The Bullet or the Bribe: Taking Down Colombia's Cali Drug Cartel

The Bullet or the Bribe: Taking Down Colombia's Cali Drug Cartel

The Bullet or the Bribe: Taking Down Colombia's Cali Drug Cartel

The Bullet or the Bribe: Taking Down Colombia's Cali Drug Cartel


The rise and fall of one of Colombia's most notorious drug cartels is a story of how organized crime can function at the most sophisticated levels, yet still be taken down by the very forces it seeks to evade. This book vividly examines the Cali Cartel, providing unique insight into the history of international trafficking, organized crime, and U.S. drug policy. Relying on first hand accounts, interviews, and DEA records, Chepesiuk brings the story to life, illustrating how drug traffickers operate and why they are so difficult to stop.


We had agents working on both cartels, and the group assigned to the Cali Cartel worked just as hard as the Medellin [Cartel] group. But the Colombian government’s focus was on [the] Medellin [cartel], which had declared war on the state. So we couldn’t get the Colombian government to do much on [the] Cali [Cartel].

—Joe Toft, head of the DEA’s Bogota office, 1988–1995

During the Colombian drug trade’s formative period, the Cali and Medellin cartels operated in Colombia with virtual impunity. However, by the mid-1980s, the U.S. government pressured Colombia to abandon its laissez faire policy. President Ronald Reagan had declared the War on Drugs in 1982, and the U.S. shifted the focus of its interdiction efforts from heroin in Asia to cocaine in Latin America. Uncle Sam recognized Colombia as the linchpin in the region’s drug trade and made the country the focus of its interdiction efforts.

Two years later, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, Colombia’s justice minister, reopened the case involving Pablo Escobar’s arrest in 1976 on drug possession charges. Escobar was serving as an alternate delegate to the Colombia Congress, but he had higher political aspirations. As a criminal with a fervent desire for acceptance by Colombia’s elite social class, Escobar presented himself as a sports promoter, industrialist, philanthropist, building contractor, and defender of natural resources. For many poor people in Medellin slums, he was a folk hero, a kind of Robin Hood who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Escobar shrewdly curried the common man’s favor by doing good works. in the early 1980s, for exam-

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