 727. It was an early morning flight out of Bogotá to Cali, Colombia, and he was a reluctant traveler. Besides the inconvenient hour, the forty-one-year-old businessman really could not afford to take time away from his latest venture, a small refinery he was developing to reprocess used motor oil. The project was behind schedule, and here he was flying off on a mystery trip. He had no idea why he was going to Cali. In fact, until arriving at Bogotá's El Dorado International Airport an hour earlier, he didn't even know his destination.

"Jorge, you need to come with me. Some people want to meet you," his friend Mario had said on the phone. He was emphatic. He told Jorge to pack an overnight bag-then hung up. Now they were on the plane together.

"What's the deal, Mario?" Jorge couldn't hide a tone of impatience as he turned to his friend settling into the aisle seat. "What are we doing here?"

Like Jorge, Mario was in his early forties-fit, trim, and exuding confidence. Even in casual civilian clothes, he looked military, like someone out of Central Casting. But the recently retired major Mario del Basto was the real thing, a highly decorated soldier.

"After takeoff," he assured Jorge, "we'll talk." He gave a nod toward strangers still standing in the aisle.

Jorge had always trusted Mario. The two had been good friends since soon after Jorge joined the Colombian army reserves in 1984. Mario, an officer in the regular army, became commanding officer of Jorge's Cali- based reserve unit. The major relied on Jorge as an intelligence officer with valuable skills in weaponry, electronic surveillance, radio technologies, and photography.

The army reserve was an unpaid, volunteer position, but it gave Jorge the taste of a military career like that of his father, General Jorge Salcedo. The senior Salcedo had been a contender for chief of Colombia's armed forces, and he remained a prominent public figure nearly twenty-five years after his retirement in the mid-1960s.

Jorge saw reflections of his father in Major del Basto. Both were career army officers. Both wore uniforms with chests full of medals for valor. Both had extensive experience fighting antigovernment guerrillas.

Growing up the son of a general provided Jorge with many advantages, from financial security and social respect to opportunities for travel- including an extended stay in the United States while his father was on assignment in Kansas. It also influenced his views on groups like FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), against whom his father waged war. At home and in the reserves, Jorge saw the guerrillas as irredeemable terrorists, and he came to share frustrations widely held in the military that government-sanctioned peace talks simply allowed guerrillas to regroup and resupply.

"We're trying to talk them to death," Mario complained to Jorge.

Even for a military hero like Major del Basto, such criticism of the civilian leadership was dangerous. He shared his opinions only with close friends until his rage could be contained no longer. At the close of 1988, del Basto rejected a promotion to colonel and quit the army. He blasted President Virgilio Barco for coddling FARC. Then he disappeared. Jorge hadn't heard from Mario for days-not until the mysterious phone call that led him aboard this Avianca airlines flight.

"We're going to see some Cali guys," Mario began moments after they were airborne. He was leaning across the empty middle seat between them. Engine noise protected their privacy.

"Do I know them?"

"It's possible. They're important local businessmen."

Jorge had lived in Cali as a boy, when his father was the army brigade commander there. Again in the early 1980s, he resided there while working as a partner and engineer at a battery-manufacturing plant just outside Colombia's third-largest city.

"What I can tell you," Mario went on, "is that these people have a serious problem with Pablo Escobar. He's bombing their businesses, threatening their families-it's a terrible situation."

Jorge's expression abruptly hardened to a glare. "Don't tell me-we're going to see the Cali cartel guys?"

By January 1989, everyone in Colombia knew about the raging feud between Escobar's Medellín cartel and his rivals in Cali. For nearly a year, headlines carried gruesome accounts of bombings, dismemberments, and shootings. The number of innocent-bystander deaths mounted. Like most of his friends and cohorts, Jorge feared and loathed Pablo Escobar. The drug boss had declared war on the Colombian government in a campaign to overturn Bogotá's extradition treaty with Washington. His paid assassins targeted national officials, local police, criminal investigators, and judges. A Medellín hit team struck especially close to home when it gunned down one of Jorge's boyhood friends, a popular minister of justice named Rodrigo Lara Bonilla.

Jorge didn't know much about Escobar's rivals in Cali, except by reputation. They were regarded as less violent-at least they did not kill public figures. In fact, the southern bosses were widely known as "the Gentlemen of Cali." Nonetheless, Jorge never considered taking sides. The war between the cartels was none of his business.

"You should have told me," Jorge said. "Maybe I don't want to meet them."

Mario shrugged. "But they want to meet you."

Jorge shook his head in wonder. A big organized crime outfit wanted to see him. Why? Mario looked around to see that no one was listening and continued.

Soon after leaving the army, Mario said, he had been called to Cali and offered a position managing security for the Rodríguez Orejuela family. Jorge recognized the name. They were owners of a national chain of discount pharmacies and a professional soccer team, among many other legitimate interests. But it was common knowledge that they were also big-time traffickers. Like Escobar, they denied any drug ties. Unlike Escobar, they kept a low profile.

"These guys are afraid for their lives and for their families," Mario said. "Pablo is trying to kill them-men, women, children, everyone." He said it was especially unfair to the Rodríguez Orejuela clan because "they are not violent people." Mario described his new job as keeping innocent women and children safe from Escobar's hired killers.

"And they think you can help, too."

"So, it's not the cartel drug business," Jorge said with obvious relief.

"No, of course not." Mario dropped his voice so that even Jorge could barely hear him: "But don't talk about cartels. They hate the word. There is no Cali cartel, you understand? They're businessmen."

"I see. All right, but-why me?"

Jorge considered himself a businessman who recycled motor oil and an engineer who designed manufacturing systems or tinkered with cameras and radios. In the army reserves he specialized in surveillance and intelligence, a relatively new area of personal interest. Still, he saw no obvious reasons for a summons to Cali.

He asked again: "Why?"

Mario smiled, sat back, and said nothing.

***

Jorge wasn't looking for a job that morning in January. He already had business deals brewing on several fronts-including potentially lucrative negotiations with the Colombian military. Jorge had recently begun representing some European companies interested in landing defense contracts in Colombia and other Latin American countries, clients he picked up during the previous year while attending an international exhibition of military suppliers in London. He returned with samples of night-vision gear, encrypted radios, and surveillance devices he hoped to sell to army procurement officials in Bogotá.

But what most intrigued one of the Bogotá generals was the business card of David Tomkins, a colorful arms dealer based near London. Tomkins and a group of retired British special forces soldiers offered to instruct the Colombian army in guerrilla-fighting techniques. Jorge relayed their proposal.

"These trainers, they are also mercenaries?" asked the general. He had once served as an aide to Jorge's father. He knew he could trust the old general's son. "Would your contacts consider a clandestine mission against the FARC?"

Within a few days, Jorge was flying back to England. There, he presented Tomkins with a proposed assignment: attack and destroy FARC's showcase mountain headquarters known as Casa Verde. The Colombian military would secretly support the raid-providing arms, explosives, and transportation-but it had to be done in such a way that the army could deny involvement.

The British mercenaries had flexible ideologies that could accommodate a wide array of customers, but they tended to be staunchly anticommunist. To clinch the deal, Jorge pointed out FARC's long- standing support from Fidel Castro. The Brits eagerly signed on. Their field leader was a Scotsman named Peter McAleese, a tough former Special Air Service (SAS) sergeant and paratrooper who once survived a jump with a failed parachute.

FARC had many enemies. Guerrilla bands had attacked remote villages, seized farmers, miners, and ranchers for ransom, and even dared to kidnap drug traffickers. When the British commandos arrived in Colombia, they were welcomed by an unlikely alliance of rich cattlemen, miners, and leaders of the Medellín cocaine cartel. Primary funding for the mission came from José Rodríguez-Gacha, a major landowner and a trafficking partner of Pablo Escobar's. With dissident military officials providing arms and munitions, the Brits were backed by a Faustian ensemble-what Colombians called la mesa del Diablo . . . "the Devil's table." And Jorge served as maître d'.

Through the summer of 1988, Jorge-code-named Richard-was the secret liaison between the commandos and their Colombian supporters. If the mission were exposed, the army would disavow any knowledge. Jorge was responsible for keeping the Brits fed, housed, supplied, and out of public view. One of the few with whom he shared details of the operation was Mario del Basto. Jorge took him to jungle training sites and introduced the major to Tomkins and McAleese.

Preparations for the attack dragged on for months. The Brits were ready, but the dissident military officers hesitated. They were fearful of a political backlash and ultimately unwilling to risk their military careers. In the end, the same cabal of military officials who had launched the secret plan called it off.

Nonetheless, the commandos left happy and well paid, thanks to the wealthy Medellín ranchers and traffickers who reimbursed the Brits for training ragtag elements of their private armies. One drug boss had even sent his son for jungle combat training. In November 1988, Tomkins and McAleese were the last to fly home. In a farewell meeting with Jorge, they embraced and said they were eager for future assignments. "Until next time," McAleese said.

Jorge immediately returned to his neglected business interests, but now-eight weeks later-he was flying to Cali and wondering why.

A car from the InterContinental hotel was waiting for them at Cali's Alfonso Bonilla Aragón International Airport. Luxury hotel suites were also waiting, stocked with fresh fruits and flowers-compliments of the Rodríguez Orejuela family. A message said that their afternoon appointment with "the gentlemen" was delayed. A car would pick them up around ten o'clock that night.

The timing was not coincidental. In light nighttime traffic, anyone trying to follow the car would be more easily detected. Jorge knew Cali well and realized immediately that they were doubling back, circling, and watching to be sure that no one was tailing them. Jorge felt his first twinge of anxiety. Since childhood, he had been prone to mild attacks of claustrophobia. In the backseat of the Cali cartel car, his throat tightened. He took a deep breath and wiped a sweaty palm on his slacks. He didn't want Mario to notice. But he also couldn't help feeling that his friend had put him in a difficult spot.

The winding drive finally ended at a high-walled compound. Their car entered through a large gate that shut behind them. Jorge glanced around as he stepped out. He saw security lapses everywhere. Dozens of bodyguards milled about, bristling with firearms, but they seemed most intent on swatting mosquitoes. No one inspected the car. Curiously to Jorge, all sentries were inside the walls. He saw no one posted outside.

Even in the dark, Jorge could see that the auto court was full of cars- mostly Mazda sedans and midsized SUVs-parked at haphazard angles. A handful of smaller cars effectively blocked all the others. In an emergency, all but a few would be trapped.

A cartel security man greeted them just outside the door to the main house. José Estrada was about forty, a retired army sergeant. He escorted Jorge and Mario through a seemingly empty house. The floors were polished white marble. The white walls and ceilings were freshly painted. The furniture was luxurious white leather. Jorge saw no books, no toys, no children, none of the clutter of family life. It looked like a showcase for interior designers or a furniture showroom. The style gave Jorge his first clue to the manners and tastes of the drug lords: practical, efficient, and businesslike.

The visitors were ushered into a spacious office where four men were waiting. So, these were the Cali cartel godfathers, Jorge thought-men who could play God with human lives, dictate government policies, and influence the national economy. They were not particularly imposing physically. At nearly six feet two, Jorge was taller than anyone in the room. As Mario made the introductions, Jorge greeted each boss with a smile and a handshake. They seemed pleased to meet him-and completely harmless, almost benign.

Pacho Herrera, thirty-seven, was the youngest of the four. This was one of his houses-his white palette, his sterile rooms. He looked as if he had just stepped off the pages of a gentleman's fashion magazine. Pacho was the only unmarried godfather. He was homosexual. Jorge thought that Pacho had the empathetic, easygoing manner of a young priest. What he didn't know was that the gay gangster ran the most brutal wing of enforcers in the cartel.

Chepe Santacruz, forty-five, was in denim and cotton and looked the part of a farmer or rancher who had just come in from the stables. He seemed jovial and self-deprecating, even a bit mischievous. But he sometimes took his penchant for teasing too far. His rough edges showed in the coarseness of his conversation. Chepe was proudly unsophisticated. He also was a street fighter. And in brawls, as in practical jokes, overkill was his trademark.

Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela, almost fifty, was the talker, an often charming raconteur who had the look of a well-fed professor. He immediately put Jorge at ease and seemed to be the official host, the presiding officer of the meeting. Throughout the evening, Jorge recognized Gilberto's unspoken authority as others in the room deferred to him.

Gilberto's younger brother Miguel, forty-five, was a stern-faced man who seemed endlessly weary. He said little, but missed nothing. In deference to his place in the cartel, he was known as Don Miguel or simply El Señor. Chepe liked to call him Limón, or "Lemon," for his pinched expression and sour disposition. No one else dared use the nickname to the don's face. ...

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