Decline of the Medellin Cartel and the Rise of the Cali Mafia

Pablo Escobar 'Wanted' poster with faces crossed out signifying that he and his entourage had been killed.In the early 1990s the Medellin Cartel was waging a campaign of terror and bribery to pressure the Colombian government to prohibit the extradition of native Colombians. Pablo Escobar and several other Medellin leaders, labeled “The Extraditables,” took increasingly violent measures to try to force the government to accept legislation that would protect them from extradition. The cartel was responsible for the assassinations of dozens of government officials, and the bribery of many more. When, in July 1991, the Colombian congress adopted a new constitution that prohibited the extradition of the Colombian natives, it was considered a major victory for the Medellin Cartel.

However, the many law enforcement efforts to topple the Medellin cartel were resulting in numerous surrenders and arrests that eventually led to the cartel’s demise. For example, in December 1990, cartel leader Fabio Ochoa surrendered to authorities near Medellin. Shortly, after, in January 1991, Fabio Ochoa’s brother, Jorge Luis, also turned himself into the CNP. The brothers, along with Pablo Escobar, had been the top leaders of the cartel. Also, in January 1991, the CNP killed David Ricardo Prisco Lopera, Pablo Escobar’s top assassin, along with his younger brother, Armando Alberto Prisco. The Priscos were wanted for ordering the murders of 50 Medellin police officers, for several terrorist bombings, and for nine assassinations, including that of a Colombian Justice Minister in 1984. In February 1991, a third Ochoa brother, Juan David surrendered.

Law enforcement efforts were increasingly directed at Pablo Escobar, the kingpin of the Medellin cartel. In June 1991, Escobar surrendered to authorities, and was put in Envigado prison. However, the Colombian government had agreed in Escobar’s surrender negotiations that security at Envigado prison would be the responsibility of Army guards and Escobar’s own, handpicked bodyguards. In reality, Envigado prison protected, rather than incarcerated him. Escobar’s period at the prison was considered his “Golden Age,” during which time he ran his drug empire without fear of being hunted by the Colombian Government or assassinated by his rivals.

In July 1992, Escobar “escaped” from Envigado prison in order to avoid being transferred to a Bogota jail after it was confirmed that Escobar had ordered the murder of some 22 of his own drug mafia associates. One or two of Escobar’s victims were even tortured, killed, and buried on the grounds of Envigado prison. Escobar clearly had prior warning of the plan to transfer him to a more secure prison, and 28 guards were later charged with aiding and abetting Escobar’s “break out.” For 17 months, Escobar was the target of the largest manhunt in Colombian history. In December 1993, the CNP killed Escobar in a fire fight at a private residence in downtown Medellin. Escobar’s death, along with the surrender and arrest of the Ochoa brothers marked the decline of the Medellin cartel.

The Cali mafia had been formed in the early 1970s by Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela and Jose Santacruz-Londono, and rose quietly alongside its violent rival, the Medellin Cartel. But while the Medellin Cartel gained an international reputation for brutality and murder, the Cali traffickers posed as legitimate businessmen. This unique criminal enterprise initially involved itself in counterfeiting and kidnapping, but gradually expanded into smuggling cocaine base from Peru and Bolivia to Colombia for conversion into powder cocaine.

photo of Fabio Ochoa-Vasquez
Fabio Ochoa-Vasquez
photo of Juan Ochoa-Vasquez
Juan Ochoa-Vasquez
photo of Jorge Ochoa-Vasquez
Jorge Ochoa-Vasquez
photo of Miguel Rodriguez-Orejuela
Miguel Rodriguez-Orejuela
photo of Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela
Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela
photo of Jose Santacruz-Londono
Jose Santacruz-Londono

Up through the early 1990s, the Medellin Cartel had dominated the drug trade, but its reign of relentless public terror against the Colombian government had driven Colombian authorities to serious action that led to their ultimate defeat. By the early 1990s, the Medellin drug lords were either killed or incarcerated. Having observed the fate of the brutal and violent Medellin Cartel, the Cali leaders passed themselves off as law-abiding businessmen, investing in their country’s future, earning public respect, and taking economic control of the Cali region. Because they operated in a less violent manner, the government did not aggressively pursue them, thereby allowing the Cali mafia leaders to operate and grow in wealth and power with virtual impunity.

In the global arena, the cartels began expanding their markets to Europe. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, they quickly moved into Eastern Europe, taking advantage of the political and economic chaos by using these newly-created democracies as the “backdoor” to transit their cocaine to Western Europe. For example in 1992, large loads of cocaine were seized in Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary. In 1993, Russian authorities seized 1.1 tons of cocaine hidden in cans of corned beef hash. This shipment originated in Cali, Colombia, and was destined for the Netherlands, via St. Petersburg, Russia.

In the new, post-Cold War Europe, without border controls and an eastern border sealed against communism, international businesses and world governments were threatened by the drug cartels from Colombia.

photo - Escobar's death

On December 2, 1993, Escobar’s exact location was determined using electronic, directional-finding equipment. With authorities closing in, a fire fight with Escobar and his bodyguard ensued. The two fugitives attempted to escape by running across the roofs of adjoining houses to reach a back street, but both were shot and killed by Colombian National Police.

In the early 1990s, the DEA estimated that they collectively produced and exported from Colombia between 500 and 800 tons of cocaine a year. The organizations were structured and operated much like major international corporations. They had enormous financial resources, with which they could afford to buy the best legal minds, the most sophisticated technology, and the most skilled financial experts.

Among the major Cali drug lords, the Rodriguez-Orejuela brothers–Gilberto and his younger brother, Miguel–were known as the transportation specialists who moved cocaine out of Colombia into the United States and other countries. Gilberto was responsible for the strategic, long-term planning of the organization. Miguel was the hands-on manager who ran the day-to-day operations. Jose Santacruz-Londono was responsible for establishing distribution cells in the United States.

These Cali leaders ran an incredibly sophisticated, highly-structured drug trafficking organization that was tightly controlled by its leaders in Cali. Each day, details of loads and money shipments were electronically dictated to heads of cocaine cells operating within the United States. The Cali drug lords knew the how, when, and where of every cocaine shipment, down to the markings on the packages. The Cali bosses set production targets for the cocaine they sold and were intimately involved in every phase of the business–production, transportation, financing, and communications.

Each organization had its own hierarchy of leaders, its own distribution networks, and customers in nations around the world. The operations were divided into separate cells. Each cell was run by a cell director–always a Colombian national–who reported directly to the drug lords in Colombia. These organizations were truly international operations run with efficiency and geared for huge profits. The massive scale of their trafficking operations dwarfed law enforcement efforts in Colombia, in the United States, and in the transit nations between them.