Good-Bye Pablo Escobar, Hello Rodriguez Brothers: The Real Cali Cartel of ‘Narcos’ Season 3

‘Narcos Inc’ author shares remarkable facts about the Cali Cartel.

September 5, 2017 5:00 am

Pablo Escobar is gone, but Narcos continues.

Much as cocaine didn’t magically vanish with the death of Escobar in 1993, so the Netflix series lives on with the Cali Cartel. Four godfathers lead the next season of the show’s focus: Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, “Pacho” Herrera and “Don Chepe” Santacruz Londono.

Incredibly, two of the four are still alive: brothers Gilberto and Miguel.

Crime Beat radio show host and author Ron Chepesiuk (whose books include Narcos Inc: The Rise and Fall of the Cali Cartel) explains why these siblings warrant the Escobar treatment.

(Incidentally, Narcos fans can safely read this without worrying too much about spoilers: showrunner Eric Newman calls the program a “50-50” dramatization, meaning even those who know the historical record can expect surprises.)

They were smoother operators than Escobar. “Generally, the brothers preferred the bribe over the bullet,” Chepesiuk noted. “For Escobar it was reversed.” Indeed, he found they were so influential they threatened to turn Colombia into a “narco-democracy.”

They were still dangerous. While Chepesiuk said they tended to operate more “quietly” than Pablo, this often included violence: “If you crossed Cali they would go after you, your family and even your pets.” (It was still quite civilized compared to Escobar, who blew up a passenger plane and once used a truck bomb so powerful it allegedly damaged more than 1,500 buildings.)

They were renowned for their cunning. Their nicknames reflect this, with Miguel called “El Señor” (The Lord) and Gilberto dubbed “El Ajedrecista” (The Chess Player).

They nearly achieved a full-on cocaine monopoly. “At its peak in their early 90s, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration estimated that the Cali Cartel controlled about 90 percent of the world’s cocaine trade,” Chepesiuk said.

With that control came frightening amounts of cash. “U.S. and Colombian government sources told me that estimated the dollar figure was between $5 and 7 billion annually by the early 1990s,” Chepesiuk said. This peak occurred when “Escobar was on the run from the law and the Cali Cartel had not yet become the focus of law enforcement.”

The drug lords boasted a sideline in actual drug stores. America’s had our share of successful gangsters, but John Gotti never controlled CVS. “Drogas La Rebaja was a very popular chain of drug stores in Colombia owned by Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela that served as a legitimate front for his criminal activities,” Chepesiuk said. (The Colombian government seized more than 400 Drogas La Rebaja stores in 28 cities in 2004.) Chepesiuk reported the Cali Cartel employed at least 20 money managers to “clean” profits.

Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, a head of the Cali Cartel, is escorted to be handed over to the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), and boarded into a plane bound for the United States in Bogota, Colombia on December 3, 2004. (LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images)


They acquired some deeply impressive assets. Chepesiuk noted they collected works by painter Salvador Dali and Fernando Botero, the revered Colombian artist and sculptor. Miguel made a particularly inspired acquisition when he married Martha Lucia Echeverry, Miss Colombia 1974.

Their fall was a bit less dramatic than Escobar’s. The Colombian police arrested both brothers in separate house raids in 1995. (The other two godfathers were also arrested but later killed: Colombian police gunned down Santacruz Londono in 1996 after a prison escape and Herrera was shot to death by an assassin posing as a lawyer in a prison yard in 1998.) It took over a decade for both siblings to be extradited to the United States. Indeed, Gilberto even wound up being briefly released in 2002, only to be re-arrested.

They accepted their punishment. In 2006, the pair pled guilty to conspiring to import roughly 441,000 pounds of cocaine into the United States. They were penalized both in terms of their freedom (they got 30 years apiece—Miguel was 63 and Gilberto 67 at the time) and their finances (they forfeited $2.1 billion). Why did they go down without a trial?

They bargained to protect their families The Rodriguez brothers were able to protect six relatives from money-laundering and obstruction charges and allow more than two-dozen family members to keep assets deemed untainted by drugs. (Speaking of drugs, see the Colombian police show off a small fraction of the Cali Cartel’s cocaine halfway through the clip below.)

Well, most of the family was protected. Chepesiuk says not everyone remained loyal: “William Rodriguez Abadia, the son of Miguel who was important in the cartel, turned snitch on the organization and agreed to testify against his father and uncle.” This was particularly shocking considering the lofty ambitions the family once held.

A potential dynasty destroyed. Gilberto and Miguel had goals that went well beyond narcotics. “The brothers looked strategically at the drug trade and realized they could not operate indefinitely in it,” Chepesiuk said. “Nor did they want to.” Why? It seems the brothers saw themselves “in the same mold as the first generation of the Kennedys” and had the intention to “go legit and be respected” and even “enter the political life of the country.” (In light of how things turned out, Chepesiuk added, “Or at least that was the plan.”)

Today the Cali Cartel is in the Carolinas. “For a long time it was not known where they were incarcerated,” Chepesiuk said. “They did not show up on the Department of Justice registry. They and/or the prison system have granted no interviews.” Their whereabouts have now been reported… and they probably aren’t where you’d expect: “Gilberto, now 78, is ostensibly in a prison facility in North Carolina, while Miguel, now 74, is reportedly in FCI Edgefield in South Carolina.”

Take a look at the new Narcos season below, which launches September 1.

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