Birth of the Baby Cartels

By Schreiberg, David | Newsweek, August 21, 1995 | Go to article overview

Birth of the Baby Cartels


Schreiberg, David, Newsweek


FOR YEARS, AMERICAN OFFICIALS complained that Colombian leaders were either too corrupt or too afraid to smash the Cali drug cartel--"the biggest, most powerful crime syndicate we've ever known," as U. S. Drug Enforcement Administration chief Thomas Constantine called it. But even the U.S. government's toughest cynics were impressed over the past nine weeks as Colombian police picked off six of the top-ranking members of the cartel. At last, officials in both countries agreed, the mafia that supplies 80 percent of America's cocaine may be history. So why, just days after the latest bust, are their smiles so thin? "You get over the euphoria in about three hours and get down to reality," said one U. S. official last week. "There are dozens of surrogate traffickers at lower levels who must be targeted."

As targets go, the Cali cartel was as big as a barn and easy to hit--once Colombia found the will to hit it. Although the government mounted a massive manhunt last year, the top ranks were protected by their vast, high-tech intelligence network, and the millions of dollars in bribes they routinely paid to police, judges, journalists, legislators and government officials. But on June 9, the titans started to fall when the government could no longer ignore the cartel's immense power nor resist U.S. pressure to fight it. First police found Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela cowering in a secret closet in a Cali apartment. Four other bosses surrendered or were caught in the following weeks, and on Aug. 6, police nabbed Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, Gilberto's brother and No. 2 in the cartel. But now that the Cali hierarchy has been torn down, the targets are harder to see, let alone hit. Throughout Colombia, agile and savage baby cartels have sprung up, eager to move into the breach opened by the capture of the Cali capos. And political turmoil, as President Ernesto Samper battles allegations that Cali cartel money fueled his campaign last year, may give them the breathing room they need to grow.

Unlike the more centralized Cali operation, the baby cartels spread from the Amazon jungle to remote mountain zones to the tropical coasts; from Bogota to Medellin, home of Colombia's first monster cartel dismantled by the government in the late 1980s and early '90s. While Colombia has a real chance now to end the era of the huge, global cartels, U.S. officials believe that the newer groups - and surging drug organizations in Mexico that once worked for the Cali cartel--will be able to meet U.S. demand for their goods. In Mexico, the Colombians have as much as 100 tons of cocaine waiting to cross the border. …

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