The Rise and Fall of the "Gentlemen from Cali

September 25, 2007

Cali drug lords Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela rose to the top of the cocaine trade the old-fashioned way. They got rid of the competition. Among black marketeers, the easiest way of get- ting rid of a rival is often to arrange for his or her capture by the police. In the case of the Rodriguez brothers, the troublesome rival was Pablo Escobar, the cocaine godfather of Medellin. Where Escobar was violent and flamboyant, the Rodriguez brothers were just the opposite--quiet, publicity-shy busi- nessmen who preferred making friends to enemies and liked to get by greasing palms rather than blow- ing opponents to bits. Even the cops referred to them as "the gentlemen of Cali." Initially, the Cali and Medellin organizations col- laborated. But something happened that changed the behavior of the Cali gentlemen, though what it was is not entirely clear. Perhaps a glutted cocaine market led to height- ened trade tension. Perhaps Escobar took offense when the Rodriguez brothers refused to join in his mount- ing war against the Colombian state (Gilberto's self-serving explanation for the rift in a 1991 interview).' Or per- haps the boys from Cali perceived a business advantage in joining a grow- ing crusade against a competitor who, all sides agreed, had grown too big for his britches. Whatever the case, one thing is cer- tain: by the early 1990s, the Cali forces were aiding and abetting the Colombian government's campaign to arrest Escobar and destroy his organi- zation. Despite their peaceful reputa- tion, the Call forces reportedly provid- ed not only information but firepow- er; as Time magazine put it, they were "plainly" the motivating force behind a hit squad known as the PEPES (People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar), reportedly responsible for assassinating more than 60 of Escobar's supporters, associates and employ- ees. 2 By December, 1993, the goal had been achieved. Escobar was dead at the hands of the state security forces, his organization was in disarray, and the Cali group was firmly ensconced as the No. 1 cocaine-smuggling operation in the world, with bil- lions a year in revenue. This was heady stuff for a couple of entrepreneurs who started life as the sons of an unsuccessful painter and draughtsman. Gilberto, known as "the chess-player" for his calm, cerebral style, quit school at age 15, opened his first drugstore at 25, and, by the time he was in his 50s, commanded a diversified I I business empire. Although no one knows precisely when he got into drugs, there is little doubt that narco-profits were the driving force behind his above-ground business expansion. Miguel, younger by a half-dozen years, was usually described as the more driven of the two, an obsessive Type-A person- ality who would zealously monitor petty items like electricity bills and magazine subscriptions to keep expenses in line. Both described themselves as family men, sports fans and, in the case of Gilberto, a pas- sionate poetry devotee. "Most of all I work for the progress of Colombia," Gilberto insisted in a 1991 interview. "In Cali alone, I employ more than 4,000 people. This city is the most peaceful and prosperous in the country." 3 Perhaps. But drug-enforcement officials say the Rodriguez brothers used their legal business activi- ties to launder funds, obtain supplies and gather intelligence information needed to keep their underground operations going. By the mid-1990s, the Rodriguez brothers were getting a taste of their own medicine as they found themselves increasingly under attack by the United States, by the Colombian government and by their own drug rivals. In mid-1995, the Colombian authorities arrested Gilberto, Miguel and a number of their top henchmen. A year later, narco-assassins opened up on William Rodriguez, Miguel's oldest son and heir apparent, while he was eating dinner in a Cali restaurant. William was shot six times but sur- vived thanks to a bodyguard, who threw himself in the line of fire and took 37 slugs intended for his boss. It was a sign of the Rodriguez clan's growing isolation and beleaguer- ment. A day after the attack, accord- ing to a Colombian newspaper report, police intercepted a telephone call in which Miguel's chief lieutenant told him: "I don't know what to do. You haven't got a single ally. We haven't got anybody, even the ones we called friends are the ones causing us most harm." 4 Alone and surround- ed, the Rodriguez brothers had followed their erst- while colleague Pablo Escobar to the bottom.E 1. John Moody, "A Day with the Chess Player, Time, July 1, 1991, p. 34. 2. Elizabeth Gleick, "Kingpin Checkmate," Time, June 19, 1995, p. 32. 3. Tom Quinn, "Passion-fruit Mousse with the 'King of Cocaine,' " The Sunday Telegraph, June 30, 1991, p. 16. 4. "Tapes Show Colombia Call Kingpins Not Most Powerful," Reuters North American Wire, October 13, 1996.


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