LATIN AMERICA

The man who dined at the Devil’s table

Having once been in charge of the feared Cali cartel's security, Jorge Salcedo has long since been living a new life, after having turned informer

Police officers escort the drug kingpin Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela in 2004.
Police officers escort the drug kingpin Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela in 2004.AP

In an unnamed fast-food restaurant somewhere in the United States, a 60-year-old man answers his cellphone. "Hi, I'm Jorge Salcedo. How can I help you?" The telephone interview with EL PAÍS has been set up through a friend of Salcedo, using a disposable phone that will most likely be used only for this occasion and then thrown away.

Salcedo is a hard man to locate. But that is the idea. For the last 15 years he has been in hiding from the Cali cartel, having got a new identity from the US authorities after he played a key role in bringing down the notorious drug organization.

Colombia in the 1980s was the scene of a bloody war between the country's drug gangs, and its best-known figure was Pablo Escobar, who controlled trade in the city of Medellín. His hired guns killed anybody who got in his way: judges, police officers, civil servants, and many bystanders who had nothing to do with the drugs trade or the fight against it.

Salcedo had come to hate Escobar, and was angry at the violence, the kidnappings and the corruption that was destroying his country. A friend of his, a judge, had been killed by Escobar's men. So in January 1989, when he was given the chance to do something about it, he seized the opportunity. The Cali cartel, run by the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers, wanted Escobar dead. Salcedo, an engineer who had worked in the security business, and who hoped to start his own company, knew a group of British mercenaries, and put the Cali cartel in touch with them.

The attempt on Escobar's life failed, but as a result, Salcedo soon found himself taking care of the Cali cartel's security. His job was to protect the gang's bosses, and in so doing, he came to learn a great deal about what was by now the world's most powerful drug cartel.

Salcedo knew, for example, which politicians and government officials the gang had bought. But as he became further involved with the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers, he realized that his life was no longer his, and that he would never be able to leave the gang. When he was given an order to assassinate somebody, he decided to contact the DEA. "I had no alternative: it was either get out, or die," he says.

Salcedo's story came to light thanks to the work of Los Angeles Times journalist William C. Rempel, who last year published At the Devil's Table, based on more than 1,000 hours of telephone interviews. In the process of creating the book, they developed a unique relationship.

"Jorge and I are good friends. But it's a strange friendship. I have never met him in person; I don't know where he lives. We may never meet," says Rempel.

Salcedo says that even after 15 years as part of the DEA's witness-protection program, he hasn't gotten used to his new life. "You are always looking over your shoulder. I keep a low profile, and I live somewhere where it is easy to keep an eye on who is coming and going. But my best protection is my new name, and knowing that I did the right thing," he says.

By 1991, Pablo Escobar had cut a deal with the Colombian authorities, and although he had been sent to prison, he continued to control his drug empire from behind bars. He had been installed in a luxury prison known as "The Cathedral." The Cali cartel wanted to bomb the prison, but Salcedo wasn't prepared to accept the loss of life involved. He stood up to the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers, and convinced them that it was a bad idea. But he felt that he was increasingly under suspicion, and that they could turn on him at any moment.

In 1993, Escobar escaped from jail. The Cali cartel took advantage of the nationwide manhunt that prevented Escobar from running his drugs business, and expanded its operation. At the end of the year, on December 2, Escobar was cornered and gunned down in a Medellín apartment block by police and soldiers.

With Escobar out of the way, the DEA and the Colombian authorities now turned their attention to dealing with the Cali cartel. Salcedo found himself increasingly under pressure as he tried to manage the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers' security. In 1994, the police arrested Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela. His brother, Miguel, suspected the gang's accountant, Guillermo Pallomari, of betrayal, and ordered Salcedo to kill him. That was when Salcedo first tried to contact the US authorities, calling the CIA, but failing to get past the switchboard.

Eventually, through a lawyer in Florida called Joel Rosenthal, who had been arrested by the DEA for laundering the Cali cartel's money, Salcedo was able to contact the US authorities and offer them the remaining brother.

The first attempt to arrest Rodríguez Orejuela was bungled after he was tipped off. Salcedo feared that he had blown his cover, and placed a wiretap in the gang leader's car. His worst fears were confirmed when he heard two gang members saying that they suspected him.

The next day, Rodríguez Orejuela confronted Salcedo, telling him calmly: "They tell me that you were very nervous on the day they tried to arrest me."

Salcedo knew that he had little time. In August of 1995, he gave the police a drawing showing the location of Rodríguez Orejuela's hideout in Cali. This time, the operation was a success, and the remaining brother was arrested.

The brothers continued to run their drugs empire from jail in Colombia. But two years later, in 1997, the US and Colombia reestablished an extradition treaty. In 2005 the brothers were brought before a US court and found guilty of drug trafficking, and sentenced to a minimum of 25 years in jail.

"The best thing about this whole story is that it is true," says Salcedo, still aware that even from a US jail, the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers will be trying to locate him and have him killed.

In the meantime, he says that he is getting on with rebuilding his life. He has set up a business, and is using his engineering skills to design and patent equipment. He says he feels guilty at having turned his family's lives upside down. His two children knew nothing about his story until Rempel's book was published last year. "My daughter recently asked me why I didn't tell her myself. She now has nightmares from time to time. My wife also suffered. The reason I didn't tell my daughter anything is simple. It was a question of security; it was for her own safety."

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