Background to the Colombian Drugs Cartels

Medellin Cartel

The title of the centre of the American cocaine trade was adopted by Colombia from Chile in the late 1970’s. Trade was small and it inhabited a natural home in Medellin, a city already historically known for its illicit activities. At the time, there were two people dominating the cocaine trade in Medellin, Fabio Ochoa sr. and Pablo Escobar. (Anderson, A History of the Medellin Cartel, 1988) Graffiti of Pablo EscobarFabio Ochoa sr. already had connections and trading routes used for smuggling and it was Escobar who persuaded Ochoa in 1978 to start smuggling the more profitable cocaine. It was in 1981 when the drug smugglers: Carlos Lehder, Jorge Luis Ochoa and Fabio Ochoa jr. (sons of Fabio Ochoa sr.) joined Escobar and Ochoa sr. to create the Medellin Cartel. They soon had extremely slick operations of smuggling drugs into the USA by employing a vast number of different professions, from pilots to government officials. (Chepesiuk, 1999) However the infamy of the cartel was not due to their methods of drug smuggling, but because of their ruthlessness and violence. They did not hesitate to kill anybody that posed a threat to them, or anyone that stood in their way. Pablo Escobar “is believed to have ordered the assassinations of Colombian justice minister, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, in April 1984 and American DEA informant, Barry seal, in February 1984”[1]. The wealth of the Medellin Cartel was almost unimaginable. In 1989, Pablo Escobar had an estimated net worth of $9 billion and Carlos Lehder’s estimated net worth was $2.7 billion. (Zschoche, 2008) They lived lives of excess, buying aeroplanes, zoos and mansions, while also investing in their local community by building affordable houses and football pitches for the poor. However it was their extreme use of violence which ultimately led to their downfall. On 5th February 1987 Carlos Lehder was captured by the Colombian Police and subsequently extradited to the USA and sentenced to 135 years in prison. Later in 1989, Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha was killed and the Ochoa brothers all turned themselves in to the police. In 1991, Escobar gave himself into the police and was sent to a private prison mansion called La Catedral. In this mansion, Escobar controlled and ran the cartel and was allowed visitors whenever he wanted. In July 1992 Escobar escaped La Catedral after threats of moving him to another prison. After his escape from prison a huge manhunt began, headed by a special Colombian police force backed by the US army and a group of his enemies known as Los PEPE’s (People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar). Pablo Escobar was eventually shot dead on 2nd December 1993, consequently marking an end to the Medellin Cartel.

Cali Cartel

Miguel OrejuelaThe Cali Cartel was the main rival in terms of size and power to the Medellin Cartel. However throughout most of the 1980’s it was inferior, and only gained superiority after the arrests of the Medellin Cartel members in the late 1980’s and the death of Pablo Escobar in 1993. The main founders of the Cartel were the brothers Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, and their friend Jose Santacruz Londoño. They started off in the drug trade in the 1970’s in trafficking marijuana. (Chepesiuk, 1999) In the same manner as the Ochoa’s of the Medellin Cartel, they decided to progress onto the Cocaine business due to the lure of increasing profits and higher prices. In 1975, Hernando Giraldo Soto was sent to New York to establish trade links in Queens for the Cali Cartel, thus giving them a power base within the United States. A power base which could rival the Miami headquarters of the Medellin Cartel. The cartel kept growing at an exponential rate to the point that "in 1996, it was believed the Cartel was grossing $7 billion in annual revenue from the US alone.”[2] There are two significant ways in which the Cali Cartel differed from the Medellin Cartel, the first being the more professional nature of the Cali Cartel, and the second one being the way the Cali Cartel was organised. The Cali Cartel was much less inclined to resort to violence than the ruthless Medellin Cartel. They acted like a legitimate corporation. According to Robert Bryden, head of the New York DEA, “The Cali Cartel will kill you if they have to, but they would rather use a lawyer.”[3]Gilberto Orejuela They even owned many legitimate businesses like apartment blocks, car dealerships, a large drug store chain, and of course, the football team, América de Cali. This is summarised well by Chepesiuk, claiming that "[Cali cartel co-founder Gilberto Rodriguez] became known as the “Chess Player” for his ruthless and calculating approach to the drug business. … The Rodriguez brothers … controlled Cali in the way that feudal barons once ruled medieval estates. … Buy Colombia, rather than terrorize it, became their guiding philosophy. … The cartel built dozens of high-rise offices and apartment buildings as a way of laundering their money. The Cali skyline changed, and thousands of jobs were created. Their money permeated the city’s economy, and the natives became addicted to laundered cash and conspicuous consumption."[4]  It was this reluctance to violence which allowed the Cali Cartel to flourish slightly under the radar, while the Medellin Cartel constantly made violent headlines all across the globe. The Cali Cartel also had a very unique structure and organisation. They were organised into individual cells which were responsible for different sections, from narco-trafficking to finance. Each cell was highly responsible for its own activity. This is contrasting to the highly centralised control of the Medellin Cartel by Escobar. (Washington, 1991) However the Cali Cartel came to an end in the late 1990’s when the majority of the leaders of the Cartel, including the Orejuela brothers, were captured by the Colombian police backed by the DEA and sentenced to life imprisonment.  Along with the Medellin Cartel, the Cali Cartel was one of the most powerful criminal organisations in history. According to the DEA, in 1991, the Cali Cartel produces 70% of the coke reaching the U.S. today, according to the DEA, and 90% of the drug sold in Europe.”[5]

[1] Jack Anderson, A history of the Medellin Cartel, The Byron Times, 1988,4841722

[2] Kevin Fedarko, OUTWITTING CALI'S PROFESSOR MORIARTY, TIME, 1995,,9171,983173,00.html

[3] Ron Chepesiuk, The War on Drugs An International Encyclopedia, 2001.

[4] Ron Chepesiuk, Drug Lords: The Rise and Fall of the Cali Cartel, 2005

[5] Elaine Shannon Washington, Cover Stories: New Kings of Coke, TIME (24/06/1991)