Cocaine kingpins stick to their guns

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The dismantling of Colombia’s Cali cocaine cartel eliminated the biggest single dealer of drugs in the world, but the hundreds of smaller operators who have followed present anti-drug warriors with a host of new challenges.

“We've ... slain a dragon, but in its place the vacuum has been filled by dozens and dozens and dozens of poisonous snakes,” said Frank Ciluffo, who tracks organized crime for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

Drugs trade still thriving
While the 1995 arrest of the leaders of the Cali cartel was touted as a major accomplishment by Colombian authorities, the demise of the fearsome drug-running organization has done little if anything to cut the supply of illegal substances flowing out of the country.

“In some cases it’s even more difficult (today) because we don’t have the intelligence we once had when we knew who the adversary was,” said Ciluffo. “Now you’ve got tons of smaller players, but by no means less lethal players.”

U.S. drug-fighters have had some success in Bolivia and, to a lesser extent Peru, in using development aid to get coca farmers to switch to other crops, but again Colombia’s cocaine corps, to a large degree, has taken up the slack.

One of the bigger post-Cali smugglers to come to the attention of authorities is Alberto Orlandez, Gamboa, nicknamed “The Snail,” who was arrested in June 1998 in Bogota, and charged with murder, kidnapping and running an illicit drug operation.

Extradition request
He is currently the subject of a U.S. extradition request that alleges he has continued to direct the “Caracol Organization” from his jail cell, among other things arranging for the importation of 850 kilograms of cocaine to New York City and for the laundering of millions of dollars in proceeds from drug sales.

U.S. authorities also are seeking extradition of the leaders of the Cali cartel — Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez Orjuela — and several associates, who remain in jail in Colombia.

In the meantime, Colombian authorities have seized more than 2,700 properties, 2,200 automobiles, 125 airplanes, 175 boats and $10 million in cash from them and their associates — a haul that U.S. authorities say is only the tip of their ill-gotten iceberg.

Following the death of Medellin cartel leader Pablo Escobar in a shootout with police in 1993, the Cali cartel moved into the void to become the world’s biggest exporter of cocaine. U.S. officials believe the Cali cartel, at its height, produced as much as 85 percent of the cocaine smuggled into the United States and, by one estimate, the drug lords were banking $300 billion a year from their empire, which expanded to include Europe.

Political influence
The Cali cooperative used narcotics proceeds to win influence in the Colombian government — including allegedly contributing millions of dollars to the campaign of President Ernesto Samper. At the same time, they and their brethren in the cocaine trade were quick to react to the slightest sign of internal opposition, snuffing out any judge or police officer who dares to cross them.

But while Cali leaders occasionally used a sledge hammer in public, they exhibited a very soft touch in other ways, building a sophisticated money-laundering operation and plowing proceeds into legitimate businesses, including the purchase of Colombia’s top soccer team.

They also entered into strategic alliances with Russian crime groups and the Mafia to create new markets for its product, and also diversified into heroin trafficking, according to U.S. officials.

While Asia and the Middle East continue to produce their share of what U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan recently estimated was a $500 billion a year industry in illegal drug smuggling, Colombia remains at the forefront of the U.S.-led war on drugs.

“Colombia today is clearly on the top of everyone’s radar list, not just for the narcotics piece but also for the fact that it’s a democracy teetering on ungovernability,” said Ciluffo, referring to the government’s long-running battle with leftist rebels such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). “... The U.S. is doing what it can to support the Colombians and advise the Colombians in the challenge there.”