William C. Rempel, who for 36 years worked as an investigative reporter and editor at the L.A. Times, has written the book At the Devil's Table: The Untold Story of the Insider Who Brought Down the Cali Cartel, which came out last month. The insider in question is Jorge Salcedo, the former head of security for the Cali Cartel in Colombia, who secretly turned on his employer in the late '90s by becoming an informant for the DEA.
Rempel discusses and signs his book at Vroman's Bookstore tonight, but if you can't make it to Pasadena, here are seven astounding revelations about Colombian drug lords from the book.
7. The vicious blood feud between the Cali Cartel in the south (headed by the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers) and the Medellín cartel in the north (Pablo Escobar) all started in the late '80s in New York City, when a pair of mid-level cocaine traffickers had a fatal feud over a woman. The dead man's friends were allies of Escobar. The shooter sought sanctuary with Cali boss Hélmer “Pacho” Herrera. When neither side would back down, Escobar vowed to his former comrades: “Then this is war — and I'm going to kill every one of you sons of bitches.”
6. Herrera, the youngest of the four Cali godfathers, oversaw the most brutal wing of killers in the entire cartel. He was also openly gay, looked as if he had just stepped off the pages of GQ, and lived in an all-white compound with white marble floors, white walls and ceilings, and white leather furniture.
5. Unlike Escobar, who was known for hoarding his cash in rat-infested bunkers, the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers laundered their money in legitimate businesses. They owned radio stations, grocery markets, a national chain of discount drug stores (Drogas la Rebaja) and a professional soccer team, América de Cali.
4. The war between Cali and Medellín was briefly distracted in 1991 when both sides focused all their resources on a mutually beneficial goal: a new Colombian Constitution that would ban the extradition of citizens (including wanted drug lords) to the United States. Cali used bribes; Medellín used violence. Their efforts paid off. (Colombia eventually restored its extradition treaty with the U.S. in 1997.)
3. In 1993, one-third of the police and military in Cali, Medellín and Bogotá were on the drug lords' payroll. The Cali cartel's accountant wrote checks to police informants averaging about $20,000 a month; National Police snitches got about $60,000 a month. A drop in the bucket, considering the crime syndicate's annual revenue had exceeded $7 billion by 1993.
2. By the mid-90s, the Cali cartel had wire-tapping and communications equipment far superior to their police counterparts. Top boss Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela demanded that all his homes be outfitted with top-notch Panasonic phone lines with on-hold music and conference calling abilities. Callers on hold for the drug lord were treated to Scott Joplin's ragtime theme from The Sting.
1. Salcedo, the man responsible for the toppling of the Cali Cartel in 1995, was a mild-mannered engineer and head of security for Miguel Rodrígez Orejuela. Tired of the bloodshed, Salcedo became a double agent, leading two young American DEA agents to his boss's hideout, while pretending to protect him. Salcedo, his wife and children are still living in witness protection, somewhere in the U.S., under assumed names.
Rempel spent 12 years and thousands of hours interviewing Salcedo. They've met only three times. He still doesn't know where Salcedo lives or how to contact him. They speak only when Salcedo calls him.
Rempel discusses and signs At the Devil's Table, Wednesday. July 6 at 7 p.m. at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena. vromansbookstore.com